EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- LeBron James has treasured a handful of moments in his still young career.
There was his last game in high school, when he led his team to a mythical national championship. There was the night he was taken No. 1 overall in the NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It would also figure the day he signed a $90 million contract with Nike ranks right up there as well.
But basking in the euphoria of the Cavs' playoff series victory over the Nets Friday night, James couldn't think of anything greater. It may have just been a conference semifinal series, it may have been against a team seeded only sixth in the weaker Eastern Conference, but it nonetheless marks the first time the Cavs have earned a trip to the conference finals since 1992 when James was 7 and obliviously bouncing around a Cavs-crazed town.
Excuse him if he was lost in the moment.
"I'm not going to lie and say this isn't a great feeling," James said. "It is one of the best feelings I've had as a basketball player."
James' stats from the Cavs' 88-72 Game 6 win weren't history-making. He had 23 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, pretty close to his averages for the 10 games of this postseason. The way he got them, though, was more statement-making.
After getting chewed up by the Nets and their double teams and zones in a Game 5 loss back in Cleveland on Wednesday, James eschewed his normal approach of using the first quarter to set up his teammates. Instead of being the passive and passing LeBron, the one so often cracked by observers, he was a aggressive and primal LeBron, using his size and skill to overpower the unsuspecting Nets.
Once he jump stopped, bounced to the left and banked one in. Another time he posted up Jason Kidd, spun quickly and tossed in a shot from the block.
Then he drove, flung his body left to create space and threw in a one-handed shot as he was falling down.
When the quarter broke, he had 14 points and nine foul shot attempts, the Nets only resort was to foul.
The Cavs were on their way to a 22-point lead, putting the Nets in a deep hole that even a high-energy and valiant second-half comeback couldn't overcome. It was purely shock and awe, James at his best.
"We felt the most aggressive team was going to win," Cavs coach Mike Brown said. "LeBron came out and executed the game plan very well."
Then came the still young and learning side of James. In the third quarter he picked up three fouls in five minutes and had to go to the bench. It was the earliest in his career James had picked up four fouls. Once he left, the Cavs instantly gave up a 12-0 run and nearly all of their lead.
James could only watch and see the difference a star can make. Kidd was making his impact, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the third quarter to made his push to extend his season, carrying the Nets in a desperate time.
"It was tough on every Cavs fan to watch that third quarter," James said. "It was tough on me as well as everyone back home."
Most back in Cleveland were likely yelling at their television screens as they watched the Cavs fall into the trap of hoisting up jumpers against the Nets' zone.
They needed some shooters and their difference-maker living up to his billing.
On this night, James did. He scored nine points in the fourth, nailing four jumpers, but he also had four rebounds and three assists as the Cavs shooters finally took advantage of the collapsing defense on James.
Perhaps it wasn't a command performance, but for James it was another stepping stone in his development. There have been potholes, highly visible ones at times, but he's steadily lifted his team.
When he arrived he joined 17-win team that was last in the NBA in attendance, ever since he's pulled them upward.
Now he's got the Cavs in the NBA's Final Four and he's taking a moment to be proud about it.
"I get criticized sometimes for not scoring, but the main thing in our profession is winning," James said. "I'm a winner and I've got a lot of winners behind me. We're moving on."
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal.