Ask LeBron James if this is the best he’s ever played, and he will answer in the affirmative. Always. “I’ve been playing at the best for quite a while now,” he said during the playoffs last season. “Since I was about 16.” It’s a philosophy, part of the #StriveForGreatness mantra he promotes on social media.
He said it during the 2015 NBA Finals. He said it in May of last year and again in June. In November and December, too. If you’re always at your best, then you can’t get any worse, and it’s a growth mindset that has served the 33-year-old quite well over the past 15 seasons. That it’s true borders on a miracle.
In the last of his 39 minutes in Denver’s mile-high altitude, James scored seven points on three shots, including a side-stepping midrange fade to the left from an even more ridiculous spot on the left side of the basket. That last shot gave him 39 points to go along with his 10 assists and eight rebounds:
“It was ridiculous,” Larry Nance Jr. said. “Those are shots that, like, as a defender, you just turn around to your coach and go, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what you want from me.’ But no, it was incredible.”
It also sealed a much-needed win over the Nuggets in Cleveland’s pursuit of a No. 3 seed. Asked how his current play stacks up afterwards by ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth, James delivered his company line:
“Probably an all-time high,” he said. “Just because of my body, my mind, the way I go out and approach the game, and then just the grace of God giving me the ability to do this. I’m blessed, and I never take it for granted.”
It would be easy to at this point. James has been so consistently great for so long — a decade-and-a-half span that features three titles, four MVPs and 11 First Team All-NBA selections — that there’s a ho-hum aspect to his 27 points (on 62.2 percent true shooting), nine assists and 8.4 rebounds per game.
“He’s definitely playing well,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters after the game.
Well? WELL?!?! James averaged a triple-double in the month of February (27 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists), securing his 43rd career Player of the Month award and third this season, and he’s produced 30 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.7 assists a night in the 10 games since the Cavaliers shook up the roster with a series of three trades that replaced four of the team’s top seven rotation players.
That’s better than well. Statistically speaking, it’s arguably the best stretch of basketball he’s enjoyed in a career full of glorious stretches. He had never averaged a triple-double for a full calendar month before in his career, and he’s doing it while playing all 64 games and averaging 37 minutes this season.
It’s absurd is what it is. For anyone. Especially a guy with 52,773 minutes of NBA basketball on his legs.
What James has lost in athleticism (if James has lost athleticism) he makes up for in experience. In much the same way there’s not a defense New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady hasn’t seen at age 40, James can read and react better with age, which helps keep him at that “all-time high.”
“You know how the game is being played, you know that if one team can get a couple stops and you can get a couple makes then you can possibly try to win the game or pull away,” James said matter-of-factly on Wednesday. “Both teams were scoring at a high clip. I hadn’t shot the ball much after the start of the third quarter, so I just tried to implement my imprint on the game by closing it out for us.”
Well, then. It’s that easy. At least if you’re LeBron James. He might give James Harden more of a run for MVP were it not for Cleveland’s upheaval, much of which he’s brought on himself — a conversation for a different day. But in a basketball sense, there’s little doubt James is still the Greatest of This Time, and it well never stop being remarkable that the teenager Sports Illustrated dubbed as “The Chosen One” in 2002 is still playing at “an all-time high” in 2018, no matter how many times James reminds us.
Harden can have the award. The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics can have the top two seeds. It doesn’t matter, not to LeBron James, because he’s seen it all now, and he figures he’s still striving.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m a six seed or a three seed or a two seed, eight seed,” James told the media after the Denver win. “If I come into your building for a Game 1, I can be very challenging.”
Don’t take it for granted.
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