LeBron James: This generation's postseason superstar
The Cleveland Cavaliers are on the cusp of reaching the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year - and the third time in their history - after a resounding 38-point blowout victory over the Toronto Raptors in game five of their Eastern Conference Finals series.
The east's number one seed saw their two-game advantage slip away in Canada but restored their lead at the Quicken Loans Arena. And, barring any catastrophic slip-up, will face the Oklahoma City Thunder or Golden State Warriors on the grandest stage of them all.
For LeBron James, it will be a sixth successive trip to the promised land, and he will be hoping it results in a third championship ring having fallen at the final hurdle in his last two appearances with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers respectively.
Legacy is far from defined by titles, but adding another success to his collection would go some way to improving his standing as one of the greatest players of all-time. After six previous appearances, his current record stands at 2-4 when the Larry O'Brien trophy is on the line, and he is still searching for that elusive first title in Ohio.
On the face of it, a 33 percent success rate in the biggest series of the season is far from fantastic, but circumstances have transpired against the small forward on numerous occasions. Coming up against the Golden State Warriors without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love was hardly ideal, and it does not get any tougher than facing the San Antonio Spurs twice.
But throughout those ups and downs, one thing that can never be questioned are his performances. Whether it be a valiant losing effort or the unrivalled success of lifting the trophy, LeBron gives it his all and leaves everything on the hardwood. Without him, would the Cavs have ever made a final? Would a combination of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been enough for the Heat? It is highly unlikely.
He produced yet another strong performance to help the Cavaliers see off the Raptors in game five on Wednesday night, dropping 23 points, providing eight assists for his teammates and dictating the flow of play from start to finish. As a result, Cleveland regained their composure following two losses that bred uncertainty in the media as publications predicted their demise upon their first taste of adversity in the postseason.
However, on the stats sheet, his performances in 2016 have paled in comparison to what we have seen in years gone by. Unlike 2015, where the brunt of the work fell onto his shoulders after injuries to Love and Irving, coupled with the questionable strength of Cleveland's supporting cast, James has a group of teammates who are now more than capable of sharing the load. Something head coach Tyronn Lue believes is new for the four-time MVP.
The former L.A. Lakers man, who replaced David Blatt at the helm in January, thinks it is a new feeling that James has not experienced in the past with the Cavs: "LeBron is letting the game come to him. When he wants to be aggressive and he sees fit to be aggressive when the teams have a good run or whatever they may have, then he just takes over the game
"And with Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin (Love) playing at a high level, he can take a lot of mileage off of his body, reduce his (usage) rate and just kind of seeing and figuring out the flow of the game.
"I don't think he's been in this position before where he can just sit back and see the flow of the game, see where he has to take over the game and it's been great for him. I mean, to average 23 points or 24 points and sweep both series is big for us because now our other guys are stepping up, they're playing well and we know LeBron always can play well."
Despite his numbers dropping in 12 months, it has been clear to see the shift in mentality from Cleveland's main man since the regular season. The Ohio-based organisation was mired in turmoil throughout the regular season with LeBron's cryptic tweets and training sessions with Dwyane Wade - his former Miami Heat teammate and one of his closest friends - fuelling speculation of a plan to turn his back on the promise of bringing a championship to his home-state franchise.
Following a meeting with Lue, where the head coach outlined his expectations of the forward, James activated playoff mode. Becoming his usual dominant self from as early as March, to ensure the Cavaliers secured top spot in the Eastern Conference above their current opponents.
A few months ago, the 12-time All-Star explained to the media what playoff mode was, stating: “Going to the gym even more, focusing in, dialling in more on what needs to be done to help us be better (and) for me to be better.”
"I don't think he's been in this position before where he can just sit back and see the flow of the game, see where he has to take over the game and it's been great for him." Tyronn Lue on LeBron James in the 2016 playoffs
Although not an incredible rise, his improvement can be seen on the stats sheet. But the real recognition comes from his attitude on the hardwood. Love and Irving's emergence into the dominant forces we all expected has seen his points per game dip from 25.3 to 23.9, but as a facilitator, his rebounding and assists have improved from 7.4 and 6.8 a night to 8.5 and 7.1 respectively while his field goal percentage has also marginally increased.
Game two of the Eastern Conference Finals was an example - if one was needed - that LeBron is still the dominant force we have all come to expect throughout late April and May. He produced a brilliant triple-double as the Cavs trounced the Raptors; shooting 7-13 from the field for his 23 points, pulling down 11 rebounds and providing 11 assists while only giving away two turnovers.
The rise in intensity and performance should come as no surprise. LeBron has been a big-time player since his inception into the league as the second ever prep-to-pro to be selected with the number one pick in the draft.
