LeBron James' performance in the final three games of the Finals last spring will live as a legend. People will tell their kids about it, then pull it up on whatever video service exists at the time, just to prove what he did. And yet, despite his 82 points, 24 rebounds, and 18 assists in Games 5 and 6, the Cavs still trailed at halftime of Game 7.
So Cavaliers coach Ty Lue lit him up. From Lee Jenkins' incredible profile of James for SI's Sportsman of the Year award (which you should read the entirety of, next to a fire, with a cup of something warm and alcoholic if you are of age):
With 2 minutes and 27 seconds left in the first half of Game 7 and the Cavaliers trailing the Warriors by three points, Tyronn Lue called timeout. "Bron, you've got to be better than this," the Cavs coach implored.
"What do you mean?" James asked, incredulous. He had just scored 41 points with 16 rebounds in Game 5 and added another 41 with 11 assists in Game 6, evening a series that was essentially over. He'd sent his teammates impassioned late-night group texts, showed them the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford and convinced them during a post-practice bus ride across the Bay Bridge that the championship was their destiny. It's already written, he shouted from the back. "What more do you want me to do?" he pressed Lue.
"Stop being so passive!" the coach barked. "Stop turning the ball over! And guard Draymond!" James's numbers looked fine--12 points, seven rebounds, five assists--but he had unleashed a few sloppy passes and Draymond Green, his primary assignment, was 5 for 5 from three-point range. "Bron was mad, pissed off at me, and then we went into the locker room at halftime and I told him the same thing in front of all the guys," Lue recalls. "He was mad again, pissed off again."
After Lue finished, he saw James approach assistant coach Damon Jones in the locker room and overheard their exchange. "It's messed up that T Lue is questioning me right now," James said. The Cavaliers trailed by seven. The season was slipping.
"Everything I read all year is that you want to be coached, want to be held accountable, and trust T Lue," Jones replied. "Why not trust him now?"
James was still rankled. He moved on to James Jones, his long-time teammate, who has ridden shotgun to the past six Finals. "I can't believe this," LeBron said. "Well," Jones responded, "is he telling the truth?"
Lue, ducking in and out of a back office, kept an eye on LeBron. "He stormed out of the locker room," Lue says. The coach laughs as he tells the story. "I didn't really think he was playing that bad," Lue admits. "But I used to work for Doc Rivers in Boston, and he told me, 'I never want to go into a Game 7 when the best player is on the other team.' We had the best player. We needed him to be his best. I know he might have been tired, but f--- that. We had to ride him. And he had to take us home."
There's a lot to digest here. Let's break it into tidbits.
1. This is why firing David Blatt and inserting Lue was the right call. Blatt did not have the makeup, approach, or quite honestly, the cred in the league to be able to pull this move. Lue did. Lue was a player in the league, and a coach with Doc Rivers in Boston. The players respect him for his competitive drive, and that starts and ends with LeBron.
2. It still took guts. If that backfires, if James goes into a shell, if he pouts (which is very much within the framework of his emotional identity), if the Cavaliers lose, they enter the offseason with James having a huge reservoir of resentment for Lue blasting him in that key moment. Lue did what he felt he had to do, and the result was a title. Sometimes sports history swings on these kinds of decisions, and if they work out, the person is a genius and if they don't, he's a fool.
3. Good on the assistants for having Lue's back. The smart thing to do, at all times, is to agree with James. It's like if the CEO asks if he's not doing a good enough job running the company. You can say no, but the smart, safe thing is to say "Oh, no, your leadership is impeccable, sir! Look at how far you've taken us!" For the assistants and Jones to back Lue means that James was painted into a corner with no opportunity to justify any other course of action but to respond. It's an organizational strength that quite honestly, I've doubted the Cavaliers having for years.
4. Yes, it's lame that James went complaining to the assistants. You want your superhero to say "You're right, coach! I'll go get 'em!" But that's not James, it's never been James. James is a thinker, and his biggest weakness in all honesty might be his self-awareness. It means he's patently aware when things are lacking or when he needs to make adjustments, and it also means that he knows when he's done enough. It also leads to a level of self-analysis that can be paralyzing. It's just not a good look that James was resistant to that kind of criticism, regardless of the circumstances.
5. And yet, he delivered. James scored 15 points, added four rebounds, and six assists in the second-half alone, helping to hold Draymond Green to just 10 points, as the Cavaliers secured their first title. Oh, and LeBron had the greatest block in Finals history. For years, when James put up stellar seasons, awesome performances, and glorious statistics, but the criticism was "Yeah, but what about the result of his season, wins wise?" To then go back and question him when he delivered both the stats and the results is hypocritical.
James was selected as SI's Sportsman of the Year for many reasons. The article covers his humility in regards to his upbringing, his commitment to his community, and the way that he has remade his legacy. This particular element shows him as flawed and complicated, even in his greatness.
There may be nothing more 2016 than that.