Cavaliers F Kevin Love to rest his surgically repaired left foot against Detroit
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.
OAKLAND, California — And when it comes to the game, I’m willing to play harder / So harder I go, there he go / They chant M-V-P when I shoot a free throw! This is a decade-old bar spit by a still-in-his-prime Lil Wayne. It appeared on 2008’s “Ransom,” one of the first songs from a then new rapper named Drake. On his feature verse, Wayne raps about one of the greatest spectacles in the NBA: the moment when a team’s best player gets fouled, toes the free throw line and gets serenaded with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” while preparing to shoot.
A moment like this came to life in Game 2 of the 2018 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. But it was unlike what you’d expect. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green — none of them got the loud MVP refrains inside their home venue, Oracle Arena. Instead, Cavs shooting guard J.R. Smith became the focal point of the crowd. The shouts, however, weren’t those of praise.
Raucous Golden State fans made a mockery of Smith in the first quarter, after he scored a bucket, drew the foul and went to the charity stripe for a chance at an old-fashioned three-point play. Trolling ensued as a result of his mental miscue — being unaware of the score in the final moments of Game 1 — which cost his team a chance to steal the series opener on the road. There’s little doubt the way Game 1 ended sucked the life out of Cleveland — and especially Smith.
MVP chants for J.R. Smith at the foul line pic.twitter.com/xp9a4rgOx4
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) June 4, 2018
“Terrible,” said Smith of his performance in his team’s 122-103 Game 2 loss. In 31 minutes on the floor, he only shot 2-for-9 from the field and 1-for-4 from 3, with just five points, as the only Cavs starter who failed to score in double-digits. Even before the sarcastic MVP chants, Warriors spectators tactically attempted to get inside of the embattled Smith’s head, delivering a petty standing ovation during the announcement of the game’s starting lineups, while LeBron James whispered in his teammate’s ear, presumably telling him to block out the noise and just play pall. “I’m always a person who the fans like to talk to or heckle,” he said. “I like it. I’d rather them do that than not acknowledge me at all. I appreciate it.”
On the other end of the court, Stephen Curry, Golden State’s two-time league MVP, couldn’t miss. He dropped 33 points on 11-for-26 from the field, and an NBA Finals-record nine made 3-pointers. “If he takes 17 of them thangs, you know he’s going to hit some shots,” said Cavs point guard George Hill. “You just gotta continue to pray to the basketball gods, do what you can, challenging all shots, and don’t let him get them easy ones.”
The thing is, Curry even made the impossible ones. That’s the type of night it was for him. Early in the fourth quarter, as Golden State’s shot clock ferociously ticked down, the skilled point guard gravitated further and further away from the basket, placing Cavs forward Kevin Love by his lonesome out on Curry island. Love had seen a play like this unfold before — most notably during Game 7 between the Cavs and Warriors of the 2016 NBA Finals, when he made a crucial defensive stop that would allow Cleveland to hold on and claim the franchise’s first championship. In the Game 2 one-on-one matchup with Love, Curry flicked up an unfathomable 31-footer, and his off-balance prayer was somehow answered.
“No matter where you are on the floor, especially past halfcourt on their side, he always has a chance to make a miraculous shot,” Love said. “We made a gamble and he hit a shot from about … it seemed like 35 feet out there. So I felt like it was well contested. We played 23.5 good seconds of defense, and he turned around and hit a moon ball.”
The Curry Effect even left the court, and trickled its way into Cleveland’s tense postgame locker room. At the end of Game 1, Cavs big man Tristan Thompson got into it with Warriors players Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green — altercations that led to a flagrant foul call, immediate ejection and $25,000 fine. Following Game 2, Thompson got into it with a reporter, who posed the question: When Curry goes on a roll like that, do you feel a sense of helplessness out there when you can’t defend him?
“No. The fuck? No … ,” Thompson responded. “When I’m switching on him, I’m guarding him … I am never helpless with no guy in the NBA … Fucked up. Next question.” But the interview ended there, with Thompson grabbing his bag, parting the Red Sea of the scrum and leaving the locker room.
