The Warriors won, but LeBron James remains undefeated

OAKLAND, Calif. — The 2017 NBA Finals often looked like the coronation of a champion that had been determined last July. The Golden State Warriors made good on the promise of adding Kevin Durant and then some, finishing with the NBA’s best record for the third straight season and falling one game short of a perfect postseason. Their clinching victory in Monday night’s Game 5 at Oracle Arena emphasized much of what makes them great — Durant’s scoring mastery, the versatility of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, Stephen Curry’s ever-present shooting threat, and especially the totality of it all. They were as formidable, and inevitable, as everyone feared.

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LeBron James and his teammates could be forgiven for wondering what the Warriors’ excellence means for their future. While the Cavaliers grew stronger as the series went on and very well could have entered Monday tied at 2-2 if not for a poor finish to Game 3, a five-game elimination makes an argument all by itself. The Cavs remain the class of the Eastern Conference by some distance, but Durant and the Warriors present a challenge unlike any other. In another dimension, the Cavs could be celebrating their third championships in a row. As is, they may have to settle for one especially dramatic comeback from a 3-1 deficit in 2016. It would remain one of the greatest accomplishments in NBA history, though an outlier all the more remarkable for all the other times Cleveland couldn’t beat the favorites.

If LeBron felt that historical weight in the aftermath of Monday’s season-ending loss, then he didn’t show it. In fact, he saw this series as something of a personal accomplishment.

LeBron James became the first player to average a triple-double in the NBA Finals. (AP)

“I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” he said. “So for me personally I have nothing to be — I have no reason to put my head down. I have no reason to look back at what I could have done or what I shouldn’t have done or what I could have done better for the team. I left everything I had out on the floor every single game for five games in this Finals, and you come up short.”

Only the most extreme James haters could argue against his greatness. Although he ultimately came up three wins short of his fourth championship, LeBron’s statistics add up to one of the greatest individual performances in NBA Finals history. His per-game numbers — 33.6 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists — constitute the first triple-double average in Finals history, and he did it all while shooting 56.4 percent from the field and checking Durant or some other All-Star on the vast majority of defensive possessions. KD was a no-doubt series MVP, but take away the win-loss record and there’s little question LeBron was the best player in the series. After two series-opening losses in which he looked like a peripheral figure, James certainly left his imprint on the matchup.

Nevertheless, basketball standards dictate that a defeated superstar must engage in some amount of self-blame. LeBron has never stuck to that template, and that’s often made him a target for criticism. But after this loss, against a team considered so much better than the opposition for nearly a full year, his self-assured mindset came across as not just measured in the face of disappointment, but downright well-adjusted.

“I put in the work individually, in the film room, in my mind, my body every single day to prepare myself for whatever obstacle that this ball club entails,” he said. “Like I’ve always told myself, if you feel like you put in the work and you leave it out on the floor, then you can always push forward and not look backwards.”

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There was a time when valuing that process over uncertain results would have convinced a fair number of people that James lacked a winner’s mentality. Thankfully, last season’s unlikely title and his unreal performances in a dozen straight elimination games have put that argument to bed. LeBron is as fierce a competitor as anyone, but he also doesn’t see losing as a black mark on whatever came before it. The point is not just that good processes will usually lead to positive outcomes, but that the outcome itself will depend on many forces outside of his control. He can focus only on what’s within his power.

Of course, LeBron James wields more power than any player in NBA history. His suggestions and desires mean something to the Cavs’ front office, and it’s a fair bet he’ll voice them again this summer.

“I need to sit down and figure this thing out,” he said. “But as far as that team, they’re going to be here for a while. They’re going to be around for a while.”

The Cavs’ play over the last three games suggests they’re not too far off the Warriors’ pace. While the 32-year-old LeBron is ostensibly heading out of his prime and many of Golden State’s best players look smack in the middle of theirs, the impacts of various role players and the vagaries of injuries could open up plenty of opportunity for the Cavaliers in future seasons. There’s no guarantee that the Warriors will be able to bring back free agents Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston this offseason, and the Cavs looked like their equals (at worst) whenever Zaza Pachulia saw significant minutes. Cleveland still needs to figure out a way not to get overwhelmed by the Golden State experience to open a series — a point head coach Tyronn Lue stressed after both Games 1 and 5 — but it finished this series playing good basketball at both ends.

“Not one time did I feel like we were overmatched until probably like I looked up, there was like a minute-20, and we were down 13, I believe, or something at that point,” LeBron said. “And I was like, OK, we left everything on the floor, and it still wasn’t enough.”

This is a team that will not count itself out until a series is lost, even if everyone says they’re done after two games. The Cavs are by no means a perfect team, and their struggles with defensive discipline and consistency throughout the season would have sunk teams without such a high-powered offense. However, LeBron will be the single most effective force in the NBA until proven otherwise. If he’s around, the Cavs have a chance.

“Bron’s been in this league for a while now, and he’s seen every which way from on the court, to off the court, to dealing with [the media], to dealing with the whole world of just choosing a side,” said Kyrie Irving. “Whether you want to believe in him or not, he’s still coming. And that’s the type of guy that I want to be with every single time I’m going to war, because I know what to expect, and you stand your ground, too, with a leader like that.”

That won’t always be enough to win a championship. Yet after so many years at the top of the NBA, LeBron’s willingness to accept defeat without losing confidence looks like another of his unique strengths. At a moment when so many are ready to compare his 3-5 Finals record to Michael Jordan’s 6-0, the Cavaliers’ icon disregards the opposition entirely. Not every series is created equal.

What matters is that he does as much as he possibly can to get to that goal. If he falls short, then it wasn’t meant to be. The Cavaliers will survive this loss and any others that come along. If there’s one certainty in this league, it’s that LeBron will be right there again next year.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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