As the final seconds ticked off, LeBron James ran toward the Cavaliers bench, jumped into the arms of Kevin Love and covered his face as tears streamed down.
James cried as he celebrated with his teammates, as he held the NBA championship trophy and during his postgame interview.
The emotions were raw after Sunday’s 93-89 win on the Warriors’ home court. James gave all he had to the Cavaliers’ players, coaches and organization, and for Cleveland to capture its first pro sports championship in 52 years.
He capped the miraculous run with just the third Game 7 triple-double in the Finals and was the unanimous series MVP.
This would be the sweetest championship of the three James has won in his amazing career, and could be the one that finally silences his detractors for good. Maybe.
James and the Cavaliers returned to Cleveland on Monday where they were greeted by thousands of fans. James, holding up the championship trophy as he stepped off a plane, was wearing an “Ultimate Warrior” shirt.
Few believed the Cavaliers would beat two-time MVP Steph Curry and the Warriors in the Finals. Fewer gave them a chance when they were 3-1 against last year’s NBA champs and the greatest regular-season team in history.
Before this year, teams trailing 3-1 in the Finals were 0-for-32. Being counted out was added motivation for James.
“Throughout my 13-year career, I’ve done nothing but be true to the game, give everything I’ve got to the game, put my heart, my blood, sweat, tears into the game, and people still want to doubt what I’m capable of doing,” James said. “So that was a little icing on the cake for myself to just let me know that everything I’ve done, it results in this. They say hard work pays off, and that’s what happened.”
James said he felt a sense of calm even with Golden State’s seemingly insurmountable series lead. It came from all the work he’s put in, and all his experiences in big games.
“The game always gives back to people that’s true to the game,” James said. “I know the history of the game, and I was just calm. I was focused. I was locked in. I had to be calm in order for my 14 guys to allow me to lead them and for those guys to play the way they played.”
James has led his teams to six straight Finals. His critics seem to focus on the three they lost. He has been portrayed as the Cavaliers’ de-facto general manager and coach, and when they were down 2-0 and 3-1, critics came after James for his role in assembling this roster and David Blatt’s midseason firing. He’s heard people call Curry the best player on the planet.
But no one does more for his team in the NBA right now and maybe ever. James averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds. 9.7 assists, 3 blocks and 3 steals after the Cavaliers were down 3-1.
He controlled the offense and made huge defensive plays with his chase-down blocks. The one on Andre Iguodala in transition with 1:50 left in Game 7 was the second biggest play of the series behind Kyrie Irving’s go-ahead three-pointer with 53 seconds left.
“I watched Beethoven compose a game,” Irving said. “He had a freakin’ triple-double in Game 7 of an NBA Finals game. There will still be naysayers, but I know it doesn’t matter to him. It doesn’t matter to me. All that matters is we’re champions and our whole team is etched in history.”
It was only fitting that James made the free throw that put the Cavaliers up four with 10.6 six seconds left, and essentially clinched the game and series.
“That’s our leader,” Love said. “He protects every single one of us. We are just very, very thrilled for our team. But for him to come back here and go through what he did, it’s just pretty remarkable, and we’re very proud of him. We love our leader.”