Down the arena’s hall in the press room, LeBron James — as he’s been required to do on this stage so many times before — had to maintain hope, as he spoke for not only himself, but also his entire team. During the 2015 Finals, when the Cavs went down 3-2 in the series against the Warriors, James delivered the brashest response to a question about a loss in his career.
“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” James said after Game 5 in 2015. “It’s simple.” This time, after falling to 0-2 in the Finals to Golden State for the third-straight year, his mood was starkly different.
LeBron James: “It sucks to lose … but I’ll never lose my love of the game.” pic.twitter.com/2eRBbH7JQ8
— The Athletic (@TheAthleticSF) June 4, 2018
“It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have,” said James, his left sclera still bloodshot from being poked in the eye in the series opener, “and you prep, and your mind is in it, and your body is it it, and you come out on the losing end.” Barely anything went right for the Cavs in these first two games — but if there’s one thing that’s gone unscathed, it’s the hope of LeBron James.
“I mean, it sucks to lose, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it definitely won’t stop me from preparing to be better the next day.”
OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — “Are you surprised to be here?”
As reporters filed onto the hardwood at Oracle Arena, approximately 30 hours before tipoff of Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals, almost every player donning a Cleveland Cavaliers practice jersey fielded some form of the above question. Implication being: If your name isn’t LeBron James, who’s rightfully credited for carrying the Cavs back to basketball’s biggest stage, you should be surprised.
They’re a motley crew, but they’re here. The starting five includes the seasoned George Hill, who was selected 26th overall in the 2008 draft. There’s also of course the swaggy J.R. Smith, an NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2013. Toronto’s very own Tristan Thompson, who’s perhaps too well-known for his relationship with Khloe Kardashian. And the five-time All-Star, yet injury-riddled, Kevin Love. This group is flanked by Meridian, Mississippi, native Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, the fiery 2014 second-round pick out of the University of Missouri, and Jeff Green, who went through open heart surgery in January 2012 while a member of the Boston Celtics.
They’ve all heard all the noise about the King’s so-called lack of help from them this postseason. But when the question was posed — Are you surprised to be here? — Hood took still took a long pause before arriving at a calculated answer.
“Because I’m playing with LeBron … no,” said Hood, whom Cleveland acquired as part of a blockbuster day of deals at February’s trade deadline. On that day, the Cavs also landed Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Los Angeles Lakers, and George Hill from the Sacramento Kings, while moving on from All-Star veterans Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade, as well as roleplayers Jae Crowder, Channing Frye and Iman Shumpert. “LeBron,” Hood continued, “he runs the East. He’s going to get to the Finals.”
This has been the narrative. That James has gotten Cleveland to the final series of the 2018 season, and has done so essentially single-handedly. Just look at the numbers: James’ 612 playoff points —an average of 34.0 points per game, with seven 40-plus-point performances and two game-winning shots — are the most by any player in a single postseason before a Finals in NBA history. Aside from James, there’s just one more Cavs player — Love, the team’s only other All-Star — averaging double-digit points. Fellow Cavs Hill and Kyle Korver are just shy of the mark with averages of 9.7 and 9.8 points per game, respectively. And not until the Eastern Conference semifinals — eight games, and two series, into Cleveland’s postseason run — did one of James’ teammates score 20 or more points. It was J.R. Smith, with 20 in a 113-112 overtime Game 1 win over the Toronto Raptors on May 1.
“Sometimes you catch yourself watching [LeBron] in the game … He’s making play after play after play, scoring buckets,” Clarkson said. “And you forget that he’s a human being. He gets tired like the rest of us. So we’re trying to do our jobs — and do it the best we can.”
James hasn’t been in this position for quite some time. The group of Cavs he leads into the 2018 Finals is a far cry from the championship-contending rosters of his days as part of the Miami Heat’s Big 3, with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, from 2010 to 2014. This team also pales in comparison to the one that overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Warriors in 2016 to bring the city of Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. And even last year’s squad, which fell in the Finals to Golden State, 4-1, had Kyrie Irving, who was traded to the Boston Celtics last offseason. There’s little doubt that is the least heralded supporting cast James has reached the Finals with since his first trip in 2007. So how did Cleveland even get there? That’s simple. On the back of their leader — though he doesn’t want all the credit.
