CLEVELAND -- The Cavaliers raised a championship banner into the rafters for the first time in franchise history on Tuesday and LeBron James spent the night looking like he was seeing if he could jump up and touch it.
As much as the day was supposed to be about Cleveland celebrating its first professional sports championship in 52 years from the Cavs while simultaneously rooting for a second one with the Cleveland Indians hosting Game 1 of the World Series across the way from The Q, the real show became about King James.
Or perhaps we should call him: Ring James.
James collected the third ring of his storied career before tipoff and then played with the same kinetic brilliance of the guy who was ringless early on in his career, thriving more off his physical ability than his overall feel and command of the game simply because he could. Only this version of James, embarking on his 14th season at age 31, also had all aspects of his game dovetailing with his extreme athleticism.
The result was an unforgettable performance from an ageless wonder on a night for the ages in the city of Cleveland.
James finished with 19 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds in the Cavs’ 117-88 rout of the New York Knicks to tally his 43rd career triple-double, tying him for sixth all time.
“I just picked up where I left off,” he said, flashing a postgame smile as he proudly alluded to the 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists he put up in Game 7 of the Finals against the Golden State Warriors in June. “Back to back triple-doubles, I’m fine with that.”
And he was more than fine with the six dunks he threw down, one off of his career high of seven, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He had a chance to get tested this summer and they said he had a body of a 19-year-old,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, when asked about the aerial exploits. “Maybe he’s getting younger: Benjamin Button. I don’t know. Who knows?”
When informed by ESPN.com that he just missed his career dunks record, James immediately recalled the game it happened, in December 2008 against the Toronto Raptors, even down to the kicks he was wearing.
“The sixes,” he told ESPN.com, identifying the model along his signature line. “White with red. Man, I had on a jet pack that day.”
That season ended up being the first of four MVP campaigns for James. But that was all he won during his first stint in Cleveland -- individual awards.
With the burden of delivering a championship to Northeast Ohio finally off his back, James played free, fast and loose, catching lobs from teammates and cutting up the crowd by dancing to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” by the bench late in the blowout.
Tuesday was a reminder that James hasn’t given up on maintaining his dominant hold on the game, despite any attention Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Anthony Davis or anyone else might receive as the league’s top MVP contenders.
“It's in the works,” a source close to James told ESPN.com when asked just how much a fifth MVP -- which would put him in the same company with only Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- is motivating the Cavs superstar. “He feels like he's been slighted a few times already. Why not No. 5 in Year 14? Let's go for it.”
Why not, indeed. It’s the same ethos James has adopted for months now, calling his shots like Babe Ruth would promise home runs to kids he met in the hospital.
When asked about the so-called “Title Tuesday” doubleheader for the Cavs and Indians, James said Monday, “It's a day that will go down in history. For anyone that lives here, they will never forget it.” It would have been considerably more forgettable had the Cavs not routed the Knicks, followed by the Tribe blanking the Chicago Cubs 6-0. Yet James delivered and the Indians, with fresh pairs of Beats by Dre headphones gifted to them by No. 23 before their game, did as well.
James is getting to the point where he seemingly can will things into being, an ability that can be rationally explained by supreme confidence, yet that comes off as damn near superhuman.
When Cleveland went ahead 3-0 on the Atlanta Hawks in the conference semifinals last spring, James boldly declared, “We’re a team that’s destined for greatness and I really believe that,” even though a Finals matchup with either the 73-win Warriors or the Durant/Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder loomed on the horizon. Of course, the Cavs won it all, making the spectacle that was Tuesday night possible.
“The game seems like it has even slowed down more for him,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert told ESPN.com. “I’m not the most prolific basketball guy, but just from watching him 11 years, I think that happens when a guy matures and is still a superstar. He’s obviously special. ... It’s like a dream.”
It was a surreal spectacle on Tuesday, all right. WWE’s The Undertaker was in attendance and parked himself outside the Cavs’ locker room before the game, greeting player after player with a hug or a handshake before they took the court for warm-ups. Alongside him was Dana Warrior, the widow of The Ultimate Warrior, who presented Kevin Love with a WWE championship belt.
During the Finals, if you recall, James wore an Undertaker T-shirt to practice the day before Game 5 and then trolled the Warriors beautifully by stepping off the plane in Cleveland the Monday morning after the Cavs' Game 7 win wearing an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt.
Warrior's widow explained to Love that the Cavs did so much for her late husband’s legacy, helping to keep his name alive. Love gladly handed the belt over to James, knowing it was James' audacious T-shirt choices during the Finals that symbolized the belief he had in the Cavs' destiny. It takes guts to rock an Undertaker shirt when your team is down 3-1 and going into Oracle Arena the next day, facing elimination.
Perhaps his playoff run was a final unfettering of a person with the weight of expectations thrust upon him so long and getting to soar -- quite literally -- at long last. That meant Tuesday could be merely a peek at what James could have in store for 2016-17.
“I feel great,” James said. “I feel great, man. I feel better than I felt at 19. Nineteen, I didn’t know my body. I didn’t know that ... you can do things at 19 that you obviously can’t do at 31, but as far as being in shape and putting in all the training I put in during the season, I feel like I picked up right where I left off. I mean, I’m in a good groove so far.”
After finishing his media obligations, as James readied his belongings by his locker to make his exit out of the arena for the night, he took a closer look at the mini display case that came with the 400-diamond checkered championship ring -- a 10-inch by 10-inch polished wooden box, covered by a crystal-clear glass top with his name etched into it, topped off by a replica sword running through the center.
“Is that light going to just stay on like that?” James said quizzically, noting the battery-operated bulb causing the case to glow.
One of James' trusted security guards examined the case and found the off switch for the light when he flipped it over.
“Don’t want it to burn out,” the guard said.
That doesn’t seem to be a concern for James anytime soon. He keeps on shining.