With 2-1 Finals Lead, What's LeBron James' Secret Motivation?

Jun 11, 2015

Remember the essay LeBron James wrote nearly a year ago, announcing his triumphant return to Cleveland?

"I'm not promising a championship," he wrote. "We're not ready right now. It will be a long process."

Well, time has certainly sped up, especially to the delight of Cavalier fans. The long process he predicted will actually be over with just two more Cleveland wins. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors are back at it Thursday night for Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

James has thrown patience out the window and is averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists per game. He's become the Cavs' 6-foot-8, 250-pound point guard, walking the ball up the court and dictating the pace of games. He's putting up tons of shots and his shooting percentage stinks, probably because it's hard to shoot when you've got an entire team and city on your back.

"It's not necessarily how he wants to play," says the Cavs' Mike Miller, who won two championships with James in Miami. "He doesn't want to shoot 30-some times a game. But he understands the situation we're in and what he has to do for us to be successful."

The situation is a team down two All-Star players because of injury and a bunch of young teammates without playoff experience. James has been a fixture on the sports landscape for a dozen years, but many are marveling at his leadership and athletic power with new enthusiasm.

Even his victims are. When asked if there is any athlete better than James right now, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr laughed, saying, "Can you find another one? Maybe American Pharoah?"

That was Kerr after losing Game 2. After Game 3, and another James beat-down, Kerr was less expansive when asked to measure James' impact on the series.

"No, that's your job," he tells a reporter. "You get to write the superlatives and we get to try to figure out how to slow them down."

Whatever the Warriors are trying — perhaps they should try double-teaming — they're not letting on. Single-covering James with guard Shaun Livingston couldn't be part of the plan. But in fact, that happened several times in Game 3. James easily scored against the 60-pound-lighter Livingston, who insists guarding James is no big deal.

"It's just a matchup," he says. "Honestly, he's a great player, but what I'm thinking about is all of his tendencies and what he likes to do."

So does it ever go through Livingston's mind that LeBron is like a locomotive, and how does he stop him? His response? A simple "no."

If there was a yes inside that no, Livingston's steady gaze read, "Don't go there."

Meanwhile, James is being a bit coy about where's he going. When asked what's fueling his on-court rampage, other than bringing home a title to a championship-starved Cleveland, "I have some other motivation that I won't talk about right now," he said.

Theories are pouring in about that secret motivation: It's his anger about Cleveland being labeled the underdog, resentment that the Warriors' Steph Curry won this year's MVP Award, or the fact that Michael Jordan — current holder of the "Greatest Player Ever" honors — never took a ragtag bunch to the top like James might.

James says he'll reveal all if Cleveland takes the series. It's yet another reason for Clevelanders to scream for two more wins.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are back at it tonight. Game 4 of the NBA Finals, a series that has been full of drama and surprise. Who would've known that unheralded Cleveland guard Matthew Dellavedova, an Australian, would become a cult hero, or that the favored Warriors would get pushed around by the Cavs's suddenly imposing defense? And then there is LeBron James. We knew he was the best in the game, but this - NPR's Tom Goldman picks it up from here.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Remember that essay LeBron James wrote nearly a year ago announcing his triumphant return to Cleveland? I'm not promising a championship, he said, we're not ready right now. It will be a long process. My how things have sped up to the dizzying delight of Cavs fans.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Let's go Cavs. Let's go Cavs.

GOLDMAN: That long process will be over with two more Cleveland wins. James has thrown patience out the window and is averaging 41 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists per game. He's become the Cavs's 6 foot 8, 250-pound point guard, walking the ball up the court and dictating the pace of games. He's putting up tons of shots and his shooting percentage stinks; probably 'cause it's hard to shoot when you've got an entire team and city on your back. The Cavs's Mike Miller won two championships with James in Miami.

MIKE MILLER: This is not necessarily how he wants to play. He doesn't want to shoot 30-some times a game, but he understands the situation we're in and what he has to do for us to be successful.

GOLDMAN: The situation is a team down two all-stars because of injury and a bunch of young teammates without playoff experience. James has been a fixture on the sports landscape for a dozen years, but we are marveling anew at his leadership and athletic power - even his victims are. This is from a press conference with Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is admittedly subjective, but is LeBron the best athlete that you see right now going?

STEVE KERR: Can you find another one? Maybe American Pharoah.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: That was Kerr after losing Game 2. After Game 3 and another LeBron James beatdown, Kerr was less expansive when asked to measure James's impact on the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KERR: Now that's your job. You get to write the superlatives and we get to try to figure out, you know, how to slow them down.

GOLDMAN: Whatever the Warriors are trying, hey, guys, what about double-teaming him when he has the ball? They're not letting on. Single-covering James with guard Shaun Livingston couldn't be part of the plan, but that in fact happened several times in Game 3. James easily scored against the 60-pound lighter Livingston, who insists guarding James is no big deal.

SHAUN LIVINGSTON: It's just a matchup, man, honestly. You know, he's a great player, but, you know, what I'm thinking about is all of his tendencies and what he likes to do

GOLDMAN: So it never goes through your mind this guy is, like, a locomotive, how do I stop him?

LIVINGSTON: No.

GOLDMAN: If there were a yes inside that no, Livingston's steady gaze said we're not going there. Where James is going, he's being a bit coy about that. Asked what's fueling his on court rampage, other than bringing home a title to championship starved Cleveland, he said this...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEBRON JAMES: And I have some other motivation that I won't talk about right now.

GOLDMAN: Theories are pouring in about the secret motivation. It's his anger about Cleveland being labeled the underdog, resentment that the Warriors Steph Curry won this year's MVP award or the fact that Michael Jordan, current holder of greatest player ever honors, never took a ragtag bunch to the top like James might. James says he'll reveal all if Cleveland takes the series; yet another reason for Clevelanders to scream for two more wins. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.