He broke records as a rookie, dominated as a sophomore and gave a glimpse of his playoff appetite during his inaugural trip to the postseason with the Cavaliers back in 2006, that same appetite has led to him being fourth on the all-time scoring list during the business end of the campaign.
Having played 190 playoff games during his illustrious career, the King sits behind only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kobe Bryant. His 311 playoff points this year have seen him move ahead of Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal and, at his current rate, LBJ will surpass MJ as the highest postseason scorer before he calls it a day.
Being considered one of the greats is exactly what James sought to do from his formative years. In a previous interview with ESPN, he spoke about his career aspirations: "My goal is to be the best of all time, and that means maximising everything I have.
"And I feel if I can maximise my game, then I can be ranked as if not the greatest, then one of the greatest…. I’m not trying to catch Magic or catch Bird or catch Kobe. I’m into maximising what I have while I have the opportunity to do it."
From the outset of his playoff career, the Akron-native has wanted to be the best. Leading the Cavs to a first playoff appearance in eight years wrote him into Ohio history and his first ever series against the Washington Wizards - a foe who would experience the anguish of facing LeBron on a number of occasions - showcased his appetite for the prime time.
32 points, 11 rebounds, and as many assists made him the first player to record a triple-double in his debut since L.A. Lakers legend Magic Johnson. And that was just the start. Washington was left helpless as they succame to buzzer beater losses in games three and five as James announced himself as one of the truly clutch players in 21st-century basketball.
The comparisons between Michael Jordan and LeBron James have been a factor since the latter was drafted in 2004. It comes with the territory of being one on the greatest to ever step on the hardwood. The number 23 has previously been quoted as saying: "Once you get on the playing field it’s not about whether you’re liked or not liked. All that matters is to play at a high level and do whatever it takes to help your team win. That’s what it’s about," and he has certainly done that throughout his career.
At the age of just 22, LeBron produced a performance for the ages that drew every superlative imaginable and shot him into the realms of NBA stardom occupied by the likes of MJ and Kobe. Controlling a game is one thing, but only the greats have the ability to drop 40+ points and grab an outing by the scruff of the neck, and dominating during game five of a Conference Finals series, was exactly that.
Former colour commentator and now Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr described it as 'Jordan-esque' while play-by-play announcer Marv Albert proclaimed it was 'one of the greatest moments in postseason history' as a young LeBron dropped 48 points, pulled down nine boards and provided seven assists to see Cleveland past a Detroit Pistons team that included Chauncy Billups, Chris Webber, and Rasheed Wallace to take a 3-2 series lead.
Looking back, it was one of those career-defining performances. The forward was already a two-time All-Star and had come second in the race for MVP in 2006, but in a season where he was criticised for a perceived lack of focus and effort as his statistics fell sharply from the previous year, the encounter at The Palace of Auburn Hills was his official coming out party.
"I have short goals – to get better every day, to help my teammates every day – but my only ultimate goal is to win an NBA championship. It’s all that matters." LeBron was quoted as saying during his first spell at the Q Arena.
Barring the 2015-16 campaign, his seasons with the Cavaliers have all gone down the same path. James produces dominant performances to take the organisation as far as possible before they ultimately fall to a more rounded, better-equipped opponent. Of course, 2015 could have been very different was it not for debilitating injuries to Love and Irving.
"My goal is to be the best of all time, and that means maximising everything I have."
2008-09, when the Orlando Magic saw them off 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals is a perfect example. Averaging 28.4 points, 7.2 assists, and 7.6 rebounds during the regular season, LeBron claimed his first MVP title as the Cavs topped the east. His averages rose incredibly in the postseason as he dropped 35.3 points - a number that still stands as his postseason best - 7.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds a game.
However, having breezed past the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in eight games; Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu proved too strong for the one-man wrecking ball to take down on his own.
His best was not enough last season yet again as, despite almost averaging a triple-double throughout the playoffs and scoring below 30 just once in the Finals as he staked a claim to be named MVP despite being on the losing side, Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green overpowered the Cavaliers.
His relentless pursuit of rings and accolades saw James turn his back on the Cavs in 2010 in the biggest free agency drama seen in NBA history. Shirts were burnt, signs were made, emotions were high, but, in the grand scheme of things, championships were won.
BIG THREE, SAME DOMINANCE
His stint in Miami was a whirlwind four years that saw LeBron get his hands on the prize he cherished most. Four consecutive trips to the Finals saw back-to-back titles sandwiched in between more disappointment at the last hurdle.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh served their intended purpose, they helped James achieve what he had strived for since entering the NBA. However, it was not all plain sailing, and the plan to take some of the workload off his shoulders did not come to fruition straight away.
