Channeling inner villain, LeBron has turned series on its head
CLEVELAND — It is a storyline wrestling scriptwriters would be proud of.
LeBron James, one of the most loathed stars in all of sports for both his clumsy move to Miami and the seeming ease and bullying style with which he dominates the game, has suddenly become to many somewhat of a sympathetic figure.
Maybe not lovable, but an underdog.
Cleveland's 52-year sporting drought has a lot to do with it, as well as the Cavaliers falling behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the NBA Finals against a Golden State Warriors team and ownership group that has appeared a bit too cocky for the liking of many this season.
Which gets to the other stunning WWE-esque storyline: Stephen Curry, the “Baby-faced Assassin,” and NBA golden boy's heel turn.
Curry's meltdown after fouling out in Game 6 saw him chuck his mouthguard into the stands, berate a referee and angrily exit — resulting in a $25,000 fine from the league on Friday, plus another for head coach Steve Kerr after he blasted the officials afterward — was not a great look.
Nor was his wife, Toronto-born Ayesha Curry, preposterously claiming on Twitter (before deleting the tweet) that the fix was in, meaning the NBA was doing nefarious things to force a Game 7.
Curry started the series poorly (three games in a row below 20 points, with 15 turnovers), which took some of the glow off of him and, though he has heated up since with a couple of spectacular scoring games, only one came in a victory and Kyrie Irving has been dismantling him at the other end.
Fans look for their generational superstars to deliver huge performances and Curry has not been doing that.
“I don't really worry about it,” Curry said. “I mean, there's kind of an historical kind of expectation of the all-time greats in this league that have had great Finals moments and had these kind of numbers and these kind of numbers.
“None of them played for this team and understood how I try to help my team every single night.”
Golden State has always been seen as a truer team, despite Curry's brilliance. He is the top player, but isn't the sole reason everything works for the Warriors.
Nevertheless, much more is expected and needed from him.
He can't be taking bad fouls at the biggest moments, just as Kyle Lowry couldn't do that and expect the Toronto Raptors to win. He can't let Irving continue to torch him and he must be more aggressive, while reining in the number of extra-long three-pointers he attempts. Early on, those shots make sense in order to keep the defence off balance later, but he should be looking for better attempts as the game goes on, even if he won't be goaded into a 1-on-1 battle with Irving.
“You kind of get a little edge about you trying to go back at them, but you've got to do it within the system of our offence and how we go about things and not get the temptation to abandon that just to get into the little back-and-forth, one-on-one,” Curry said.
“I want to honestly play better and more consistent, but the situation is right now we're one game away from winning a second championship, and I personally have 48 minutes to do what I need to do to help my team win.”
Meanwhile, James has far surpassed his one-man show of a series in the 2015 Finals, providing much more efficient and devastating play this time around. With his legacy on the line, James, who the Cavs revolve around, delivered two near-perfect outings.
“I just go out and play. I don't know what happens in elimination games,” said James, the all-time leading scorer in knockout games.
“I understand the magnitude of it, but it's not — it doesn't bother me too much. Just go out, and I know how much I put into the game. I know how true I am to the game. I know how much work that I put into the game when no cameras are around and things of that nature. So I'm able to try to just bottle that, just bottle that and live with the results. I mean, it's not always been great, but I guess the last few games, elimination games it's been pretty good.”
Ironically, to get back to this level, James had to go against his nature. He had to embrace being the villain, something he doesn't like.
James hated being put in that position after the disastrous “Decision” and was bothered that the vast majority of fans wanted his Heat teams to lose because he had stacked the deck and abandoned his home state.
He much prefers being an adored superstar, but when the Warriors went up in the series and the Cavs looked down and out, James basically decided, “Why not?”
Fully embracing the wrestling angle, he put on an Undertaker shirt at practice and made Cleveland wear its black, sleeved jerseys for the Game 5 win.
Booed at every turn in Oakland, James thrived. Then, he came out to that popular grappler's theme music for Game 6 and delivered once more, even spiking a couple of shots, including one by Curry, in spectacular fashion along the way.
Finally, he was OK with just going out and dominating, scowling, bullying and not worrying how anybody wanted to judge him.
James will get another rude reception on Sunday, but he is looking forward to it: “I'm going to sleep very well,” he said after Game 6.
You have to wonder how well Curry is sleeping these days.