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Dinero Talks: LeBron's Finals quest
Nothing stale about NBA Finals rematch

When LeBron James co-authored his Sports Illustrated piece explaining why he was returning to Cleveland, he preached patience. At that point, the Cavs hadn’t traded for Kevin Love, but he knew that breaking in Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and the younger guys on the roster who had grown accustomed to losing so much over the years would require an adjustment period.

Curiously, he never mentioned No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, who ended up being traded for Love, but the fact is that James didn’t expect to win last season, even with another All-Star joining the fray. His return to Cleveland was always going to be the highlight of the season, and it was a testament to his greatness and the lack of talent in the Eastern Conference that he was able to lead an injury-riddled roster to two wins in last year’s NBA Finals.

Love was lost in the first round with a shoulder dislocation, while Irving fractured his kneecap in OT during Game 1. The Warriors took advantage and won the championship, but only the most delusional of trolls took James to task for it, recognizing that he had put his team on the shoulders and dragged them to the promised land, even if they were ill-equipped to seal the deal.

This season, there’s no reprieve. There are no excuses.

LeBron looks to stay on throne vs. Warriors

James not only has a healthy supporting cast behind him, but has stated down the stretch and throughout this postseason that this is the healthiest he’s felt in years. Even in the playoff runs with Miami, James always dealt with a tougher road, usually having the Paul George-led Pacers standing in his way. This season has been a picnic by comparison, starting with sweeps of the Pistons and Hawks before a bit of work against the Raptors in a series that went six games but was never really out of Cleveland’s control.

LeBron has largely created for others, choosing to sit back and pick his spots in which to attack, making sure to get his teammates off first and foremost. The 22 shot attempts he took in Game 6 of the Toronto series was his second-most this postseason, leading to a playoff-high 33 points. He hasn’t forced shots, avoiding looks outside the paint since his jump shot has been suspect for much of the last few months.

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In many ways, it seems like he’s been pacing himself, conserving all his energy for June and all that is to come, understanding he’ll need every bit of it to take out the Warriors and rectify last year’s result.

Although his Cavs lost the Finals in 2015, James was gracious in defeat and likely slept soundly all summer, knowing one man can’t beat a team on his own. It’s not until this season, 2015-16, that having lost to Golden State likely started to weigh on his mind more. Since the Warriors spoiled Christmas, swept the season series and Stephen Curry’s started shining as brightly, if not brighter than his own, James has faced the reality that someone has come for his throne. Hard.

This season, the 31-year-old James has been incredibly sharp, both mentally and physically. Even though his jump shot has really been spotty, his immense basketball IQ and athletic superiority has kept him among the game’s top performers. Although he no longer has the bounce he had in his early 20s, the experience he’s gained and things he’s lived through. If it doesn’t pay off in a championship for Cleveland, he’ll deserve all the criticism that comes his way.

Consider that LeBron is rightfully being lauded for making it to six consecutive NBA Finals, something that hasn’t happened in 50-plus years since a number of Celtics did the trick en route to reaching the championship round in 12 of 13 years. If James can’t win this season, he’ll be 2-5 in Finals over his career, which will decidedly tarnish the legacy of a player who has deservedly earned the right to be lumped in with Michael Jordan and the rest of the game’s all-time greats.

Sportsbook.ag has James second among Finals MVP contenders, offering 2-to-1 odds (+200), behind Curry (-120), who was originally listed as the favorite at +180 before the Warriors held serve in Game 7 against Oklahoma City.

Although the Thunder would’ve obviously been a worthy adversary, the Warriors are perfectly cast as the foil for a Cavs team that enters the championship round at full strength and can’t miss this opportunity to deliver Cleveland’s first championship since 1964. James’ supporting cast is deep, stocked with more than enough versatile talent to create matchup problems throughout a best-of-seven series.

Thus far, every step in Cleveland’s championship quest has gone according to plan. The Cavs were able to dispatch of their first two postseason opponents quickly enough to gel behind closed doors and stay out of harm’s way while others worked overtime just to get back to the NBA Finals. They’re healthy. Everyone is available and confident.

Most important, James is confident in them. If he can’t deliver on his promise to bring the city of Cleveland a long-awaited championship, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to see him walk away since the best chance to make it happen would have just gone out the window.

If he succeeds, delivering a title to a city that has gone without one for over a half-century, he’ll get himself a third ring, halfway to Jordan. He’ll have beaten a 73-win team that just became the 10th ever in league history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series, which would keep him in place as the face of the NBA.

The 2016 Finals will determine whether the King can keep his crown.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

  
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