King James in imperial form
THERE is a huge photo of LeBron James at the Cleveland Cavaliers' arena with his arms stretched wide enough to carry the entire team, just as he is doing in the NBA Finals.
Another maestro performance on Tuesday saw "King James" score 40 points, grab 12 rebounds and pass out eight assists to help the hosts beat Golden State 96-91 and seize a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with game four today in Cleveland.
The victory reinforced the growing sense that this is a career-defining moment for James, two wins from realising his life's dream of turning his hometown club into champions.
The 30-year-old's emotional and exhausting heroics could produce one of the NBA's greatest feats, a spectacular achievement given the loss of two all-star teammates to play-off injuries.
Cavaliers coach Dave Blatt said: "He really has willed his guys to win. That's what a champion does and obviously he's a champion."
Cleveland lost All-Star forward Kevin Love to a separated shoulder in the opening play-off round, and All-Star guard Kyrie Iring to a fractured left kneecap in the finals' opener against a top-seeded Warriors side featuring NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry and a deep bench.
James is averaging a record 41 points plus 12 rebounds and 8.3 assists in the NBA Finals, baffling the Warriors by driving to the hoop, sinking fadeaway jumpers and hurling passes to unguarded teammates.
"He obviously is one of the great players in the league. He affects every single play," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "Some great players, you have to defend a certain action. With LeBron, it's everything that happens."
Asked if he is today's top athlete, Kerr said, "Can you find another one? Maybe American Pharoah," citing the new Triple Crown horse-racing champion.
James was a high-school teen star in nearby Akron, taken first by Cleveland in the 2003 NBA Draft and four years later, had the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, where San Antonio swept them.
Needing to learn how to become a champion, James left for Miami in 2010, with heartbroken Cleveland fans burning his jersey and scorning his name. James led the Heat to two NBA crowns and two finals losses in four seasons.
"Experience is the greatest teacher in life and I was able to learn a lot of things in the four years I was in Miami," James said. Last July, James returned to Cleveland, vowing to bring the city its first sports champion since the 1964 NFL Browns.
He has excited NBA fans for years with his acrobatic moves, but this jaw-dropping run appears to be one for the ages.
"Part of his greatness is the ability to size things up quickly, to slow the game down for himself and make a good decision," Blatt said.
Stripped of his main supporting cast, James has inspired role players to elevate their game.
He gave teammates Apple Watches in a pre-finals team meeting, building bonds and confidence that saw the club through setbacks.
"When you're able to come together off the floor, it helps you come together on the floor," James said. "That's one of my leadership styles."