2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

LeBron James knows anything is possible in The Finals

Lakers star isn't taking his 10th trip to the championship round for granted

The first time LeBron James reached The Finals, in 2007, he was a 22-year-old trying to pull off a grown-man stunt. The Cavaliers were in no position to beat the dynastic Spurs, not with Boobie Gibson, Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as the main pieces next to LeBron. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich didn’t lose much sleep in a series that lasted slightly longer than lunch.

He is now 35 and once again back at the dance, for a 10th time, a staggering amount by any measure, especially considering nine of those trips have come in the last decade. That alone puts him beyond the reach of most athletic immortals in any professional team sport and certainly more than many of us will ever see in our lifetimes.

As the NBA Finals begin with him on the floor at tipoff, the only unusual aspect of this familiar scenario is the series taking place in October instead of June.

These trips aren’t getting old for him, and from a performance standpoint, he doesn’t seem to be getting old, either. LeBron made first-team All-NBA with the Lakers and was runner-up for Kia MVP this season, his 17th in the league. He led the NBA in assists in his first full-time role as ball distributor. Some of the greats in this game were relegated to supporting duty and just hanging on a roster, mainly for the money, at this stage of their careers. They were nothing more than hood ornaments, reminders of what they used to be.

LeBron, much like Michael Jordan (scoring championship and an NBA title at the same age), remains the outlier as the centerpiece of his team, with all due respect to Anthony Davis.

“He’s seen everything,” said Erik Spoelstra, who coached LeBron with the Heat. “At this point in his career, it’s just about winning. And his ability to do what he does at his age is incredibly uncommon.”

We can discuss and analyze what it will all mean if he wins his fourth championship on his third team. That’s for another day, sometime in the next week if he and the Lakers beat Miami. For now, it’s all about reaching this point, a milestone in itself.

“To be back in the Finals against Miami I think means a lot more to him winning this than anyone else,” Davis said. “I think this championship is probably second behind Cleveland, being able to get this one for him. It’s been fun to watch him. He goes to The Finals every year. Win or lose, he always comes back the next year. And to finally get back after last year and go against his former team, I’m pretty sure he’s going to have a competitive series.”

Former Yankees star Derek Jeter, who knows something about playing for multiple championships, once said that the title is never guaranteed once you get there; but you must keep giving yourself those chances. He’s right, and that’s sometimes lost when taking into account the six times LeBron came up short in The Finals. The more swings you get, the better the odds of connecting. LeBron agrees and says:

“Do you always become successful at it? Are you always going to win? No, it doesn’t happen like that. But you’re able to sleep a little bit better at night when you know you’ve punched the clock.”

LeBron has carried lesser teams to The Finals and more talented teams. None of his teams in Cleveland were favored to win. The 2007 series with the Spurs was projected as a blowout (and didn’t disappoint). In his four cracks at the Warriors, only one of them successful, and his lone formidable teammate was Kyrie Irving, who was injured early in one of those Finals and sat out.

Only with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami did LeBron bring ample firepower before this season, where Davis and a decent collection of veteran role players will give the Lakers the significant upper-hand over the superstar-lacking Heat.

“I never had a problem with any team I went to The Finals (with),” he said. “I’ve always been confident that we had the ability to win. If you’re going to a Finals saying you’re undermanned or you feel like you don’t have enough, then who are you? The game is won between the four lines, not won on paper. At the end of the day, when I’ve lost in The Finals, the better team won because they played well, they were more prepared and they did what they needed to do to win those four games.

“When I’ve won, the same thing. I’m not here to talk about the talent we all have, the team that we have. The game is won in between the four lines, 94 feet. The team that is prepared and the team that executes, the team that is not careless throughout 48 minutes will give themselves a chance to win each and every game. I’m confident going into this Finals, as I’ve always been in my career.”

LeBron continues to defy basketball logic in multiple ways in his mid-30s. He’s 6-foot-8 and roughly 250 pounds but moves fluidly and has full ownership of a spin-move in the paint that flummoxes the defense no matter how often he executes it. His 3-point shooting has never been better and, similar to how Jordan developed a baseline turnaround jumper, is aiding LeBron here in the latter stages of his career. His defense was lackluster last season, yet has improved. And his court-sense and ability to find teammates with bounce and bullet passes remains sharper than ever.

He makes a wide imprint on almost every game he plays, if not with passing, then leadership, scoring, rebounding and playmaking, particularly in the moment of truth, when a close game begs for a turning point.

The run on Finals appearances for LeBron can’t be taken for granted, because the end is probably near. Next season he’ll be 36 and while his body has rarely betrayed him, he is human and there’s lots of mileage on his limbs. Likewise, Davis has a rich history of injury issues and, despite his great health now, that’s always a question with him until it isn’t.

Here’s the larger and more sobering issue, though: The competition starting next season will be fierce.

Every contender this season should remain just as good if not better next season. That includes the Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Bucks, Heat and Celtics, and beware of spoilers such as the Mavericks, Raptors, Blazers and Pelicans. Meanwhile, there are potential monsters forming in Brooklyn and San Francisco, where healthy superstars await anxiously.

If LeBron isn’t aware of his own mortality and the multiple threats that’ll assume the championship chase next season, or cares not to subscribe to it, he’ll find out soon enough.

Time has a way of bringing even the greats to their knees, begging for mercy. You can eat right and live right and lift all the weights and run all the hills, but gravity is never starstruck; it spares no one and offers no compassion. All you can do is cheat the process as long as possible.

Right now, LeBron is winning that game and pushing those limits. Whether he can win four more games in this NBA restart and extend the boundaries of his legacy remains to be seen. At least he has given himself that chance. That, in itself, must be respected and saluted.

“To see what LeBron has done, when he moved on to Cleveland and then to here, it really is just a testament to his greatness and his commitment to winning,” Spoelstra said. “To be able to do it with different rosters and uniforms is really remarkable.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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