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LeBron James Wins For Cleveland and For All of Basketball

4 minute read

He’s done it so many times. It’s a signature move. An NBA player drives for easy fast break layup. Then LeBron James, legs chug-chugging like a locomotive, chases the player down from half-court, flies through the foul lane, and smacks the shot against the glass, leaving everyone bewildered once again. How does he keep doing this?

Such defensive highlights, SportsCenter regulars, illustrate LeBron in full. They showcase his freakish athleticism, his sheer will, his ability to grab hold of a basketball game. This particular block, with just under two minutes left in Game 7 of this year’s NBA Finals — and with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors deadlocked 89-89 — just happened to help clinch LeBron’s third, and by far most important, NBA championship. Thirty-one years after he was born in Akron, Ohio; 13 years after the Cleveland Cavaliers selected him, the most hyped-up high-school athlete in a generation, with the first pick in the NBA draft; six years after he ditched Northeast Ohio for Miami, leading fans to burn his jersey and his team’s owner to call him a narcissist, selfish, and disloyal in a crazed comic sans letter; and two years after he returned to Cleveland, despite any lingering ill-will, James delivered on his promise: to end Cleveland’s major pro sports championship drought, once 52 years running, now over and done.

What a sweet thing in sports, to win it all for your desperate hometown thanks to a play you’ve crafted for years. When James blocked Andre Iguodala’s layup to preserve the tie, the championship was far from clinched. But the swat swung the game in Cleveland’s way. For years, The Drive and The Fumble tormented Cleveland sports fans. The Block did them both a big favor.

So did LeBron’s stat-line over these past three Finals games, when Cleveland faced elimination in each: he averaged 36.3 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 9.7 assists. So did The Shot.

Before Cleveland’s exhilarating 93-89 clincher over Golden State on Sunday night, making the Cavs the first team to ever come back from a 3-1 NBA finals deficit, Michael Jordan made The Shot that broke the city. On Sunday Kyrie Irving, who scored 26 points in Game 7, sank The Shot that sparked celebrations. With the shot clock ticking away in the final minute, Irving launched a step-back three-pointer, a la Stephen Curry, right over Curry himself. Good. 92-89 Cavs. Curry tried to tie it with a similar move, but did a poor imitation of himself, misfiring. Curry, who topped the NBA in scoring this season with 30.1 points per game, finished with 17 points in Game 7. Fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson had 14. Together, the most prolific long-range duo in basketball finished 6-24 from three-point range.

The Warriors totally choked, right? The best regular-season team of all-time, with a record 73 wins, didn’t just fail to finish the job. No team in NBA history blew a bigger Finals lead than Golden State. They deserve our righteous scorn, no?

Well, no. It’s tough to pinpoint a real loser here in this classic Game 7. Curry? He won his championship in 2015, and this year gave casual fans a reason to watch regular season games in February, when they’d otherwise be throwing snowballs out back. The Warriors? We’re supposed to rip a team that, for many fans, made NBA basketball fun again? The Warriors earned their 2015 title and went all-out to defend it. Cleveland and LeBron, who wept on the floor afterwards, got theirs. Basketball wins. What’s so bad about that?

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com