LeBron James could do no more for his Cleveland Cavaliers.
After returning home from two championships with the Miami Heat, James was again hailed as the saviour that would finally bring a professional sporting championship to Cleveland.
James’ return was aided by the team’s ability to acquire players both before and throughout the regular season.
Firstly, No.1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and last season’s top pick Anthony Bennett were both sent to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Love.
Love took time to blossom in a Cavs uniform but his scoring, rebounding and particularly outlet passing to James was certainly a welcome addition to the team.
The 2015 season began inauspiciously for Cleveland, beginning 19-20 and with Miami hibernating back in Miami to rest a weary body.
Questions were certainly being asked of the team, especially rookie coach David Blatt.
Rumours circulated that the players wanted him fired and then it seemed he actually would be.
But, James returned from his ‘injury / holiday’ and things got much better.
As did the personnel when New York Knicks pair Iman Shumpert and JR Smith were brought in via trade.
Centre Timofey Mozgov, seemingly undervalued in Denver, was also acquired and the prospects of the team looked markedly better.
James played to his normal self and Love, Kyrie Irving and the newly acquired players all gelled nicely.
They marched into the playoffs and swept Boston in the first round – but it came at a considerable cost.
Kevin Love got tangled up with Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk and the result was a shoulder dislocation and subsequent surgery. Love’s season was done.
As hard as it now seemed for Cleveland to even get through the Eastern playoffs, they did, thanks largely to James.
They squeezed past Chicago on the back of a 20-point performance from Australian Matthew Dellavedova and then took Atlanta to the cleaners in the Eastern finals.
But those victories, too, came at a cost.
Irving – who had battled injury niggles all season long – knocked his knee and foot and was visibly below 100%.
It was assumed the sweep of the Hawks would give Irving the much needed time to heal his body and be ready to go for the Finals against Stephen Curry and Golden State.
And for most of game one, it seemed that had been the case.
Irving outplayed Curry and looked like the All-Star performer that he is, posting 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
But Irving could not even see out that game with his knee giving out on him in the overtime period.
The following day the Cavaliers announced Irving had suffered a fractured knee cap and would be joining Love on the sidelines for the remainder of the playoffs.
A brutal blow for Cleveland who had formed a new ‘Big 3′ for James to win a ring with.
After the Warriors escaped game one with a home court win and Irving being done for the series, it looked like James was set for a second Finals sweep in his career – but he had other ideas.
James threw his ball club up onto his considerably broad shoulders and willed them to the line.
Many say an athlete’s greatest ability is to make their team mates believe they are capable of more than they think they are.
That was the case with numerous Cavaliers as Dellavedova made huge plays in the early part of the series, James Jones played defence like we have never seen from him and Mozgov became a force down low posting multiple double-doubles and forcing Warriors coach Steve Kerr to rip Andrew Bogut from the lineup and go small.
Yes LeBron took an inordinate amount of shots and yes he missed too many.
But what was required of one man was too much for even the greatest player this side of Michael Jordan.
He led the series in scoring, rebounds, assists, minutes and gave everything his body would physically allow him to give.
In game one on the road in Oakland, James posted 44 points yet still had six dimes as well as eight boards.
He fed Mozgov down low and whilst all the defensive attention was on James, Irving was able to cut loose for 23 points.
James played 47 minutes including the OT period, something that would probably haunt him as the series went on.
Game two saw James in rare air even for him.
With Irving gone, it seemed all hope was lost for the Cavs yet James – along with Dellavedova – came to the rescue.
Despite shooting 11-35, the four-time MVP cluttered the stats sheet with 39 points, 16 rebounds and 11 assists.
He willed his team to the unlikely win by getting to the foul line 18 times.
He again fed Mozgov and ignited everything Cleveland got going to level the Finals at 1-1.
When Irving went down, no one expected the Cavs to compete let alone take the lead in the series but that’s exactly what they did as Cleveland stole game three at home.
Delly was massive with a playoff career-high 20-points but James again scored 40 points to go along with a dozen boards and eight assists.
Again, he took 34 shots but that’s what the Cavs needed. James was asked to ignite everything for his team.
A bad missed shot from James often resulted in an easy offensive rebound for Tristan Thompson such was the defensive effort thrown in James’ direction.
Had Love and Irving been on the floor the result may have been the same but the process very different.
Love is a proven 25-point per game scorer and can get his own shot from the post whilst Irving’s playmaking and scoring abilities are perhaps only second to Curry.
So, on he went, creating everything for his team. Shouldering 99% of the load and doing it like we have never seen before.
His final averages of 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists simply blow your mind.
Unlike his usual self he shot the ball at a very low clip but he committed few turnovers considering the amount of time he spent trying to create the offence for himself and for everyone else on the team.
Think about his team mates and how they scored the ball.
Mozgov relied purely on being fed the ball inside the paint as well as cleaning up on dunks from excellent James passes.
He was the most consistent source of points for the team outside of James but coach Blatt was even forced to bench him when the Warriors went small, asking even more of James.
Smith’s ex-Knicks team mate Shumpert was much of the same.
Despite some heroics in earlier playoffs matches, his outside shot deserted him and despite making some nifty moves to the bucket, he missed those, too.
James managed to hit him with some bullet passes on open three’s and he did convert those at a decent 37% but his subpar performances did little to aid the Cavs cause.
Aussie Dellavedova did all he could.
Coming from a little-used back-up for Irving to a vital starter, Delly began like a house on fire but eventually fatigue caught up with him.
He scored the ball at times but mostly he was taking the open three thanks to James’ creativity.
Delly’s other source for points was the running flip shot in the lane which was reasonably effective early in the series.
Thompson was almost exclusively scoring on offensive rebounds which came from James misses but as I mentioned earlier, those were sometimes the best course of action for the team.
Thompson – looking for a big contract this offseason – rebounded like a monster but his lack of scoring was apparent and it again added to the load on James’ back.
Veterans James Jones and Mike Miller made brief appearances but like their days in Miami, both needed LeBron to draw a double or triple team for them to get an open look from three.
LeBron James was otherworldly in his exploits throughout the finals.
Many will still knock him and there is no hiding from the fact that he is now 2-6 in NBA Finals.
He took a million shots against the Warriors but he had to.
He gave a team without two injured All-NBA calibre players a shot at beating a powerhouse squad laden with shooting talent and playmakers from player one through player 10.
He did not get the title and that is all he will care for but as fans, we would do well to remember and appreciate the fact that we may never again in our lifetime see a performance like James put forward.
Congratulations to Australian’s Andrew Bogut and Matthew Dellavedova on their performances in the NBA Finals.
Dellavedova was a significant contributor for Cleveland whilst Bogut gets his championship ring after many injury-riddled years in the league, many through no fault of his own.
Australians will be proud of the efforts of both men!