CLEVELAND — LeBron James used to freeze in moments like this; he had the stupefied look and everything. The harder the challenge, the more his team needed him, the less certain you could be about his determination. At the beginning of his privileged basketball life, James was unfamiliar with resolve.
Now look at him, at age 31, with two championships and 13 years of NBA lessons. For all that James has accomplished, the most praiseworthy is that he likes a good fight now. He can come back from adversity on the court. He’s not retreating within himself or fleeing to Miami or rationalizing defeat before it’s official.
That’s why people were dancing in the streets of downtown Cleveland late into Thursday night. Drivers honked. Bar patrons spilled their drinks in random displays of exuberance. The Cavaliers fans weren’t celebrating like they had won a championship, but it was close, and the joy provided a glimpse of how this city might burst with a Game 7 victory Sunday. The joy also put in perspective just how much the Cavaliers have accomplished already in pursuit of the city’s first pro championship in 52 years.
These fans had never experienced winning the last possible home game of their season. They had never experienced rallying from a 3-1 NBA Finals deficit to tie the series. They had never been guaranteed what they will receive Sunday: one game, for all the glory. One game in which title droughts and record-setting seasons don’t matter.
One game in which James is the best player on the court.
“It’s two of the greatest words in the world, and that’s ‘Game 7,’ ” James said. “So I’ll play it anywhere.”
He will have to play it in Oakland, at Oracle Arena, because Golden State has home-court advantage. But the Cavaliers won there in Game 5, with James going for 41 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists. At home Thursday night, he followed with 41, eight and 11 in Game 6.
This is new ground even for James, who seemingly had done it all. He has never played this well for this long with his back against the wall. He has never been so resistant to losing, not on a stage so grand, not while in a hole so deep, not against an opponent so great.
“He’s playing great,” Golden State guard Steph Curry said. “He’s doing things that are game-changing and helping his team win. He’s been more aggressive, I think, shooting the ball. We’ve had some breakdowns, but he’s played well. There’s no two ways around it.”
While leading the Warriors to a title last season and earning back-to-back MVP awards, Curry established himself as a threat to James’s long-standing status as the best player in the NBA. In these Finals, James has been out to prove his superiority, and he has been nasty in doing so, talking trash to Curry after blocking his shot and baiting Draymond Green into a suspension that changed the entire series. At times, it seems as if James is performing a thesis in these final games on all he has learned about winning and competing.
“I’m very chill right now, actually,” James said.
Experience plays into that. Gradually, James has evolved into a player capable of saying “enough” and taking over games in the most difficult situations. He showed a glimpse of this ability at 22 years old, in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, scoring 48 points, including the Cavaliers’ final 25, in a double-overtime victory. Detroit won the first two games of that series, but Cleveland won four straight to make an unexpected run to the NBA Finals, the first in team history and James’s career.
That game remains a signature James moment, but it took years before he showed that kind of will again. It resurfaced en route to his first championship in Miami, in 2012. There was Game 4 in Indiana, with the Heat trailing 2-1 in this series, when James posted a ridiculous 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. A few weeks later, there was Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Boston. The Heat were down 3-2 and facing elimination. James scored 45 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a victory. The Heat won the series in seven games and went on to win the title.
And for all the memories of Ray Allen’s corner three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, it was James who scored 16 fourth-quarter points and finished with a triple-double (32 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds) in the face of elimination to help extend that series, which the Heat likewise won in seven.
James learned to fight while becoming a champion in Miami. The player who looked like a zombie in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals — the final games of his first stint in Cleveland — disappeared. So did the confused star who couldn’t solve Dallas’s defense in the 2011 Finals, during his first year with the Heat.
Now James is cool and focused. When a series gets challenging, he plays his best basketball. Two years ago, James returned to Cleveland, saying he had learned how to win and vowing that the Cavaliers would benefit from those experiences.
Consecutive 41-point efforts in elimination games prove that James has evolved. Scoring 18 straight points in Game 6 from late in the third quarter to early in the fourth shows he has the will. Scoring or assisting on 35 of Cleveland’s 36 points during a critical stretch reminds even his critics that the best player in basketball still wears a wine-and-gold jersey with No. 23 etched on its back.
“I know what I put into the game,” James said. “I know how true I am to the game. I know how true I am to these fans.”
James knows how to grind, too. No more stupefied look. He is much too steely for that now.
Sunday, 8 p.m., ABC