LOS ANGELES — In the end, for all the magic and greatness and transcendent talent LeBron James was still able to muster, two things still stood in his way on Monday night.
The Denver Nuggets. And the inevitable pull of time.
Despite the 31 first-half points, 21 of which came in a first quarter the Los Angeles Lakers were set on dominating. Despite a stunning night of 40 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, two steals and just a single turnover. Despite, late in the fourth quarter with the seconds ticking down on a game and a season, an act of age-defying defensive brilliance the 38-year-old mustered against Jamal Murray that almost turned things his team’s way.
Despite all of it — despite LeBron’s all-around basketball acumen summoning a 2016 Finals version of his desire and skill, a throwback to a younger star’s game coming from the body of an old man at least in basketball years — it was not enough.
Denver 113, Los Angeles 111
A 4-0 sweep.
The Denver Nuggets are in their first NBA Finals ever, behind Nikola Jokic‘s own rare kind of basketball genius. He finished with 30 points, 14 rebounds and 13 assists. Jamal Murray, too, showed how bright his star can shine. He finished this closeout game with 25 points, finding ways to score as the Lakers forced him to abandon the three-point shot under the pressure of a closeout game.
It was a complete performance by a complete basketball team, one with depth and hustle, with those stars but also role players who could fill moments when called upon, one that handled Jokic’s sudden fourth-quarter foul trouble, the desperation of a Lakers team trying to stave off a season’s extinction and that all-time great reaching deeper than perhaps he ever had before.
For LeBron, his individual greatness — on this night and across his career — was twinged with tough truths. It was hard to escape that the final conclusion of this night, despite the awe-inspiring play, is that the end is near, and that his own raging basketball ambition and will-to-win are no longer enough.
Even all-timers reaching into the depths of their desire eventually come up short as they face their own age and the rise of a young, hungry team like the Nuggets. To see it in such stark contrast — the greatness and the weight of it, the skill and the exhaustion, the final product and yet the final score — sharpened the focus on both LeBron’s superiority and his limitations.
Those that trade in the silliness of trying to argue that the idea of Best Of All Time rests in weak notions like a GOAT cannot get swept in a playoff series miss the point. A GOAT, or a would-be GOAT, can certainly look an awful lot like a 38-year-old nearly lifting his team with an individual streak of greatness few on earth could ever do, ever, let alone so close to 40 — as his muscles ache, as his chest heaves, and as he battles all at once this formidable Denver team and his own aging body.
Ball don’t lie, and neither do games like this.
At the end, as LeBron dealt with the fact that Anthony Davis would not save them, he settled in despite the obvious pain to do it himself. Davis would finish the night 6-of-15, and while his box score might look good — 21 points and 14 rebounds — his play under the duress of this game did not.
So LeBron tried to do at the end what he’d done at the beginning: Take it all on himself.
There were four seconds left, the Lakers were down two, and LeBron James got the ball. He attacked the rim. The Lakers faithful screamed and hoped. But it was not to be. Aaron Gordon came up with the biggest block of his life, and that was it — the buzzer, the Nuggets celebrating, the shock, the end.
But this was not failure, at least not the failure of LeBron James. This was the nature of the thing: This all-time great, his powers still sharp, his need to win still absolute, losing to a superior team and the reality that time comes for everyone — even, on this night, in the final tally, him.