A Portrait of the Artist

Photo by moi

The switch exists. I’m telling you right now because, for the second time in my life, I was lucky enough to see the man at the helm in person, and at 33 years young, he was as commanding of attention as he was in command of the game, and when he needed to, LeBron James turned the volume all the way up and told your parents to mind their Ps and Qs. Last Sunday, in Brooklyn, I saw the switch in action.

It isn’t that he isn’t great all the time – he is, and he has been for the overwhelming majority of his breathlessly Hall of Fame career – but to watch him have to be, with his still-gelling team nervously jetting and firing around him in an effort to show that yes, we’re good enough, please stay, adds another layer to an almost unquantifiable NBA experience.

He enters the arena like a matador, to thunderous applause and the smattered jeers of people who’ve long since accepted his superiority and are just looking for anything other than what they know in their crummy, misery-seeking hearts is coming before they head off to a late afternoon brunch. James is the last Cavaliers player out of the tunnel, surrounded by assistant coaches and sporting more warm-up gear than a shoegaze guitar tech.

*     *     *

After a nearly-uninterrupted fifteen years of exceptionalism in the world’s best basketball league, it figures that LeBron would need some time to get ready, but he moves, not necessarily slowly, but deliberately in his preparation. Pattering around, with individualized stretching and personalized handshakes with seemingly every staffer and everyone in the front row. LeBron James is a completist.

*     *     *

By halftime, LeBron has 22 points. The recently-back Kevin Love nearly has a double-double already. Still, though, the Cavs are down two. Joe Harris is having a career performance with 20 points himself. The Cavs are moving, but some of it is sluggish. Some of it may have to do with Larry Drew, a respected figure but one as unfamiliar with coaching these particular Cavs as anyone, stepping in for Ty Lue, who has taken a sabbatical to deal with his own health and wellness.

A common line of thought about the Cavs in LeBron’s second stint is that they pick and choose their spots, that when the time comes to step up, they do. This is the aforementioned “switch,” and LeBron, as he is for the entire league, is at the center of it. Without him, the Cavs are nearly seven points worse per possession than with him on the floor this season, per NBAwowy.com. He is a +9 himself based on offensive/defensive rating, per basketball-reference. LeBron contains multitudes.

*     *     *

It has been nearly a decade since I last saw LeBron in person. It was in a different city – Charlotte – and though James was in his first stint with the Cavaliers, it was as different a team then as the team he was facing: the Bobcats, rather than the Hornets. On that night, he scored 25 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists[1]. It was in the midst of his first MVP campaign, in fact, and he was as incomprehensible then as he is now, but not nearly as complete.

He hadn’t won a championship yet. The Decision was but a glint in some PR person’s eye. I wouldn’t have realized that then, and anybody else couldn’t have known what he would become, even when we saw what he already was. How little we used to require of our generational superstars.

*     *     *

Kevin Love is playing sensationally in his fourth game back from a broken non-shooting hand; he re-enters with 7:40 remaining in the game, the double-double already in hand, and he’s gone 3-6 from three. He is as important to the Cavs’ playoff success as LeBron or anyone else; it seems sacrilegious to state as much, but in a post-Kyrie world, and with the Raptors firing on every cylinder in Ontario right now, LeBron needs all the tertiary consistency he can get.

A play occurs with about 8:40 or so remaining in the fourth quarter involving a non-LeBron bench unit that is expertly run. Watching it unfold in real time allows for enjoyment as much as a Ben Falk-like internalization of what is actually happening.

Unfortunately, because I have neither the access nor the wherewithal to sift through videos of nonconsequential plays in this game, I cannot share or break it down for you, but if and when that opportunity arises, I have a time stamp and a distinct impression of what it was like to unfold. Suffice it to say, that play alone had an air of post-LeBron hope for the Cavs, should that end up coming to pass this summer.

Side note, but not at all: the Cavs own the Nets’ draft pick this summer, their most valuable asset for the foreseeable future, so the added incentive of beating Brooklyn in order to boost the Nets’, and by extension their own, draft lottery prospects should not have been lost on anyone involved. Then again…

*     *     *

When LeBron eventually does check back in, with 6:17 left in the fourth, he is needed, as he has been for most of this season, and most of his career. He is leading the league by averaging 37.1 minutes per game a season after leading the league by averaging 37.8 minutes per game. Again, he is 33 years old, and though he tends to coast possession-to-possession, the minutes add up either way. He conserves when and what he has to; he is arguably as knowledgeable on the workings of his own body as he is on the workings of his offense at this point.

Within forty seconds, LeBron finishes a George Hill alley-oop with a ferocious dunk to put the Cavs up three. He has announced himself, again, and he won’t let the Nets forget that he runs things in these parts. When he does the same thing in heavy traffic a little more than a minute later to increase Cleveland’s lead to seven, the feeling of joy engulfs an arena full of people who have come expressly to see this zeitgeist. I’m laughing out loud, holding my shaking head in my hands at the inconceivable skill of this singular human being, skill which indirectly led to 1,100 Akron kids going to college.

Joe Harris has 30 points, a career high[2]. With less than 40 seconds remaining, and the Cavs up five, LeBron works DeMarre Carroll into a soft, speedy Love pick, creating just enough space to hit a step back three, sealing the victory. He has 37 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. The Cavaliers win another uncomfortably close game, shuffling unceasingly toward an uncertain playoff run, and an uncertain future. The switch goes off, for now.

*     *     *

[1] Special thanks to my friend Spencer: firstly, for bringing me to that game; and secondly, for helping me to figure out which one it was over nine years later. We pour one out to Sean Taylor, to this day.

[2] His previous career high was 21, on December 29, 2017, against the Miami Heat.

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