CLEVELAND >> LeBron James will one day take his final bow, the brightest spotlight moving on to someone else.
There will come a time when his legs lose some explosiveness and those vicious dunks will be rendered ordinary. Someday, his jumper won’t fall as often, and that astonishing court vision, the key to his game, will become cloudy.
James will face the end of his career one day. Just not anytime soon.
On the eve of his seventh straight NBA Finals appearance, and 10 years since he debuted on basketball’s grand stage, James’ reign continues: undisputed king of the court.
During a postseason in which he has led the champion Cleveland Cavaliers to a 12-1 record and chased down Michael Jordan as the No. 1 scorer in playoff history, James has not only positioned himself for a fourth title, but intensified the debate over whether he’s the greatest player in NBA history.
He isn’t slowing down while building his case.
James has always dismissed the Jordan comparisons, saying that kind of talk is “only great for barbershops” and that original gravity-defying No. 23 has been his motivational muse, not a target. But after the Cavs won their third straight conference title, punishing an overmatched Boston team in five games — he supplanted Jordan during the clincher — James discussed his place alongside someone who was “like a god” to him growing up.
“I did pretty much everything that M.J. did when I was a kid,” James said. “I shot fadeaways before I should have. I wore black and red shoes with white socks. I wore short shorts so you could see my undershorts underneath. I didn’t go bald like Mike, but I’m getting there. … But other than that, I did everything Mike did. I even wore a wristband on my forearm. I didn’t do the hoop earring, either. That was Mike.
“But I did everything Mike did, man.”
And he’s not done, not by a long shot.
James is on a mission, and it’s far from accomplished.
By having one of his finest statistical postseasons — 32.5 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 57 percent shooting through 13 games — James is dismissing any argument about the league’s true MVP. Although he’ll finish behind Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard when the regular-season award is given out next month, James has reminded everyone over the past six weeks that he remains the measuring stick at 32.
He’s raising the bar even higher, during a decade in which his actions — on and off the floor — have shaped the league.
“LeBron James has dominated, seriously dominated, this era of basketball. His domination has been about the equivalent to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s in his time,” Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. “He’s playing for his place in history, to be talked about as one of the best to ever play. The conversation will come down between he, Kareem and Michael Jordan. Then it’s just a matter of taste. Who do you want?”
Of all his accomplishments, making seven straight final rounds is near the top of the list. When the ball goes up in Game 1 on Thursday, James will be the seventh player to appear in seven consecutive Finals, and the first since Bill Russell led a handful of Celtics on their dynastic run in the 1960s.
James reluctantly reflects on what he’s done. As the Cavs prepared for the Warriors, he took a moment to consider his latest feat.
“It’s going to be great for my legacy,” he said. “Once I’m done playing the game and can look back on the game and say, ‘Oh, this guy went to three straight Finals, four straight Finals, five, six, whatever. It’s great to be talked about, see what I was able to accomplish as an individual. When you talk about longevity and being able to just play at a high level for a long period of time, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that and take two franchises to four Finals apiece — and no one has ever done that either.
“I’ve always been proud to be part of the biggest stage in our league, and it’s the Finals.”
And this is Act III of a three-year drama with Golden State.
After ending Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought last season, James has been unburdened, free of the criticism or consequences. Early in Game 1, he will become the first player with 6,000 points in the postseason, and there’s no reason to think he won’t pass 7,000 in due time.
Whatever he finishes with, Cavs veteran forward Richard Jefferson doesn’t think anyone will catch him.
“Like the Joe DiMaggio hit streak, Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100, there are certain records that will be unbreakable,” Jefferson said. “Whoever tries to get to that is going to have to play in 10 NBA Finals and average 30 points a game to get there. Let’s put that in perspective: that’s impossible. What he’s doing right now is obviously on a level that has never been seen before. To pass Michael Jordan when you’re still in the prime of your career, one of the greats of all-time? That record will be unbreakable.
“If he adds another 1,000 points, who’s going to be able to come in and go to 10 NBA Finals in this modern age? It’s impossible.”