Is LeBron James the underdog?

After 15 NBA years LeBron is winning over fans as never before – because his Cavaliers are advancing further than they should

LeBron James is creating the most dramatic playoff run since Michael Jordan owned the 1990s. LeBron has been the dominant star of the postseason. And yet, even as he has approached another trip to the conference finals, his Cavaliers have been vulnerable. Over the three weeks of these playoffs thus far, Cleveland has been outscored by an average of 1.9 points per game. 

Cleveland has seized a 3-0 series advantage over the Raptors while winning seven playoff games overall. But six of those wins were decided in the last minute – and three were saved or won in the final 30 seconds by LeBron.

He turned the opening-round series Cleveland’s way with a long 3-pointer at the buzzer of Game 5 against Indiana. Not only was James short on time while receiving the inbounds pass with 3 seconds remaining, but he had to create extra space because the Pacers had a foul to give: 

In the opener of his current series at Toronto – still tired after winning Game 7 against Indiana a couple of days earlier – LeBron drummed up the energy to score the final two baskets of regulation, including the midrange jumper that finished Cleveland’s comeback from a 10-point deficit and forced overtime. 

Then, in Game 3 on Saturday, he drove the length of the court in 8 seconds to bank in an extended runner at the buzzer and claim a 3-0 lead over the Raptors:

Three years ago these kinds of performances were too much for James. At the end of his return season to Cleveland, in the 2015 NBA Finals, LeBron was exhausted while averaging 45.7 minutes, 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in six games against the eventual champion Warriors. Because of injuries to Kyrie Irving and other Cavaliers, much was made of James having to play out of character and force up his own shots instead of creating for teammates. As a result he converted only 39.8% of his field goals while losing to Golden State.

LeBron is doing similar work this postseason, except now he’s making it look easy. In 10 playoff games he’s averaged 41.7 minutes while generating 34.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game – and leading his team in all of those categories. Unlike the 2015 Finals, James is carrying Cleveland with remarkable efficiency. He’s shooting 54.7% and limiting himself to 3.2 turnovers even though the offense runs through him and opponents are loading up to stop him.

James has converted more than half of his field goals in six playoff games, and Cleveland has won every time. When he has shot the ball inefficiently, however, the Cavaliers have gone 1-3 and been outscored by 53 points overall. Night after night the Cavs are counting on LeBron to play the best basketball of his career through the first 47 minutes – and then come up with the big plays at the end. Otherwise they cannot win.

Could anyone else do this? In the opening round, while James was averaging 34.4 points against Indiana, no other Cavalier was scoring as many 12 per game. 

James carried a similar load early in his career. Remember when he scored Cleveland’s final 25 points in the fourth quarter and two overtimes of Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern finals against the Pistons? James singlehandedly won that game on the way to his first NBA Finals when he was 22:

One year later James was winning the NBA scoring title with 30 points per game in 2007-08. Even so, back then, it seemed out of character for him to do all the scoring. In LeBron’s heart he wasn’t Michael Jordan, as recalled by Miami Heat president Pat Riley in my new book The Soul of Basketball.

“I said to him, ‘If you’re not Magic Johnson, then I’ve never seen one, OK?’” Riley said of their conversation, which took place soon after LeBron had left Cleveland in 2010. “I said, ‘Look, I don’t know if you like him as a player or who you want to model yourself after, but you’re him. You’re Magic Johnson who wants to score too.’ I can remember him not making much out of it, but he laughed a little bit.”

The Heat were able to sign James in 2010 because the Cavaliers had failed to surround him with enough talent to advance through the playoffs. Riley won James over by listing all of the trios of NBA stars who had joined together to win championships. “Three guys,” Riley told LeBron. “You have got to have more support. You have to have another superstar next to you to win.”

In Miami, James won two championships alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Back home in Cleveland, he earned his third championship in 2016 with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Now he’s back where he started with his current team of Cavaliers. Love is a five-time All-Star, but he hasn’t played to that level recently with only two playoff games of 20 or more points. LeBron was surrounded by role players at the start of his career, and the same is true now – which is why so many fans in Cleveland are worried that he’ll leave again as a free agent this summer. 

It’s hard to believe that LeBron used to be criticized for failing under pressure. "It got to a one-possession, two-possession game," James said last week of his opening win at Toronto. "That's what I like the most." But it wasn’t that way seven years ago. In 2011, James was overwhelmed by those one-possession situations in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

With that 2011 series even at 2-2, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was looking ahead to Game 5 when he heard that his 30-year-old forward DeShawn Stevenson had gone on a TV talk show and criticized LeBron. It wasn’t much – Stevenson said that James had “checked out” in Game 4 – but it was enough to create hysteria, given the intensity of attention paid to all things LeBron.

In those days, Stevenson wasn’t at all concerned that his words would incite LeBron to seek revenge against him and the Mavericks. Because at that time, in Stevenson’s opinion, LeBron was no Kobe Bryant. “That’s something I would never in my life say about Kobe,” Stevenson said in The Soul of Basketball. “Never. If somebody asked me that about Kobe, I would totally change the whole subject.” 

While he was certain that Kobe would have attacked and punished him for any perceived criticism, Stevenson believed that LeBron didn’t have the killer instinct to hold a grudge. “I don’t think he is like Kobe,” Stevenson told me years ago. “No disrespect toward LeBron, but I don’t think he has that type of mentality of them guys like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan — guys that would take that and try to destroy you every possession.”

But that was then, and this is now.

LeBron confronted his weaknesses.To fully appreciate the changes that LeBron has made in his game and in his life, consider how other stars have reacted to hard times.

There is no doubting that Russell Westbrook is a tremendous player. When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, Westbrook took on responsibility for carrying the Thunder. No one gives greater effort than Westbrook – and yet there is clearly a need for growth in his game, in order to create a system of ball-movement that can bring out the best in his teammates. Will Westbrook find the strength to learn from his team’s failures in order to make the necessary changes within himself?

Will John Wall do the same as the leader of the Washington Wizards? You can see James Harden trying to show leadership in Houston. Anthony Davis is growing as a leader in New Orleans. Young Ben Simmons, the rookie point guard of the 76ers, is just beginning to recognize the improvements he must make in his shooting stroke as well as his decision-making in order to become the leader of a championship team someday.

Such is the power of LeBron’s example. It is wrong to say that he is dominating the NBA mainly because of his God-given talents. He had all of those gifts in the first half of his career – the size, strength and explosive athleticism – and they weren’t enough. The story of his playoff run – like the story of The Soul of Basketball – is that the most promising star in the history of the game needed to humble himself in order to become the player he is today. James embraced his failures, acknowledged his weaknesses, and transformed them into strengths. 

Instead of pretending that others were to blame for his loss in 2011, James accepted responsibility and made real changes. No one can relate to his athletic talent, but everyone can identify with the turning point of his career, when his future was in doubt and he fixed what was wrong. It is the most inspiring part of his story.

The Cavaliers have assembled an underdog roster around LeBron. The reason he is winning now is because he refused to accept losing in 2011. He took it upon himself to be better, and now he is the best.


NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans around the world.

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