A towel draped over his head hid a pair of black headphones and the face of a man whose every motion, every expression gets parsed for clues.
Friday night, after the Golden State Warriors had completed a sweep of the NBA Finals with a 108-85 rout of his Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James sat motionless for several minutes with both feet submerged in a bucket of ice. One pack of ice clung to his right knee, one to his left knee and a third to his right hand, soothing an injury he suffered eight days ago when he punched an inanimate object after an infuriating Game 1 loss.
Two Cavaliers staffers stood in front of him. They faced away from him and offered a makeshift barrier from the rest of the world. In a moment, James would address everyone else, and graciously offer glimpses into his mentality.
Right now, he needed time to himself.
His associates waited in the hallway outside as members of the Warriors passed through, grinning and shouting about the championship they had just won, their second in a row and third in four years. Security cleared the hallway, and James walked through, with his blue sweater tied around his waist. He walked right into his postgame news conference and faced the question that neither angered nor surprised him.
“Do you feel like you’ve played your last game for the Cavs?”
“I have no idea at this point,” James said. “The one thing that I’ve always done is considered, obviously, my family. Understanding especially where my boys are at this point in their age. They were a lot younger the last time I made a decision like this. I’ve got a teenage boy, a pre-teen, and a little girl that wasn’t around as well.”
Golden State’s Kevin Durant won his second consecutive honor as most valuable player in the Finals. His 43-point performance in Game 3 helped the Warriors take command of the series. In Game 4, Stephen Curry scored 37 points while Durant added 20 with 10 assists and 12 rebounds.
“That’s how you know we’re a great team, is when everybody’s coming after us,” Durant said. “Whether it’s opponents, whether it’s different coaches planning for us, whether it’s the fans, the media that hate us, it feels good when you’re the team that everybody’s gunning for. It makes us better. It makes us come to work and try to play at that championship level every single day, and that’s the hardest part.”
James scored 23 points with eight assists and seven rebounds.
The only Finals the Warriors lost in the past four years came in 2016 at James’ hand, when Cleveland rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit.
One leaves home to grow and change and James did that eight years ago when he left Cleveland for Miami and drew the wrath of his home state’s fans.
Four years ago he came back to the Cavaliers, citing “unfinished business,” to take what he learned and bless his home state with its fruits. James gave Cleveland what it craved so desperately in 2016 when the Cavaliers beat the Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
Only the hero’s tour had one problem. Across the country, the Warriors were ripening. They beat James in the 2015 Finals. After Cleveland won in 2016, the Warriors took the hit and made themselves even stronger, adding Durant to their roster.
As the Warriors got stronger, the Cavaliers got weaker. A fissure in the relationship between James and Kyrie Irving led to the organization trading Irving, against James’ wishes. That trade left James without another teammate who could rise to meet the challenge of high-pressure moments. That absence showed in this year’s Finals.
Game 1 hurt because it was a game the Cavaliers should have won. A reversed block/charge call took away an opportunity for the Cavaliers to seal the win in Oakland. Then a missed free throw by George Hill and a blunder by teammate JR Smith sent the game into overtime, after Cleveland could have won in regulation. James used his fist to release the rage.
“I had emotions on the game taken away from us,” James said Friday. “I had emotions of you just don’t get an opportunity like this on the road versus Golden State to be able to get a Game 1, and I let the emotions get the best of me. Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand.”
It was their best shot and it wasn’t enough. The Warriors ran away with Game 2. They overcame a double-digit deficit in Game 3, thanks to Durant. They blew out the Cavaliers in Game 4, which never seemed in doubt even when the Cavaliers briefly took the lead.
With 9:15 left in the game, James returned to the fourth quarter. With 7:07 left in the game, a prerecorded video on the jumbotron showed James saying “This ain’t over yet.” But with his hands on his hips standing on the court, the live James knew it was. The Cavaliers trailed by 25 points.
With 4:03 left in the game, James checked out. Many of the Cavaliers’ fans had already left, but those who stayed stood and clapped for him. If he leaves this time, they’ll understand.
He came back to address unfinished business. Does one championship finish that business?
“That’s a trick question at the end of the day,” James said. “And I’m not falling for that.”