Not the same old LeBron James

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You hear parents lament how fast it goes by all the time. A child is born and in a blink he's leaving for college. It's the way it goes. Children grow up, parents grow old.

Birthdays have a way of underscoring how much time has passed, and how much has changed. LeBron James was just 22 years old when his younger son Bryce was born between Games 3 and 4 of the 2007 NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just dropped into a 0-3 series deficit when LeBron got the call that his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Savannah Brinson was going into labor. He rushed to be with her at Cuyahoga Valley Hospital for Bryce's birth at 12:51 a.m. on June 14. The Cavs had a shootaround the next morning. They lost Game 4 and the series later that night.

"It was a great moment for our family," LeBron said, recalling that sleepless night. "It wasn't a great moment for our team that night, going down 3-0. But for my family to be able to welcome another kid, it was a great moment. I was very grateful."

The Cavaliers didn't have much of a chance in that series against the Spurs. They started a lineup of LeBron, Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden in that series. The Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their peak years.

"We played San Antonio with their three best players in their primes," said Cleveland center Anderson Varejao, who was a reserve on that team. "They were a much better team than our team. They were better than us, that's why they beat us."

Bryce James turned 8 years old on Sunday while his father LeBron James was trying to will his team to a win against the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of these NBA Finals.

Once again, LeBron's team was overmatched and undermanned. This time season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have left the Cavs with precious few offensive resources to take some of the load off of him.

Once again, their opponent is more talented. The Warriors won 67 games during a charmed regular season in which they suffered no significant injuries to key players.

Yet things feel very different as LeBron and the Cavs return home after losing Game 5 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena on Sunday 104-91 to fall behind in this best-of-seven series 3-2.

LeBron's better than ever.

He's more savvy.

He is now squarely in that short window of time when an athlete's mind, body and spirit are all aligned. It lasts different lengths of time for each player. A few years, maybe more or less, depending on genetics or luck with injuries. But it's unmistakable when you see a superstar like LeBron who has mastered the mental game while his body can still do otherworldly things.

The Warriors see it, and have no choice but to marvel at it. Associate head coach Alvin Gentry walked out of the postgame coaches meeting shaking his head and saying, "That guy can't do much more."

Said head coach Steve Kerr: "He's phenomenal. He does everything. But I'm not enjoying the marveling."

LeBron has had to be everything to the Cavaliers in this series. After a 40-point, 14-rebound, 11-assist night in Game 5, he is averaging 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the Finals, making him only the second player in history to record a 40-point triple-double in the championship round.

He's played every position in these Finals and nearly every minute.

Even when the Warriors are running at peak levels, it feels like LeBron is dictating the pace of this series. He doesn't rush shots. If it takes 20 seconds to get the shot he wants, he'll take it. He doesn't force things. If the Warriors single-cover him, he'll look to score. If not, he'll drive and kick.

"He understands the situation: It's 14 guys doing all the little things and him taking over," said Cavs forward Mike Miller, who played with LeBron in Miami before joining him in Cleveland this offseason. "It's tough with all the injuries, but we're making it into a dogfight and slowing the game down to our liking and letting the best player in the planet carry us through."

In years past, LeBron may have lamented the help he didn't have. He'd have spent nights thinking about which players could take some of the load off. There might even be stray thoughts about how unfair it would be for him to be judged on the failings of an injury-ravaged team. Because when you're LeBron, everything is eventually judged.

It's a reality he's lived with since he was a teenager, but one he's just now starting to embrace.

"I've accepted the role of who I am," LeBron said.

That's why you see him declaring himself "the best player on the world" after Game 5, or scoffing at the Warriors single-coverage defense on him after Game 1: "You don't let me have 40. I go and get 40."

In his younger days, he would have worried that those quotes could be seen as arrogant. That they'd create a backlash to deal with in the morning.

Today he just says it, confident that he's done enough and won enough to be believed.

He's the best player on the world. His legacy is on the line every night. He does need to deliver on his promise to bring a title to Cleveland one day.

There's nothing he can say or do to change any of that except to do everything he can to win, no matter how much more these Warriors have.

There's a lightness to him these days. The pressure is still there, but he's long since learned to breathe through it.

"It's different for him now," Varejao said. "He didn't know then what he knows right now.

"He hadn't won."

On Saturday night, LeBron went with a few of his teammates to see "Jurassic World," the fourth movie in the epic action-adventure series based on Michael Crichton's novels. The first movie was released in 1993, when LeBron himself was 8 years old.

It's a funny way of measuring the passage of time, and how much things have changed.

When LeBron returns home to Cleveland on Monday, he said he planned to take his kids to see the same movie for Bryce's birthday.

"It's weird how time flies," he said. "Time definitely goes by very fast."

A lot has happened in Bryce's eight years. His father took a job in Miami and then returned home. He won titles and then lost them.

His game has grown in all sorts of ways. After years of work on his jump shot, he can make teams pay for daring him to shoot jumpers all day long, as the Spurs did in that 2007 series.

It's more than that, though. There's a calmness to him now. A confidence in himself, as a man in full command of all his talents.

"He's just, to me, a completely different LeBron," Varejao said. "He's won. And he knows exactly what it takes to win. The way he prepares himself before each game is different. He is so mentally tough now. He knows that we can't hang our heads when we lose a game like [Game 5]. We just have to go home, take care of business and come back here for Game 7."

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