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The LeBron James Effect

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After game four of the NBA Finals, on this very blog site, I proclaimed the death of the 2016 season. I assumed that since they were down 3-1, with little left in the tank and two games at the Oracle, this season was over. Now, as we enter game 7, that proclamation seems idiotic. How could I have possibly thought that the series was over? This Cavs team has swung the momentum completely and now, game 7 could be a toss up.

But can you really blame me, or anyone else, for thinking that the series was over? No team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in Finals' history, the Cavs looked completely physically and emotionally drained after game 4 and by all appearances, they had thrown in towel. Personally, I wouldn't have even made the trip to Oakland for game 5, if I were on that Cavs team, I would've stayed in Cleveland, making sure I didn't have to watch the championship celebration. That's how confident I was that the series was over.

But stupidly, I failed to account for one factor: 

LeBron James. 

Yep, I foolishly forgot that the Cavs have one of the 10 greatest players of all-time on their team and in games five and six, he showed exactly why he belongs in that conversation. He has been utterly dominant over the past 96 minutes of NBA basketball, relentlessly doing unbelievable, super-human stuff that only LeBron James can do. The last 96 minutes of basketball have been the crowning jewel of LeBron's career, showing exactly how great he is, taking his game to a level that every other basketball player on the face of the freaking Earth can't even dream of getting to.

Now, I love to focus on the Xs-and-Os of basketball. I love to dissect each play in my spare time and find reasons for each basket, and find out what a team can do to defend at a higher level and how to produce a better flow of baskets.

But in the last two games, the only thing I can actually come up with is LeBron James. He is the reason we are heading to game 7. His impact on both ends of the floor, as well as from a leadership standpoint, has been outstanding. I don't know how I can put into words how great and important he has been in this series, because I can barely understand or fathom it myself. But hell, I'll try.

I'll start off with his defense, which in games one and two was below his normal standard. But in the past four games, he has been back to his best. Since Kevin Love was concussed and ruled out for game 3, James has been playing a lot more power forward. In this position, he has been guarding Draymond Green almost full-time, which has allowed him to play closer to the rim and become a brilliant rim protector.

According to NBA.com's player tracking, over the past two games, when defending the rim LeBron has had 10 shot attempts from the Dubs come his way. Just two of those have gone in for the Warriors. Meaning that when LeBron is patrolling the restricted area, the 73 win Golden State Warriors, who have more offensive weapons than anyone in the league, have shot 20% at the rim. That is incredibly good defense.

His massive body, freakish athleticism, incredible timing and intelligence have enabled him to become modern day Bill Russell down in the paint. In the past two games, James has blocked 6 shots. As a wing, this should not be possible, but for LeBron it is. James' sudden rim-protecting perfection has revolutionized the Cavs' defense. Not only does LeBron send shots away when they are attempted in his vicinity, but just like Bill Russell did back in his day, he is changing the way the Warriors think about shooting.

Instead of attacking the rim and getting into endless drive-and-kick basketball for open threes, the Warriors have been stifled by the tower of LeBron. Every time the Warriors make a drive to the rim, they now search around to see where James is and have to think for twice as long about what shot they're going to take. That's how scared they have become of LeBron's defensive insanity. Just check out these two James blocks:

Just look how on both of these plays, both Draymond and Steph instead of jamming the ball with authority, or throwing up a classic finger-roll floater, they both pumpfake, take a look to see if James is still tracking them, put up the shot and James still blocks them. In the last two games, James has been doing this to everyone, slowing down the Warriors' all-time great offense and allowing the Cavs to control each ball game with their defense, something that you would not say has been the case all series long at all.

At the four, his defense has been even further felt by his ability to switch. With a conventional big like Kevin Love out there, the Cavs cannot use their switching strategy convincingly at all, as Love can be caught out defensively with ease. But with James there, he is the perfect guy to use as a switching defender. He has the body and athleticism to match up with anyone, and does it well. 

His offensive impact has been illustrated by the conventional media a lot more, but I want to touch on it anyway. 

In the first four games of the series, the Warriors were going under every LeBron screen and making it incredibly difficult for the offense to revolve around him. Going under the screen makes it easier to stop LeBron's drives to the rim, as instead of being a step behind LeBron coming off the screen, they are two steps in front. Without easy middle penetration, the Cleveland offense wasn't able to get into its natural drive-and-kick style. Usually LeBron gets the defense to collapse off a screen and he kicks out for open shots. 

But until recently, due to the Warriors going under screens, LeBron has been stifled. He hasn't looked like himself at all, constantly turning down shots that he would normally take and being as indecisive and as un-LeBron-like as ever. 

But in game 5, everything changed when he started to take the open jump shots that the Warriors were giving him. The greatness that is LeBron used his head and decided that the best course of action going forward was to take the shots Golden State were giving him, regardless of whether they went in or not because it's worse to not shoot open shots rather than to not take them at all, just ask Tony Allen. 

Luckily for LeBron, he got the best of both worlds, he started taking them and began making them. In the past two games, he has made 7 threes on 14 attempts. Now, instead of leaving him wide open for threes, the Warriors have to respect him from out there. In the past two games, now that he is being respected, the Warriors haven't been going under screens, instead making it easier for LeBron to attack the rim and thus, opening up the Cavs' offense to what it was during the first 3/4 of the playoffs. 

Now, LeBron is getting back to his vicious attacks on the rim since Golden State can't just leave him open from deep, they have to at least step up on him and ever since they've started that, the Warriors have paid the price, with LeBron getting acres of separation from his defender. From that, the Cavs have gotten the middle penetration they have been craving for, resulting in easy LeBron drives to the rim, forcing the defense to collapse and using his incredible vision, passes for wide open shots.

Listen, I always love to put coaches over players in the spotlight. I generally believe that a coach can control the course of a game, far better than a player can, because a good coach should be in control of his players. But LeBron James transcends conventional wisdom. This series, he has been something else. He has been the difference between losing by 33 points in game two and winning 3 of the last 4 games and forcing a game 7. He is the reason why the Cavs are in this position. His basketballing mind, individual adjustments and ridiculous basketball ability has them on the verge of ending a 52 year Cleveland sports curse. 

Make no mistake, LeBron still has a massive chunk of the mountain to climb. On Sunday, we will all realize this. But if he has gotten this far, he can reach the summit. But he has to -- and undoubtedly does -- know that he has to play as well, or better than his gargantuan game 5 and 6 performances. This is it, LeBron, go and show us you belong with the greats.

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