“Now… the real game begins.”
– Jim Carrey as The Riddler in “Batman Forever”
Admittedly, I’m not proud of quoting a movie as fantastically craptastic as “Batman Forever”, but my anxiety for the NBA Finals tonight is making me loopy. The Cleveland Cavaliers travel to Oracle Arena to face the Golden State Warriors for the third time in a rubber match most of us have been hoping for since the start of the NBA season.
This series has been analyzed from every conceivable angle, already, so breaking down every little nuance of this series could sound repetitive. One pretty big focus that should be brought up is one of legacy — particularly the legacy of one LeBron Raymone James. James enters the NBA Finals for the eighth time in his career and the seventh consecutive since 2010-2011 season. He’s won three rings and three NBA Finals MVPs in those eight appearances, and he has certainly written his name in the stone of NBA history.
There’s always that one thing regarding his legacy that he even discussed at the beginning of the season.
“My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing,” James said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “The ghost played in Chicago.”
LeBron said that in an interview with Sports Illustrated last August. It’s pretty clear who he is referring to as “the ghost”. It’s the same name that drove Kobe Bryant to want to be as good as the specter of Chicago. Every great NBA player who has come after Michael Jordan strives to be in the conversation with Jordan as the greatest of all time. Here’s a personal opinion alert before I say the following: no one will ever be referred to as the greatest of all time. Jordan is the G.O.A.T. There is no discussion.
I like to think about it in this context in terms of “legacy guys”. Imagine this scene. There’s a restaurant in a posh section of (pick whatever city you want). It can be New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. It doesn’t matter. At this restaurant, there is a table. Sitting at this table are the following people: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Shaquille O’Neal. (DISCLAIMER: That is simply who I, Adio Royster, seat at that table. If you have others at this table or you don’t have one at all, that’s fine. This is my column, however, so I seat my table how I see fit.)
NBA Players come and go into this restaurant to have a bite to eat and sit down. Occasionally, J.R. Smith gets a drink or two, but if his shirt comes off for any reason, he’s escorted out. We run a classy establishment. LeBron James is a frequent patron of this restaurant, and he’s made a name for himself among the restaurant brass and some of the more VIP patrons.
When LeBron won his first title, he was allowed access to the speedy VIP line so he wouldn’t have to wait. “Why, Mr. James. It’s lovely to see you again. Come right this way.”
After LeBron won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, he was able to reserve a table at the restaurant. “Hello, this is LeBron James. I’d like to reserve a table for three. I’m bringing myself, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to dine with me this Friday night.”
In 2016, LeBron won his third title, brought a championship to Cleveland (the city’s first since 1964), and won his third NBA Finals MVP award. This entitled him to see the “secret menu” at the restaurant. It’s so secret that I’m not even going to tell you what’s on it. That’s between LeBron and the restaurant management.
The most plush part of the restaurant features the “Jordan Table”. It’s easily visible, close to the kitchen for prompt food delivery, and nowhere near the bathroom. All restaurant patrons can see the table, and respects are paid to those five gentlemen sitting there. Kobe walks by a lot to say hi to Shaq.
When LeBron won last year — winning a game 7 at Golden State bringing the Cavaliers back from a 3-1 series deficit — he came in to the restaurant to celebrate. James celebrated his promise to bring a championship to his home state by beating the team that went 73-9 in the regular season breaking the record held by Jordan’s 1996 Bulls. Jordan took notice of that by simply raising his glass when LeBron looked at him. (What? You expect Jordan to get up, walk over to LeBron and shake his hand? Not yet.)
This NBA Finals series has such a whirlwind of nuances. It’s yet another Finals appearance. It’s another match-up against the Golden State Warriors, but it’s different. There’s much more firepower to this Warriors team. The night after LeBron celebrated at the restaurant, Steph Curry came in and had a drink. There, he saw Kevin Durant — a man who he had eliminated in a fantastic seven game Western Conference Finals series. After another drink and some dinner, Durant walked out of the restaurant with Steph Curry. They decided to continue that union in Golden State.
The 2016-2017 Warriors went 67-15, finished first in the Western Conference, and have the number one offense in the league (115.9 points per game). Durant averages 25.1 points per game, and Steph averages 25.3. Their mutual friend Klay Thompson scored 22.3 points per game. When this team met LeBron and the Cavaliers in December, Cleveland won by a point at home. At Golden State, however, James and Company lost by 35.
Make no mistake. LeBron knows what he is up against. This makes the 2017 NBA Finals that much more interesting if he wins this series.
If LeBron wins his fourth title and fourth Finals MVP, he is going to walk into the restaurant again to celebrate. The difference this time is that James will be allowed to sit at the “Jordan Table”. He’ll join the ghost he’s been chasing with Russell, Magic, Bird, Kareem, and Shaq. He’ll join that group as one of the most iconic players this league has seen and the absolute best player since 2005 (personal opinion disclaimer). He’ll feel comfortable doing it. That group will trade war stories. Shaq will tell amusing jokes while Bill Russell simply sits towering over everyone.
That’s what this Finals series means to LeBron James: a seat at the table featuring the man he looked up to when he first picked up a basketball. He will have chased down the ghost, pulled up a chair, and sat down next to him.