BOSTON -- "Somebody's trippin'," Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson yelled to the locker next to his. Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith was talking about LeBron James being left off one media member's All-NBA First Team, and Thompson interrupted to succinctly sum up the team's opinion on the matter.
James also finished outside the top-3 in Most Valuable Player voting -- Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard were announced as the three finalists during TNT's pregame show for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. While these honors are to reward regular-season excellence, the performance that followed made it hard to argue there is a better player on this planet than James.
The reigning Finals MVP scored 30 points on 12-for-18 shooting with seven assists, four rebounds, three blocks and four steals in 33 minutes. He led the Cavaliers to a 130-86 victory over the Boston Celtics, taking a 2-0 lead in the series.
James' teammates, of course, seemed flabbergasted by the results. A couple of them pointed to the fact that Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal could have won more MVPs in their respective primes. Perhaps simply because voters were bored of picking them.
"I think it started with Shaq," Cleveland forward Richard Jefferson said. "It started with Shaq where every year he was the most dominant guy. Every year, you had to game plan. Every year there were teams going and signing guys to million-dollar contracts to compete against them, and he was just dominant, winning three championships, and he only had, what, one MVP? It started then. And like they say, nobody roots for Goliath."
"It's almost like when Jordan was playing, he could have won it every year but they wanted to give it to somebody else," Smith said. "But it's fine. I mean, it's just another chip on his shoulder, which helps us."
After implying that this perceived slight could propel James to even greater heights, Smith clarified that the superstar has bigger things on his mind. James
"He's driven by a totally different monster," Smith said. "He's not playing for Russ or James. Like he said earlier, he's chasing a ghost. Right now, that's the only thing that can literally compare to him. I think he's just in a totally different space, and when he's playing like he's playing, not hesitating on his jumpers, transition 3s, pull-up 3s, pull-up jumpers not even with his feet set, he's just got an extreme, extreme confidence. It's almost like a supreme being type of level."
"You have to find different motivations," Jefferson said. "Winning is always going to be the No. 1 motivation, making my teammates better is always going to be up there. But sometimes slights, regardless of what you accomplish -- it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter if it was one person out of 200 or 300, whatever it is, one person didn't feel like he was a top-five player this year. So right there puts him in that position where it's like, 'OK, I understand.'"
While James might well feel like there's nothing more he can do to prove he's the best of the best, he declined to declare this an injustice. And if he is going to use this as fuel, that hasn't even started yet -- he said he didn't know about it before the game.
"What are you going to do about it, at the end of the day?" James said. "My only job is to try to be the MVP for this team every night and put my teammates, put our franchise in a position to be successful and ultimately compete for a championship. So, for me, I know what I bring to the table, this league knows what I bring to the table. So, it's for you guys to write about; it's not for me to be concerned about."
On that subject, everybody in the locker room agreed: This story resonates right now, and it will come up again when the NBA hosts its first-ever awards show in New York on June 26. In the bigger picture, however, James' status as an all-time great is secure.
"What's more important, getting stats and winning regular-season MVP or getting rings and chips and being considered one of the greatest?" Cavaliers big man Channing Frye said. "When you mention Wilt, Jordan, Kobe, you gotta say LeBron now regardless of the MVP, and that's actually even more of an achievement."