“I know I get a lot of the headlines,” said James in a heartfelt interview during the Eastern Conference finals trophy presentation. “Win, lose or draw, whatever the case may be, but in order to be successful, it’s a team game … You get all the doubters and people who’ve never stepped into an arena, who’ve never played basketball, who’ve never put on a tank top and shorts, who’ve never played anything organized — [they] always wanna try to kill my teammates. And it’s unfair to them, but I’m always gonna stay true to the game of basketball because the game of basketball always stayed true to me. That’s why we’re going to another Finals, because of my teammates.”
“It’s dope to hear your leader commend you on how you’ve been doing,” said Clarkson of the moment. “People bash us all the time. It is what it is. But we’re out here competing, lacing them up every day just like everybody else. Shoot, if people got something to say, they can lace ‘em up with us, get on the court and see what’s happening with us.
Even the Golden State Warriors — from their star player up to the team’s front office — have been called upon to weigh in about the prospect of the Cavs as a one-man team. “I hate when people say that,” said Stephen Curry before Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals. Warriors general manager Bob Myers spoke about it, too. “Any team that’s here deserves to be here,” Myers said before Game 1 of the Finals. “I don’t view it as any type of one-man show. The Cavs are a very good team.” Yet the players surrounding the best hooper on the planet have also had to defend themselves. When the questions were hurled at Hill, he didn’t sugarcoat his feelings.
“He feels for us, night in and night out,” Hill said. “No one gives the supporting cast credit, because you may go 2-for-5 and only have four points. But no one sees you playing defense, no one sees guys coming in for six minutes, and playing a hard six minutes. No one sees the guy that may only play three minutes but had a big stop and dove on the floor and got a charge. All those possessions matter. All those little things matter. If he’s out there by himself, he wouldn’t be in the position he is…I’m sure he’s tired of people throwing shots at his teammates, just like I’m sure we’re tired of people throwing shots at us.”
After Hill and the Cavs wrapped up interviews, Cleveland took the court at Oracle for one of their final pre-Finals practices. Head coach Tyronn Lue brought his team into the middle of the floor, while James spent a few moments alone, getting up extra shots from the 3-point line. Soon he’d join the scrum, and each player and coach raised a hand. In unison, on the count of three, they all recited one word: “Together.”
But the allure of the game, keeps calling your name …
— Jay-Z, “Allure” (2003)
There’s a scene in 1992’s Juice that aces the test of time. Not the one where Bishop (played by the late Tupac Shakur) and Q (played by Omar Epps) are by their lockers in the iconic “I am crazy … but I don’t give a f—” scene. This one is earlier in the movie, when Bishop steps to Q about gaining the all-important juice. “You gotta snatch some collars and let them m—–f—–s know you gotta take them out any time you feel like it,” Bishop commands. “You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, partner. Get the wind behind your back and go out in a blaze if you got to.” Name a better description of the 2018 Eastern Conference and Western Conference finals. Better yet, name a better description for any Game 7.
In the second quarter of Saturday’s Rockets vs. Warriors Game 6, Drake, one day out from his release of the laser-guided missile “Duppy Freestyle,” at the rapper Pusha T, released a new single called “I’m Upset.” That same night, Draymond Green sported the black satin Scorpion jacket Drake unveiled on Instagram last month. Coincidence? Probably not. Scorpion is the name of Drake’s forthcoming album, set for release next month.
In any case, the title reflected the Warriors’ mood. Backs against the wall, the defending champions responded with a classic Bay Area onslaught. They used a 29-22 second quarter to fuel a run that eventually led to a 115-86 victory and forced a Game 7 in Houston on Monday night. The NBA, the most dramatic league in American sports right now, will play two Game 7s in 24 hours. It’s the first time it’s happened since 1979, when the Washington Bullets defeated the San Antonio Spurs and the Seattle SuperSonics got edged by the Phoenix Suns.
