LeBron James celebrates with Zydrunas Ilgauskas after the Cavaliers topped the Pistons to clinch the Eastern Conference title.
Eric Seals / AP Enlarge
CLEVELAND - As confetti danced in the electrified air around him and a feverish hometown crowd rocked and rolled the night away, LeBron James was handed a new baseball cap and T-shirt.
Perhaps a tasseled cap and gown would have been more appropriate.
Four years after skipping college to play in the pros, James earned his NBA degree in superstardom.
On Saturday, with a ravenous city placing its hopes for a championship in his able hands, the Cavaliers' seemingly unguardable forward delivered his fourth straight clutch performance as Cleveland eliminated the Detroit Pistons 98-82 in Game 6 and advanced to the finals for the first time in its 37-year history.
"This is the first step to greatness," a dazed James said during a quiet moment sitting in front of his locker. "It feels like a fantasy."
But yesterday dawned with a startling reality: Cleveland, where kids learn at an early age that rooting for the local sports teams can lead to a lifetime of pain and suffering, is finally on top.
At least until Thursday, when the Cavaliers will face the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of the finals.
For now, James has given Cleveland a moment to savor just as he promised he would when the Akron high school prodigy was drafted by the Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft.
"I said I was going to light it up like Las Vegas in Cleveland," James recalled following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
There are no casinos or dancing water fountains dotting Ontario Street, which will never be mistaken for the Vegas Strip. But the wild scene of delirium - strangers high-fiving strangers and sidewalks overflowing with joyful Clevelanders - outside Quicken Loans Arena could rival almost any happening on a Saturday night in the Nevada desert.
Four years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine the Cavs, a 17-win team the season before James' hyped arrival, playing for a title. But the 22-year-old, whose multimillion dollar endorsement deals and rising celebrity have made him a dribbling, dunking American idol, decided it was time to begin fulfilling his destiny by taking his teammates to new heights.
The Cavaliers became just the third team to overcome an 0-2 deficit to win the conference finals, a stunning turnaround after what happened in Games 1 and 2 at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.
The opener ended with James deferring to teammate Donyell Marshall for the final shot, a wide-open 3-pointer that rimmed out and gave Detroit a 79-76 win. The Pistons won Game 2 by the identical score after James, criticized for not shooting after Game 1, failed to get a call or get off a clean shot in the closing seconds.
But in the final three games, James, who dropped 48 on the Pistons in a transcendent Game 5 performance, showcased his diverse and abundant skills, averaging 33.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 8 assists as the Cavaliers closed out their Central Division rivals one year after losing a seven-game series.
Did he just grow up?
"I don't know why people say that," he said. "I'm still the same player. If I get double-teamed and the game is close, I'm going to pass it again. If we make the shot, I'm on top of the world. If not, then I'm under a lot of trees and leaves. It's fine with me. I'll take the criticism that comes with it.
"I'm the leader of this team."
Unlike in Game 5 when he took over and carved up the Pistons by scoring Cleveland's final 25 points, James was patient in the series clincher. He attempted just two shots in the first half, but he had five assists, seven rebounds, and made 9-of-11 free throws.
After halftime, James seemed to toy with the Pistons. They sent one, two, and three defenders to try and stop him, and James made them pay by feeding rookie Daniel Gibson, who made five 3-pointers and scored a season-high 31 points - 22 of them in a 27-10 spurt.
"I told Daniel before the game, 'Detroit is going to double-team me, triple-team me before I cross halfcourt, so get that gun and get it locked and loaded and just shoot it," said James, who had 20 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists. "Don't second-guess yourself. Just shoot it.' And when they closed out on him, he drove the ball to the rim and made free throws."
Gibson finished 12-of-15 from the line, and his emergence as a dependable scorer will give the heavily favored Spurs more to consider as they plan for James.
"LeBron told me to step into my shot and shoot it with confidence," Gibson said.
When the King orders, you obey.