Hollywood's Leading Man
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Thrice as Nice
In LeBron James’ brilliant 11-year tenure with the Wine & Gold, this is the third time we’ve seen him hoist the All-Star Game’s MVP trophy as the alpha dog of the Midseason Classic – taking home the hardware after willing his squad past Stephen Curry’s in a 148-145 thriller at STAPLES Center.
LeBron won his first MVP in 2006, beginning a long litany of becoming the youngest NBA superstar to do everything: winning the award at 21 years of age, tallying 29 points and six boards and helping the East overcome a 21-point deficit in Houston.
He won it again two years later – with New Orleans hosting their first major sporting event since Hurricane Katrina. James nearly notched a triple-double in that one – finishing with 27 points, nine assists, eight boards, two steals and a pair of blocks in the East’s 134-128 win.
Nine years have passed since the King won that last one. Every year, he’s one of the game’s great ambassadors. Every year, he takes part in community events, every practice and media circuits. Despite consistently being among the league’s leaders in minutes logged and averaging about 100 games a season for the past seven, he’s up for any role when Sunday night’s contest rolls around.
But there was something different about the King’s performance in 2018. And when I say “different” – I mean “better.”
Here’s THREE-(plus) reasons why …
1. The Lion in Winter
In a game built around big numbers and the players that post ‘em, LeBron’s stat-line – win-or-lose – might’ve been enough to sew up MVP honors.
James led both squads with 29 points – 10 of those on 4-for-5 shooting in the final period – going 12-for-17 from the floor, including 4-of-8 from three-point range, adding a team-high 10 boards, eight assists and a steal. He also led his squad with five miscues, but sometimes you gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet.
But numbers weren’t just what earned James the game’s top honors. It was his energy and aggressiveness in the final quarter and specifically in the closing moments of the final quarter.
DeMar DeRozan’s free throws game Team Stephen a one-point edge, 145-144, but on the next possession, James and Kyrie Irving ran a beautiful baseline-play with LeBron laying in the eventual game-winning left-hander over his long-time frenemy, Draymond Green.
After James Harden’s missed triple, Team Stephen tried to foul James, who instead fed a long pass ahead to Russell Westbrook, who scored to take a three-point edge.
In the game’s final 11 seconds, the 33-year-old James (along with Kevin Durant) hounded the game’s most prolific marksman and opposing team captain, Steph Curry, along the three-point arc, refusing him to even get off an attempt as the buzzer sounded.
2. The Sound of Silence
Those of us who’ve seen what the Bear looks like when he’s been poked recognized an intensity on LeBron’s face that he normal doesn’t don during All-Star Games.
The tone-deaf barb tossed at him mid-week by FOX News host Laura Ingraham hung like a cloud on All-Star Weekend – telling the NBA’s reigning J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award winner to “shut up and dribble.”
James has raised millions for charity – including the money his squad donated with Sunday night’s victory. Last year he was named the NAACP’s Jackie Robinson Award winner and is SI’s two-time Sportsman of the Year. He’s a leader in his community and a worldwide role model. His off-the-court record is exemplary in every way.
The NBA is justifiably not a league that restricts its players from expresses themselves on social causes. And the King isn’t one to pull his punches.
LeBron thanked Ingraham, tongue in cheek, for giving further voice to his platform, but in a time of political unrest nationally – in a city simultaneously symbolic of the liberal left as well as the home of two of the most racially-charged events of a generation – he refused to be silenced, on Sunday night let his game do the talking.
3. California Dreamin'
The NBA had to do something about the direction of the All-Star Game. It was an exhibition – but most player exhibiting how bored they were with the lack of competition.
Whether it was the new format – players being chosen despite their Conference – or not, Sunday’s 67th annual All-Star Game truly changed the moment LeBron turned up the intensity on the defensive end when he returned to action at the 9:19 mark of the fourth quarter and his squad trailing by seven – 122-115.
Team Stephen would eventually take a 13-point lead before Team LeBron stormed back, with their titular leader capping a 19-8 run on a step-back three-pointer with 1:30 to play, tying the game at 144-apiece.
But the play that was emblematic of the 2018 All-Star Game will be he and Durant’s defense against Curry in the closing seconds: all former MVPs, going at each other as hard as they could over one meaningful final possession.
LeBron, throwing his arms in the air after the win said it all.
And here’s one more thing, let’s call it …
3.5. Prepare for Liftoff
It’s debatable what was the low point of the Wine & Gold pre-Deadline Day doldrums in January and early February and they’re not worth rehashing here. The numbers were bad; the look was bad. But it also seemed to add some wear-and-tear on LeBron’s leadership abilities – something he takes as much pride in as anything in his basketball repertoire.
But when Kobe Altman and the Cavs’ brass made a trio of bold moves at the Deadline, James has been re-energized – heading into All-Star Weekend on an absolute tear: averaging 30.0 points, 13.0 assists and 9.5 boards during Cleveland’s four-game win streak.
With a young, athletic new group of teammates, a bolstered bench from a season ago, J.R. Smith’s renewed rhythm and his mate’s riding a four-game heater into the second half, LeBron can rest his third All-Star Game MVP trophy into his overloaded collection in Akron.
And the man who’s also won the Eastern Conference Player of the Month in February in each of the last six seasons just served notice that he’ll be gunning hard for his fifth MVP and, more importantly, his fourth NBA title.