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Last Night Was Everything Wonderful and Absurd About LeBron James

LeBron James is unimpeachable now, having brought an elusive championship back to his quasi-hometown of Cleveland, in the process embarrassing one of the greatest basketball teams ever, and personally so with one of the most stunning displays of athleticism in the history of the sport. As a result, it can be easy to forget how stupidly controversial LeBron was for a certain period of time, even putting aside (and preceding) his heel turn with the Miami Heat, and talking strictly about what he did on the court. He was pilloried for not playing enough like Michael Jordan (i.e. passing too much), having an inconsistent jumper when he did shoot, not being clutch enough, and getting away with blatant travel calls as he barreled to the hoop. The conversation around LeBron was exhausting, but frequently justified, and also overwhelmed, by his electric brilliance.

All of which is to say that in last night’s win over the Wizards (it was one of the best basketball games we’re likely to see this year) we saw pure, vintage LeBron—the player who drove people mad with love and rage simply for playing the game the way he wanted it to be played. First off, the man totaled a career-high 17 assists. LeBron’s propensity to pass stopped being a bugaboo once he proved that he sees players around him on the court much in the same way Neo looked at a hail of bullets, and also when he got better teammates in which to pass the ball. None of last night’s assists were particularly noteworthy by LeBron’s specific standard—they were just the sort of typical, cross-court needle-threading practiced regularly by nobody before him. The casual wizardry of said passes are best consumed in one sitting:

Still, all that passing was merely a prelude to one of the most beautifully absurd stretches of basketball LeBron has ever put to tape. He is at the point of his career now where he can basically coast through games before deciding at some point whether whatever happens to be at stake on a given night (usually nothing) is worth the gift of his effort. Last night, against a super-hot, young Wizards team that was leading for the entirety of the game, LeBron decided to take matters into his own hands. In the span of three minutes near the end of the fourth quarter, he cleanly swished three huge three-pointers—first with the Cavs down one, then with the game tied, and then with the Cavs down three. Even now, LeBron’s jump shot can abandon him, but when he’s sniping big threes like this it’s something to behold:

With 12 seconds left in the game, the Cavs found themselves down one point again with the ball. LeBron dribbled up the court, and though he has been happy to defer to Kyrie Irving in big spots (ask Steph Curry), this time he rocketed at the hoop, setting the stage for the first of two plays that were equally jaw-dropping but for different reasons. As he made his move to the basket, LeBron Eurostepped around Wizards star John Wall, in the process committing a travel so blatant that the Wizards bench exploded onto the court, though they would have felt worse had LeBron not gagged on what looked like the easiest layup of his entire life. (I say “looked like” only because after the game LeBron admitted to traveling, and said he missed the shot because of it.)

This was everything that was once so delectably maddening about LeBron—the #tbt of basketball plays. Not only did LeBron travel outrageously, but he also blew the game-winning shot. Cheater! Not clutch! TNT announcer Kevin Harlan called the play—”LeBron missed! LeBron missed!”—as if he had just seen prime Mike Tyson get knocked on his ass, and the brief memory of what would have transpired after that miss if this was seven years ago gave me a feeling in the back of my throat not unlike when I think of Jungle Juice and remember all the fun and pain it brought me in college.

Then, with three seconds left and his team down three, LeBron caught a football pass from Kevin Love, dribbled back behind the three-point line, turned, jumped, and this time made the game-tying shot, off glass, while falling into the crowd.

The only appropriate response to this play was cackling uncontrollably like a hyena, or… these faces:

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Friends–the one and only, LeBron James.