IN HIS LETTER last summer announcing his homecoming, LeBron James wrote, "I want kids in Northeast Ohio ... to realize that there's no better place to grow up." Compare that view of life in the area with that of Cavaliers shooting guard J.R. Smith, who in a January interview with NBA.com said of Cleveland, "There's nothing, there's no going out, there's no late nights. There's video games, basketball and basketball."
Smith doesn't paint the most flattering picture of Cleveland, but few do. It brings to mind Caddyshack minx Lacey Underall's lament that she was "tired of having fun all the time" when asked if life in the Midwest was a change from dreary old Manhattan. But Cavs fans have, like Judge Smails, brushed aside the slight with chuckle. ("Ah. Ho ho. Ha ha ha.") Because Smith's nocturnal boredom has led to some of the most scintillating basketball of his career, including a stunning 28-point performance in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, an endless heat check in which he dropped eight threes on the Hawks.
Cleveland had been expecting to rely on point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love, who—with all due respect to Larry Hughes and Shaq—would finally give James the help necessary to break the city's championship drought, which has now reached 51 years. But Irving has been slowed all postseason by myriad leg injuries, and Love has been sidelined since Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk attempted to take his left arm home with him as a souvenir in Game 4 of the first round. Enter Smith and a few other gritty sidemen, including defensive whiz Iman Shumpert, versatile center Timofey Mozgov and Australian punching bag Matthew Dellavedova. Their play—and ability to withstand being on the business end of mediocre Randy Macho Man Savage impressions—had the Cavs entering Tuesday night's Game 4 with a chance to sweep the top-seeded Hawks and reach their first Finals since LeBron I, in 2007.
But let's be clear: Cleveland isn't going anywhere James doesn't take them. You know those stories about average men getting a surge of adrenaline that allows them to lift an Escalade off a trapped baby? When LeBron gets that rush, though, he doesn't just lift the Escalade. He holds it in the air for 48 minutes of basketball. (From the Letter: "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.") That has to take a lot out of a man, even one as seemingly superhuman as James, which explains why, the instant the horn sounded to end Game 3—a 114--111 overtime victory in which he overcame the worst shooting start of his professional life (0 for 10) to amass a triple double by the end of the third quarter—he dropped to the floor, looking like a man who belongs in an oxygen tent.
James's play has been an exercise in the exceptional. It has also been an exercise in exorcism. This postseason the Cavs have already bounced two towns responsible for inflicting serious pain on their fan base: Chicago (a certain Shot by another decent baller in a number 23 jersey) and Boston (the Indians' epic 2007 ALCS collapse at the hands of the Red Sox, and a capitulation by the Cavs in '10 that preceded—and possibly precipitated—the Decision). Throw in the fact that the team snagged James back from Miami (1997 World Series), relegating the Heat to dread mid-lottery status, and the impending defeat of Atlanta ('95 World Series), and you can almost picture James announcing, à la Michael Corleone, that today Cleveland is settling its old scores. What next? Harry the Hawk's head in Al Horford's bed? (Hey, Warriors, three words, from the Browns' playoff loss to Oakland in '81: Red Right 88.)
As pleasant as the payback has been, it's not what's driving James. The Letter made that clear. "[W]hat's most important for me is bringing one trophy back to Northeast Ohio." This story appears under the banner MY TOWN, MY TEAM. But make no mistake. This is LeBron's Town. This is LeBron's Team. And it's starting to look like this might be his time too.
JAMES'S POSTSEASON PLAY HAS BEEN AN EXERCISE IN THE EXCEPTIONAL. IT'S ALSO BEEN AN EXERCISE IN EXORCISM.
Photograph by Nathaniel S. Butler NBAE/Getty Images
WINNING ON EMPTY James couldn't find the energy to stand after a Game 3 performance in which he had 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists—a stat line unsurpassed in postseason history.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TUNNEL VISION James has had his eyes focused on the task at hand, while Smith (5) has knocked down plenty of good looks (and a few bad ones too).