Young LeBron’s Signature Moment That Never Was
In 2009, an NBA Finals matchup of LeBron vs. Kobe seemed inevitable, until Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic crashed the party and sent a 24-year old LeBron James home early. While columnists and bloggers alike missed an opportunity at the Finals of the Century, fans were also robbed of what could have been not only a defining moment in young LeBron’s career, but also one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA Playoffs history.
Going into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the No. 1 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers had yet to lose a playoff game. They had run through the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks with eight straight double-digit victories, and there was no sign that LeBron could be stopped.
LeBron lifted his game to a new level in that opening Eastern Conference Finals game against the Magic in 2009. Late in the first quarter, LeBron orchestrated a sequence for the ages (beginning at 0:35 in the below video). LeBron pulled away on a fast break and finished with an electrifying one-handed dunk. He then blocked a Dwight Howard dunk attempt on the other side of the court, and finished with a transition three-pointer to seal the moment. Quicken Loans Arena lost its composure, and in that moment LeBron seemed to own not just ‘The Land’, but the World.
In March, Shea Serrano of The Ringer proposed a handful of NBA Playoff moments that changed the course of history, and questioned whether changing these moments was for better or worse. In my opinion, Serrano missed this history-defining series between Cleveland and Orlando.
At the 5:35 mark of the video above, LeBron completes a beautiful and-one at the basket to give the Cavaliers a 106-104 lead with 25.6 seconds left on the clock. If that play ends the game and the Cavaliers had taken Game 1 at home, the course of NBA history may have changed entirely. However, one overpaid forward would not let the game slip away from the Magic. That man was Rashard Lewis.
When Lewis hit the above game-winning shot, he effectively wiped out one of the greatest single-game performances in NBA history. LeBron’s 49 points no longer mattered and the reality of the state of Cavalier basketball sank in: there was no way LeBron could win a championship with Delonte West, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas as his supporting cast. This one three pointer was the beginning of the end of LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland.
In Serrano’s column of hypotheticals, there was one rule: “You can’t mess with championships.” Keeping this in mind, what if we changed the course of history, and Lewis’ shot rimmed out? There are two potential effects of this cause worth considering:
1. It’s certainly possible that a second Finals appearance, regardless of outcome, keeps LeBron in Cleveland. In this scenario, “The Decision” may have never happened, and the general NBA fan would have continued to adore young LeBron. If LeBron never leaves for Miami, Dwyane Wade probably retires as a one-time NBA Champion, and it’s possible that Tim Duncan would have earned a sixth ring. To take it a step further, can LeBron take down the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder team-that featured Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden-without Wade and Chris Bosh? Does a resulting championship keep Harden and Durant in Oklahoma? Oh, the possibilities.
2. NBA nerds would have been blessed with the gift of this generation: a Finals series pitting LeBron James and Kobe Bryant against each other. The series would have turned into a one-on-one battle by the third quarter of Game 1. However, it’s also likely that the Lakers would have swept the Cavaliers without effort, as Cleveland would have had no answer for the front court trio of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum. LeBron would have been stuck playing hero ball in four-straight losses, and that ugly outcome could still have pushed to LeBron to take his talents to South Beach.
The Decision: Would you change the course of history and have the Rashard Lewis’ game-winner rim out? Yes, I’m changing it. The legacy of LeBron would increase tenfold if that shot doesn’t hit. Not only does LeBron’s unheralded, electrifying 49-point performance that night go down in history as one of the great single-game performances in the playoffs, but LeBron would have added a gigantic game-winner to his resume. In addition, a LeBron vs. Kobe NBA Finals series is the one we always deserved but never received.