He had a better supporting cast in the sunshine state, however, it still took near domination for the man himself to end the drought. 2011 saw the Heat fall in the Finals to a steady Dallas Mavericks team that, in reality, they should have overcome. James recorded his lowest ever points per game in the playoffs as the 'dream team' experienced a nightmare coronation.
A year later, there was to be no repeat as it proved to be third time lucky in the Finals. It took a masterclass from the 10-time All-NBA first team selection to see off Westbrook, Durant and James Harden and the Oklahoma City Thunder as he claimed the first of two Finals MVP awards.
32 points in game two set the tone after an opening encounter loss that sent the media into overdrive about the possibility of yet another failure. A double-double in three and four - coming one assist away from a triple-double as Miami took a 3-1 lead - and then a resounding performance to cap off the series saw James reach his ultimate goal.
But one ring was never going to be enough. No, not for someone with his hunger: "Winning is my drug. Winning is my ice cream. Like my kids. They want more. 'More! More!' They just want more."
Volume scoring has never come naturally to LeBron. His career points average of 27 a game may disagree, but he even proclaimed so in a previous interview: "I could average thirty-five points a game if I really wanted to. But then it wouldn’t be me.
"So I don’t know if I could do it, because of my instincts. I see a teammate open even if I have a great shot, I see a teammate open for a better shot, I gotta feed him. It’s like, my mind sometimes be like ’Shoot it,’ but then my instincts, you know?"
His keen eye for a pass makes him the third highest dime dropper in postseason history and the leading frontcourt player. 1,272 assists leave him trailing just legendary point guard duo John Stockton and Magic Johnson, showcasing just why LeBron is considered by many to be the perfect teammate.
He can do it all on the court and will leave a lasting legacy on the NBA as not just a consistent scorer, but one of the best teammates anybody could wish to play alongside. Following a short stint in Ohio, four-time championship winning center Shaquille O'Neal said his spell with LeBron was the first time in his career he 'never had to do anything'.
However, it could be seen that LeBron's pass-friendly attitude has held him back in his pursuit of glory. Some could argue that a player of his quality would be best served taking total control of an offence a la James Harden, and it may - we can never actually say - have led to more success in the Finals.
Of course, his supporting cast in Cleveland has oft been below the required level, hence just two Finals appearance during his six full seasons with the organisation. But there can be no debate about his teammates this year.
The desire to be the best there ever has been and to claim a plethora of titles before retirement is what drives him on. It is what gives the 6'8" forward the passion to come out and produce his best, what sees him ramp it up in the postseason and constantly make his franchise a threat.
In the east, playoff qualification, and more often than not the number one spot in the Conference are a given for LeBron. He has four MVP titles but has not claimed the award since 2013, and it is likely he may never claim the accolade again with the emergence of Westbrook, along with the likes of Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis to name but a few.
But the regular season is not where it matter for James. Much like the great San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, the playoffs is what really counts. For LeBron, his performances in the postseason can never be drawn into question. He may never win MVP, but Finals MVP is well within his grasp. But rings, above all, are what he craves.
As Michael Jordan once said on the infamous Kobe, LeBron debate: "If you had to pick between the two, that would be a tough choice, but five beats one [now two] every time I look at it, and not that he [LeBron James] won’t get five, he may get more than that, but five is bigger than one [two]."
"Commitment is a big part of what I am and what I believe. How committed are you to winning? How committed are you to being a good friend? To being trustworthy? To being successful? How committed are you to being a good father, a good teammate, a good role model?
The comparison between the two has oft been played down by the Cavs man. They are their own individuals with different abilities, but two to five will play on his mind. There is a chance for LeBron to draw closer in June, but once again the acid test awaits (if they can overcome Toronto like everybody expects).
The best from the west have thwarted the self-proclaimed King on numerous occasions and the task will be no easier a seventh time. However, with his strong supporting cast at the Q Arena, the confidence is there that the prodigal son can finally bring a championship to his home franchise.
As always, LeBron is locked in, he is prepared to do whatever it takes to get another taste of the proverbial ice-cream, and throughout his life, it has always been about commitment.
"Commitment is a big part of what I am and what I believe. How committed are you to winning? How committed are you to being a good friend? To being trustworthy? To being successful? How committed are you to being a good father, a good teammate, a good role model? There’s that moment every morning when you look in the mirror: Are you committed, or are you not?"
His has never been doubted. James will go down as one of the best postseason performers the NBA has ever seen, but whether that leads to another title. Well, only time will tell.