CLEVELAND — As one party began, another ended.
Resigned but at peace, his head held high, The King left the building Friday — perhaps for the final time in home threads.
Swiftly and soundly, after three games of spiritedly pushing a boulder uphill against the indomitable Golden State Warriors, a Cleveland team accepting of its fate tumbled down the mountain, confirming once and for all LeBron James now must seek greener courts elsewhere.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James shoots over Golden State Warriors guard Nick Young on Friday's Game 4 in Cleveland.
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The scene was fitting to the end.
Surrounded by George MoleHill (3 points on 1 for 7 shooting) and a cast of flotsam that for old times’ sake played small when the moment was big, James delivered the world in these NBA Finals, averaging 34 points and a near-triple double despite revealing he played the final three games with a self-inflicted broken hand.
And it wasn’t close to enough.
The Warriors completed the sweep with a 108-85 victory on a night that had all the atmosphere of a mortuary. It was only in the final minutes that Quicken Loans Arena came to life, stirred to a salute that resembled a beloved college senior coming off the court on Senior Night.
When James checked out with 4 minutes, 3 seconds left, the two-thirds left in attendance rose and cheered, then serenaded James with a minute-long chant.
MVP! MVP! MVP!
With a towel draped on his shoulders, he spent the rest of the night as a spectator before exiting stage right to the locker room in the final seconds, uninterested in watching the Warriors celebrate their second consecutive title.
Only James knows what come next.
Maybe The Decision Part III will transcend basketball and he stays. Maybe his heart is at home and he wants to watch his sons — 13-year-old LeBron, Jr. and 11-year-old Bryce — play on the high school court named after him at his Akron alma mater.
“My family is a huge part of whatever I'll decide to do,” James said afterward.
But if this is a basketball decision, barring a full-scale remodeling in Cleveland, he has to go.
The hometown son all but confirmed his regrettable reality, recalling the last time he left here in 2010.
“My first stint here, I just didn’t have the level of talent to compete against the best teams in the NBA, let alone just Boston,” James said. “When you looked at Rondo and KG and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, you knew they were great basketball players. But not only great basketball players, you could see their minds were in it, too. They were calling out sets. Rondo was calling out sets every time you come down.
“Not only do you have to have the talent, you have to have the minds as well. I knew that my talent level here in Cleveland couldn’t succeed getting past a Boston, getting past a San Antonio.”
And so he went to Miami.
Eight years later but with the title he vowed to deliver Cleveland in his pocket, he confronts a similar crossroads, the result of an owner equal parts hubristic and clueless and the most unforeseen dynasty in modern sports history.
The Cavs could have survived one or the other.
Despite a continuation of the very organizational incompetence that allowed them to entice James back in 2014 — recall the three No. 1 picks in four years — this Cleveland team could have won the title many other years. James is playing that well.
But couple Dan Gilbert’s uncanny inability to get out of his own way and a towering foil out west, and the yellow-bricked road no longer runs through Cleveland.
When Kevin Durant joined the 73-win Warriors after the 2016 season, the calculus changed. James must now decide where the forces can best align to vanquish the death star.
“Everyone is trying to figure that out,” he said. “How do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?”
So where to? Here’s our early guess:
Cavs: Hey, moving is no fun. Chances: 30 percent.
Rockets: If winning is James’ sole priority, it’s hard to beat joining soon-to-be MVP (LOL!) James Harden and best friend Chris Paul. But good luck keeping three playmaking stars happy. Chances: 25 percent.
Lakers: James just bought a $23 million house in LA. The Lakers have $62 million in cap space. Add it up, and LeBron to Tinseltown is a real possibility. Chances: 20 percent.
Sixers: The path of least resistance to the finals remains in the East, and while Boston would be his best pure basketball option, Philly is the more realistic one. With the Cavs’ body still warm Friday, Sixers big man Joel Embiid tweeted: “Trust The Process!!!! Find a new slant @KingJames.” I just don’t love the fit, though. For all of Ben Simmons’ gifts, James needs to be surrounded by shooters, not a ball-dominant point guard who couldn’t throw a ball into the lake. Chances: 15 percent.
Spurs: What if James — like Jordan and Magic and Russell — ever played for an all-time coach? A pairing with five-time champion Gregg Popovich would answer the all-time question. Chances: 10 percent.
Warriors: When Golden State blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 finals, the first instinct of Draymond Green was not to tip his cap to Cleveland and get back to work. It was to buy the cheat code. From the Oracle Arena parking lot, he called Durant — who old timers might have thought would want to beat Golden State after his Thunder team gagged on a 3-1 lead of its own in the Western Conference finals — imploring him to join them. Might the Warriors similarly beg James to assure a less competitive sweep in next year’s finals? Chances: 0 percent.
Let the sweepstakes begin. The King has left the building.
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