Win, lose, blowout or close game, the fascination around Game 7s remains steadfast. There’s the ultimate sense of finality. The poetic desperation that rides with every bucket. Agony and jubilation with each turnover. Role players become legends. Superstars become demigods or demons. No one leaves Game 7 the same person they were before the tip. Not the fans, not the coaching staff and certainly not the players. There’s always a certain amount of basketball soul left on the court.
And these two Game 7s? The greatest player in the game is on the road. The greatest team, too. The league’s best team recordwise is hellbent on reversing a conference curse. And the last team to beat LeBron James in the playoffs wants to put another trophy behind. Every team in the conference finals has got some serious soul on the court this year.
Under head coach Brad Stevens, dubbed heir apparent to the coaching thrones occupied by Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich, this is Boston’s best opportunity to advance to the Finals since the days of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. It’s also the chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been done by an Eastern Conference team since those Garnett-era Celtics defeated LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers 2,937 days ago.
Recent history also works in Boston’s favor. No home team has lost in this series, and the Celtics are at home. Of the four teams left, Boston’s playing with the most house money. If the Celtics lose, the result will be heartbreaking — but only in the moment. Boston’s peak has yet to be reached. They’re a team full of high-quality role players, uber-talented rookies, a world champion point guard, a swingman whose been sidelined all season and a team poised to dominate the East whenever LeBron sees fit to fall back. Whenever that may be.
Will the Rockets regret not sealing the deal in Game 6, when they controlled the game for a half? Will Chris Paul be available for Game 7? The answers are “we’re about to find out,” and “they better hope so.” Think back to a few years ago, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens were the perennial matchup in sports. The Seattle Seahawks and Colin Kaepernick-era San Francisco 49ers are another example. Both were heavyweight prize fights for bragging rights, and the winning teams were roadblocks to the other’s immortality. Warriors vs. Rockets doesn’t present near the physicality the other two rivalries headlined, but what it lacks in violence it doubles in poetic desperation.
Game 4 was the moment that kept them alive. Game 7 is the moment that could make this Houston team legendary. Golden State, by most metrics, is Mike Tyson on the iconic ‘90s video game Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! The final boss that’s so good, so unrelenting that even if a team is lucky enough to steal a round, the final result remains the same. The Rockets stand on unprecedented territory. They’ve stolen three rounds (games) in their clash with Golden State. They’ve got this iteration of the Kevin Durant-era Warriors on the ropes to the point where they actually appear vulnerable.
But the truth is, Houston should’ve closed out the series Saturday night — never give a fighter a chance to throw one last haymaker. But Monday night the Rockets have the Warriors in their house. James Harden, Chris Paul (maybe?) and company have the chance to slay a Goliath that’s held a sleeper hold on basketball for nearly the past two years. If Golden State wins, though? We’re also going to be presented with one of the all-time great What If’s in sports history.
What if Chris Paul never gets hurt? It’s a conundrum that could very well rewrite basketball narratives moving forward. Paul was a leading figure in Houston’s transformative victories in Games 4 and 5. His absence showed in Game 6, as Houston committed turnover after turnover. Hamstring injuries are difficult to predict, so it’s almost impossible to forecast CP3’s availability for a game that will decide Houston’s place in basketball history. Do the Rockets become just another doormat, in the vein of the Indiana Pacers to the LeBron-led Miami Heat, the Sacramento Kings to the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks to the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls? Or are they the key that cracks basketball’s most difficult code?
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are Deebo from Friday. In particular, Deebo before he caught the brick to the face. Golden State, in the Kevin Durant era, has yet to catch a brick to the face. The Warriors have dominated basketball since the 2014-15 season with a gluttonous display of ball sharing, offensive onslaughts and free-agent acquisitions that have crippled an entire league.
The fact remains, though, the Warriors are on the brink of having that invincibility shattered. It’s Golden State’s third Game 7 in this era. The first two? A victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, led then by Durant and Russell Westbrook. And a dramatic Game 7 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. Both of the games were in Oakland. The level of difficulty increases tenfold on the road. The rims are a little stiffer. The lights a lot brighter. The crowd is bloodthirsty.
