LeBron James leads Cavaliers back into Finals

LeBron James leads Cavaliers back into Finals
LeBron James returns to his fifth consecutive NBA Finals, leading the Cavaliers, along with Kyrie Irving, in his first season back with Cleveland. (Ron Schwane / Associated Press)

It's June again, time for the annual tradition of LeBron James on your TV for four to seven games.

James is in the NBA Finals a fifth consecutive year, his ZIP Code notably changing, but his appearances still as common as June blossoms.

He has no chance, however, against the Golden State Warriors. None. Just listen to the Cleveland Cavaliers' critics.

James is injured. So is Kyrie Irving. And done-for the-season Kevin Love.

He can't win with the erratic Iman Shumpert. And the even more erratic J.R. Smith.

Who's their center again? Oh. Timofey Mozgov.

Oddsmakers have made Golden State a 2-1 favorite to win the series that begins Thursday, the Warriors finishing 14 games better than Cleveland in the regular season and holding that "team of destiny" look so far in the playoffs.

All the attention continually lobbed at James by opponents, the media and everybody else could be "suffocating," Golden State Coach Steve Kerr recently told reporters.

James, though, has responded to everything more succinctly than ever.

His statistics are off the charts, with averages of 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists against Atlanta in the Eastern Conference finals. His team might be falling apart around him — Irving is hobbled by knee tendinitis and missed half of the East finals — but James might be playing the best basketball of his career.

His most important critic thinks so.

"If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I've been," James told reporters.


James has played 101 playoff games over the last five years, essentially adding another entire season-plus of wear and tear. Two of his four Miami years ended with championships, the other two with losses to San Antonio last season (no surprise) and Dallas (surprise!).

He rarely reflects on it but is now 30 and sat out eight games before midseason to rest knee and back injuries.

Not that old-school people want to hear about the toll so many playoff games can take on the body, even though James is the first star to appear in five consecutive Finals since Bill Russell with Boston in the 1960s.

"No, you're playing basketball," said Houston Coach Kevin McHale, who played in four consecutive Finals with Boston in the 1980s. "The physical toll was when you saw your pops come home from working in the mines every single day. Believe me, every single day I played basketball was a blessing, and they paid you for it."

McHale wasn't specifically talking about James, more about long playoff runs.

But James needs to win this Finals to avoid falling too far below .500 in the biggest category of all — he stands 2-3 in championship rounds, having lost his only other one with Cleveland in four games against the Spurs in 2007.

He turned off NBA fans in 2010 when he abandoned the Cavaliers for Miami amid the horribly contrived "The Decision" but shed most of his villain status by rejoining his former team last summer.

"He went back home for the sole purpose of putting them in [championship] position," ABC/ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said.

Still bothered by his knee and back, James has successfully dragged the Cavaliers along with him, making Shumpert and Smith rise above ordinary status in the playoffs, not to mention the often immobile Mozgov at times.

"LeBron has been the star of the league for the last seven or eight years. He's handled himself really well when you think about the spotlight on him, the constant pressure to win," Kerr said. "He's obviously a champion and has matured into that role."

Now he just has to win the Finals, which would be the first in Cleveland's 45-year history. And try to keep his body intact.

He didn't seem to have much left after pushing the Cavaliers to a 114-111 overtime victory over the top-seeded Hawks in Game 3 of the East finals. He dropped to the court in exhaustion and stayed there several seconds after a 37-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist effort in 47 minutes.

"You could play doctor right now with how many injuries I've got right now," he told TNT reporter Rachel Nichols after that game. "It was mind over matter. I was able to push through."

He then had 23 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a blowout victory that ended the series.

It's James' world, with everybody else living in it. Except maybe the Warriors.

Twitter: Mike_Bresnahan