It came up Sunday night, while I was watching Game 2 at a bar with two friends. It was right after Stephen Curry’s most video-game-like 3-pointer, the fourth-quarter heave over Kevin Love from roughly 4 feet behind the 3-point line as the shot clock expired.
“Watching LeBron right now …” said my friend Jason, 31, shaking his head at Curry’s exploits, “I wonder if this is what it felt like watching Wilt Chamberlain play the Celtics back in the ‘60s.” Jason works in information technology. “Jerry West, too,” said Marcus. He’s 34 and works in higher education in Louisiana. “They both ran up against Bill Russell, Sam Jones, Red Auerbach and all those guys.” There is a case to be made: LeBron James’ current four-year war with Golden State may be the NBA’s modern-day equivalent.
Chamberlain is the game’s original statistical anomaly, the prophyte of modern-day bulls-in-china-shops like Shaquille O’Neal and James. There’s his 100-point game in March 1962. That same season he averaged a whopping 48.5 minutes per game while putting up 50 points and 25 rebounds a night. Chamberlain, a Philadelphia native, never averaged less than 18 rebounds per game in any season of his career, and he retired averaging 30 points and 23 rebounds per game. He was the game’s all-time leading scorer until he was surpassed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984; Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan also eventually overtook him. Both Dirk Nowitzki and James will pass him early next season.
Chamberlain and Bill Russell met during Russell’s rookie season and Chamberlain’s freshman year at the University of Kansas in 1956-57. They became basketball’s original titan-on-titan rivalry. Chamberlain was the unstoppable force, which Russell has said forced him to think of different defensive schemes each time they competed. Russell and the Celtics were the immovable object in Chamberlain’s path toward NBA immortality.
“We talked about it one time,” Russell said of the lone conversation he had with Chamberlain about the difference in their careers. “[Wilt] said that [Russell having better teammates] was not true. Simply because his teammates had to feed him and I fed my teammates.”
From 1959-69, Russell and Chamberlain played against each other in 94 regular-season games. Neither was a particularly great free throw shooter, with Russell’s 54.2 percent nudging out Chamberlain’s 49.3 percent. Chamberlain had the edge in rebounding over Russell, who is widely considered the greatest defensive big man to ever live, 28.2 to 22.9. And Chamberlain more than doubled Russell in points per game, 29.9 to 14.2.
Chamberlain’s teams, however? They won only 37 of the 94 matchups, with the win-loss ratio slightly tighter in the playoffs. Chamberlain, again, held the advantage in points, rebounds and field goal percentage. But it was again Russell who walked away victorious in 29 of those 49 postseason matchups. A final tally: Russell’s Celtics defeated Chamberlain’s Warriors, 76ers and Lakers in 86 of 143 matchups (60 percent). Chamberlain and Russell played each other in eight different playoff series. Russell won seven of those eight series.
This is why watching James this postseason has been particularly astounding. In the first round vs. Indiana, the second round vs. Toronto and the Eastern Conference finals vs. Boston, James’ opponents had the better team. Cleveland just had the best player.
But no team in James’ first-ballot Hall of Fame career has tested the limits of his genius quite like the opponent he’s down 0-2 to right now. His virtuoso 51-8-8 performance that ended in a Game 1 loss felt very Wilt-esque. When Chamberlain snagged a still-record 55 rebounds in November 1960, he did so against Russell and the Celtics. But Wilt did so in a loss.
Although LeBron and the Golden State Warriors haven’t been attached at the hip his entire career in the way Chamberlain was to Russell and the Celtics, the history is peppered with special moments. In December 2012, the Warriors (with a then-rookie Draymond Green) shocked the defending champion Miami Heat at home. A month later, LeBron returned the favor in Oakland, becoming the youngest player to score 20,000 career points in the process.
A year later in January 2014, Steph Curry’s 36 points again led to another South Beach loss for the defending champion Heat. And right before heading into that year’s All-Star break, LeBron outdueled Steph (29 points and seven assists) with his own near triple-double of 36 points, 13 rebounds, 9 assists and the game-winning 3 in Oakland. It ranks as the first classic duel between the two multiple MVPs — though the Bay Area monster hadn’t yet graduated into its current mutation. After that game, LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Curry had an always fascinating battle of “black men attempting to out-compliment the other.”
The past four Junes speak for themselves. The Cavs and Warriors are the only teams to ever play each other for the championship four consecutive times in any major American sport. Golden State has won two of three, invited former MVP Kevin Durant into the fold and, if they take care of business this week, could be returning to Oakland this weekend with their third title in four years — and Curry’s first career Finals MVP award.
The Cavaliers return to Cleveland in a series that should be tied. And beating Golden State four out of the next five games is a pipe dream. It’s James, the best player (like Wilt), against the unquestioned best team in the league for almost the last half decade (like Russell and the Celtics). Difficult takes a day and impossible takes a week. James, in most cases, makes impossible look like a random Tuesday. But the weight of that responsibility became crystal clear in one clip — when LeBron found out the Cavs still had timeouts left at the end of regulation in Game 1.
Love or loathe LeBron, the exasperation was uncomfortable to watch. He, more than anyone around the league, understands the value of getting any added advantage on the Warriors. They’re a python, smothering teams with ball movement, quick hands on defense and a steady stream of 3s. Every now and then, though, the Warriors will slip up, allowing a team to escape the constriction of their reptilian play. James knew this was the game. The entire world knew it too.
And Cleveland blew it with blunders both beyond their control and well within it. It’s how Chamberlain felt against the Celtics. Four Chamberlain vs. Russell series went to Game 7. Russell and Boston won all four — by a total of nine points. Russell is a perfect 10-0 in Game 7s in his iconic career.
Role players traditionally play better at home. But if Cleveland is to at least make it a series, LeBron knows just what Russell and Chamberlain knew — that record-breaking stats mean nothing in the heat of the moment. And that no player has ever won a title without a team effort.
On Wednesday night, Cleveland will play like its season hangs in the balance — because it does. And Golden State will enter Quicken Loans Arena knowing it can inflict a body blow that would, effectively, leave LeBron down for the count. So either the Cavaliers make adjustments to their rotations and defensive schemes and find a better clip from 3-point range or the Warriors make it back to the Bay Area, trophy in tow, without having to cancel Saturday brunch plans.