If any team left is built for a moment like this, it’s the Warriors — who have proven time and again that no challenge is too great. Part of what makes great teams great is the ability to walk into any arena feeling up 15 on an opponent. That’s who the Warriors are. Their place in basketball history is already solidified. But how does one of the all-time dominant teams in any major American sport keep that same energy? How do they react when it’s, damn near literally, them against the world? What intangibles does Draymond Green bring? Can Klay Thompson remix his virtuoso Game 6 performance? Will Stephen Curry unleash some hell and toss the Warriors on his back? And will Kevin Durant snap out of three consecutive poor shooting games and again prove himself to be one of the two best players in the world? We’ll learn shortly whether Deebo catches that brick.
No one in basketball — no one in sports, really — does drama quite like LeBron James. His 15th season is already documented as his finest. He’s a physical and statistical anomaly if one ever existed. What James has done this postseason — the game-winners, the 40-point games, the Toronto baptism and overall sheer dominance — is nothing short of spectacular. But does even James, the poster child for fitness and longevity in the NBA, have the energy left to lead this Cavaliers squad back to the Finals for a fourth straight year (and ‘Bron’s eighth straight)?
On the surface, this moment seems too daunting for even LeBron. Kevin Love is out for Game 7 (concussion protocol). Tonight has all the makings of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in Game 7 versus the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. A game in which Jordan stood no chance, given the fact that Scottie Pippen was derailed by migraines. But, like Jordan, if any player has proved capable of making the impossible seem routine, it’s James.
And now the NBA’s premier megastar is in a must-win on the road. King James has to play for his team’s life when Cleveland’s second-best player just might be 37-year-old Kyle Korver. Boston is the better squad. Cleveland just happens to have the best player on the court. A man whose legacy in Game 7s is already cemented with career averages in the most pressure-packed game in sports: 35 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in seven games.
Win, he advances to the Finals, where a Western Conference juggernaut awaits. Lose, and the third (and presumed final) chapter of his career begins. Somehow, though, it feels like tonight’s Sisyphean task was LeBron’s only option. He’s played 11 historic, and at times contentious, seasons in Cleveland. Only two options seem realistic for James, who is so routinely dominant that it’s fooled many into believing his talent is as common to life on Earth as morning traffic. One, his Thanos-like run continues behind another iconic performance inside the arena he’s seen both heaven and hell in. Or, two, he goes out —metaphorically of course — like Cleo at the end of Set It Off. A blaze of glory. LeBron, and all of us, really, wouldn’t have it any other way.
On Feb. 1, 2017, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Josh Huestis began sharing his innermost thoughts with the world. He started his blog, Through the Lens and began writing about an array of topics – life, growing up in Montana, the last game of his college career, marriage and depression. Inspired by Kevin Durant and DeMar DeRozan, who recently revealed their struggles with anxiety and depression, the 26-year-old decided to share his story. A solid basketball career at Stanford University led him to the spotlight. He was drafted 29th in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Out of the 69 games Huestis played this season, he started in 10.
Huestis talked to The Undefeated about his balancing act, marriage, basketball and his own mental wellness.
My mom is a psychotherapist, so I always was pretty well-educated and understood mental health and its impact on people. Then I studied psychology in college because of the fact that I wanted to follow in her footsteps. Mental health – one of the things I dealt with in my life, I wanted to learn more about that.
Over the last few months, mental illness has become less stigmatized with Kevin Love and DeMar [DeRozan] coming out and talking about their struggles. I just thought it was important to add to that. It is changing into a positive direction – the exposure is.
For most of my life I’ve had certain issues. The earliest memories I have when it became more of an issue for me was probably like my freshman or my sophomore year in high school. I just remember I became obsessed with trying to understand what the point and what the meaning of life was, like an existential search. I remember multiple times a week going to bookstores, trying to find books that could help me understand what the point of life was. I just felt kind of lost and empty, like everything I was doing didn’t have a whole lot of meaning. So I was trying to find answers from 15 years old.
