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LeBron James’ case for the Finals MVP despite Cavs falling two games behind the Warriors

In terms of the outcome, the first two games of the 2018 NBA Finals went pretty much according to expectations. If it weren’t for J.R. Smith’s inexplicable blunder at the end of regulation in Game 1, the narrative could have taken a much different turn, but the Warriors have now successfully defended their fortress, further establishing their position as the clear favorites to win the title.

As much as it is taken for granted nowadays, LeBron James’ performance not only met, but exceeded the expectations yet again. Even for the casual viewer, it is both awe-inspiring and frustrating watching him have to take all matters into his own hands, but it has become an absolute necessity since he’s sharing the court with:

  • score-first playmakers who neither score nor pass (Jordan Clarkson has a total of one assist and 39 points over his last nine games)
  • designated rebounders with no evident presence on the glass (Tristan Thompson grabbed just five rebounds in both games of the Finals)
  • three-point shooters who have gone completely cold (J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver are 4-of-14 from beyond the arc over the last two games)

James put in his best effort to mitigate the lackadaisical performances from his supporting cast, which resulted in two historically great individual appearances in the NBA Finals.

The 51-point outburst in Game 1, which made James the first 50 point scorer in the Finals since Michael Jordan in 1993, became arguably the greatest performance in an NBA Finals loss ever.

The 48 minutes he spent on the court in that disheartening defeat didn’t slow him down a bit though, as he continued filling up the stat sheet in Game 2. He did tone down a bit in the scoring department, but at the same time fell just an assist shy of his playoff career high, which made him the main, if not the sole reason why the Cavs managed to hold their ground until late in the fourth.

In a classic LeBron fashion, he missed his tenth NBA Finals triple-double by just a single rebound (no other active player has more than one), and he can mostly thank Stephen Curry for that. Another unconscious night from the league’s most electric shooter completely negated James’ impact in Game 2. Curry not only set the record for most 3-pointers in an NBA Finals game, but also added further insult to injury by surpassing James on the ladder for most 3-point field goals made in the playoffs and in the NBA Finals.

Following his memorable performance, Curry instantly got promoted as the odds-on favorite to win the Finals MVP award, which would be his first in four Finals appearances. With the Warriors up 2-0, that puts James on the verge of finishing his second consecutive season without any individual accolades outside of the All-Star MVP honors he received this season.

If we set the current record aside, James absolutely has all the prerequisites to elicit the majority of the Finals MVP votes. He is averaging otherworldly 40 points (ranked #1), 10.5 assists (ranked #1) and 8.5 rebounds (ranked #4) in the two games, while spending almost 46 minutes per contest on the floor in his 15th season. 

Even though Curry might be seen as the favorite right now, the Warriors simply have so much firepower that their eventual success won’t necessarily depend on his consistency. On the other hand, if the Cavaliers are to make this an interesting series, James will have to further extend the best postseason of his career, or even get better, as ridiculous as it may sound.

Unfortunately for James, the record, or rather the ultimate success, does have a huge impact on the Finals MVP voting. The last, and the only player to win the award while falling short of embracing the championship trophy was Jerry West almost 50 years ago. While their timelines do actually overlap in terms of individual stats (West averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists for the series), the Lakers were initially up by 2-0 and eventually suffered a defeat in a tight Game 7. The Cavaliers outlook is, obviously, not that bright at the moment.

James has, however, proven this postseason that he has no issues digging himself and his team out of a deep hole. His doubters started rubbing their hands with glee when he fell 2-1 to the Pacers in Round 1, and became especially loud when he was trailing the Celtics 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Warriors are by far the superior team to both of James’ conference foes, but the fact that he came out on top in all adverse situations he was faced with shows that his winner’s mentality remains unwavered, and that prematurely writing him off would be a bad idea.

In a vacuum, making the case for James winning the Finals MVP under the current set of circumstances might seem daring, if not delusional. It is clear that his chances of decorating his career with another trophy handed out by Bill Russell will hang by the thread if the Cavaliers fail to defend their home land in the two forthcoming games. However, in terms of betting, the wisest move is to place your wager on the expected outcome when its odds hit their highest mark.

The Cavaliers and LeBron James have already proven that they have the capability of making this series as competitive as possible, which would also be in the best interest of the league and the viewers. If the impact of the Warriors’ Big Four becomes more evenly distributed, and if James’ incredible performances begin to translate into wins starting with tonight’s game, it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that the voters will strongly consider his name while casting their votes when the curtains fall on the 2018 NBA playoffs.