James wrapped his arm around Irving and simply said: “We’ll be back, me and you. We’ll be back.”
James had just become the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the NBA Finals after scoring 41 points with 13 rebounds and eight assists in Game 5 on Monday night. James ended the series averaging 33.6 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists but took the fifth Finals loss of his career as the Golden State Warriors clinched the title with a 129-120 victory.
“I left everything on the floor every game, all five games,” James said. “So for me personally, 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.”
James seemed to be at peace with the fate of this Cavs team since their narrow Game 3 loss to the Warriors last week, which put them in an unrecoverable 0-3 hole in the best-of-seven series. He finished strongly, though, putting up an NBA record third triple-double in an elimination game in Game 4 to force the series back to Oracle Arena. Then he had game-highs in points and rebounds as his team fell Monday.
“It would be the same if you feel like you [had the best accomplishment] of you your life and somebody picked another one over you,” James said.
“How would you feel? You know, so you wouldn’t hold your head down, but you would be like, ‘OK, it’s just not my time.’ So Golden State is a worthy opponent, obviously been the best team in our league for the last three years, the best team this year, and they showcased that throughout the postseason, and we were another opponent in their way.”
James stopped short of calling this his finest performance in his extensive Finals career. He averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists in the Cavs seven-game series win over the Warriors in 2016, finishing it with three of the greatest games of his career in succession.
He averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and seven assists in 2013, another year he won the Finals with a command performance in a Game 7, that time with the Miami Heat. Before this series, his best performance in a series defeat was probably from the 2009 Eastern Conference finals, when the Cavs lost to the Orlando Magic in six games despite James averaging 38.5 points, 8 rebounds and 8.3 assists.
That Magic series was the last time James’ teams did not win at least one road game in a series. That streak ended at 29 consecutive series, the longest run in NBA history, with the Game 5 loss.
“I don’t know,” James said when asked to try to put his performance in context. “This is my eighth trip to the Finals, and I’ve had some pretty good ones in my day.”
There were questions at times in the series where James ranked relative to Kevin Durant, who was named the unanimous Finals MVP after finishing off the Cavs with a 39-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance in the clincher.
But James’ numbers made his efforts, even in defeat, historic. And, it would seem, pushed off that topic for at least another year. At least within his own locker room.
“I couldn’t be more proud of that guy,” said Irving, who had 26 points in the loss. “He left it all out there on that floor. And to average a triple-double in the freaking Finals, man, add that to the LeBron long list that everyone keeps forgetting.”