My bouts with depression used to be heavy. As I’ve gotten older and I’ve talked to people, they’ve gotten more mild.
My first couple of years in the NBA as well as my years in college, they got very heavy and took me to some low lows. It became really tough. There were many times where I questioned myself. Many times I can remember when I really didn’t want to continue and the idea of giving up crossed my mind on definitely more than one occasion.
I think a major issue that I have and a lot of professional athletes and a lot of people have is that my whole life I have been categorized as basketball player and that has been how I identified my self-worth. My self-worth has been wrapped up in my existence as an athlete, as a basketball player. There have been so many times that my struggles on the basketball court caused it be a lot harder. I’m sure a lot of players can agree that after a bad game you walk off the court and your self-worth just drops dramatically and it’s not a healthy thing because everybody has bad games. I was kind of on this wild up-and-down thing where I played well and I loved myself and I felt great and when I played badly I hated myself and I felt worthless and I wanted to give up.
For the past few years I was bad at combating those feelings. I would internalize. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I’m not naturally someone who is good at talking about my feelings and my struggles because I didn’t want pity and I didn’t want to be judged by people or people to feel sorry for me. That’s the last thing that I wanted. But as I got older and I’ve seen more people dealing with it, I recognize that a lot of people do deal with it and it’s OK to talk about it.
I got married in August and having my wife [Haley] to talk to every day and someone who is with me every day, someone who loves me regardless if I never play another game in the NBA. I work with a psychologist, someone who I can talk to about basketball and about life and helps me deal with the perspectives and helps me deal with the ups and downs that go with this depression.
I think in communities of color there is this idea that you handle things in-house. Whatever you deal with, you deal with yourself. You just get it done – the independence. You don’t ask for help with things like that. You handle them within yourself. You don’t bother others with it. You just put your nose to the grindstone mentality and you just get it figured out on your own. I think that’s a major problem. I think everybody needs help. And I think with myself and high-profile guys talking about it helps. On the outside looking in, you see these guys having everything they could ever want. They have money in excess and they still struggle. You see someone like that ask for help, then it’s OK for the rest of us to ask for help too. I think it goes even to another level when you talk about men. For instance, there is this whole thing about “be a man” or “man up” mentality. I think men are just taught to internalize and don’t ask for help and to always be tough and always be OK. That needs to be changed. That needs to be fixed.
I want to become more familiar because it could be beneficial to myself and beneficial to others. I think that’s a huge thing. Within the Thunder organization, they make sure we have what we need as far as mental support.
The hardest part is job security. Now that I’ve gotten married, I’ve got family that I want to support. A goal of mine is to always be able to provide for them and give to them and give them everything they need, so that adds an extra layer of stress because I don’t want to lose the ability to do that and having basketball as a method to make money is great and the best job in the world. It’s the stress of the chance of losing that. That stress has been tough and if we work our whole lives to get to this level and the idea of it coming to end or if we feel we’re losing a grip on things can feel like failure or you’re letting your family or your hometown people down. For me that’s been the hardest thing. Carrying the weights of expectations from others and the weights of being able to provide for my family.
I started my blog because I just got to the point where I wanted to open up and be real about my life – not only the good in it, but the struggles. I recognize that there’s a lot of people out there struggling with stuff and there are a lot of people going through things where they feel like it’s not OK and you can’t talk to anybody about it. I wanted to show that someone in my position, a lot of people may look at me and think I’m enjoying my life, I’m making a lot of money and I’m living my dream in what millions and millions people want to be a part of, but I still have that struggle. I wanted to shed light to show everyone has struggles and you’re not alone.
Exposure and just removing the stigma of mental illness is a huge step that needs to be taken and I think once we do that, it’s going to help so many people.
The first thing I would say to others if they ever seek my advice is there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong you. It’s OK to not be OK. Talk to somebody. Open up. Find someone you trust that you can talk to. Just verbalizing what’s on your mind can help so much. Don’t try internalize it, because that makes it worse.