This is why LeBron James returned to Cleveland.
When the four-time league MVP made the decision to sign with the Cavaliers 10 months ago he envisioned playing alongside a young and talented group with which to mold into a championship unit, a stark contrast and a new challenge from the veteran-laced Miami Heat team he had taken to four straight NBA Finals appearances.
Plenty has changed since James' arrival and the path to a championship has been altered, but his goals have remained intact. And he took another step Thursday in the Cavs' 94-73 Game 6 victory over the Bulls.
"I do everything for my team. I do everything for my teammates. I want these guys to be able to feel this moment, that’s what I came back here for," James said. "I got four guys that never made the postseason that play a huge role for this team. And for me to be able to bring them joy playing the game of basketball, that’s what I care about more than anything."
James made those comments following a near triple-double - 15 points, 9 rebounds and 11 assists - and being flanked by two of those players making their playoff debuts this year, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson. The pair of 24-year-olds stood in valiantly for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James' two primary sidekicks dealing with injuries, with Dellavedova scoring a game-high 19 points and Thompson grabbing 17 rebounds.
James spoke considerably in his postgame press conference about the mental growth of his young group. After winning 97 games in the four years following James' departure from Cleveland in 2010, the inexperienced Cavaliers were thrust into the national spotlight and put under the NBA's microscope on a nightly basis. Even the trade additions post-Decision II - Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith and Timofey Mozgov - had never been out of the first round of the playoffs, leaving James as the unquestioned on-court leader and, perhaps more importantly, the role model to create the foundation for a group with championship aspirations.
"The way we approach the season was, we have a chance to play with someone that’ll go down as one of the best ever. So, it just motivates us to work harder," Thompson said before recalling James being the first player in the practice facility on the first day of practice. "And for us, we know we’ve got to catch up. We’ve got to do the extra things. If he’s doing that, we’ve got to do double, triple, because this opportunity has definitely been a blessing for us and we’ve got to make the most of it and help him."
That they did Thursday night. With Love sidelined and Irving exiting the game for good after aggravating a knee injury early in the second quarter, the Cavaliers were again looking at needing a heroic performance from James to get past a veteran-laced Bulls team attempting to stave off elimination on their home floor. And when James' shot wasn't falling - he missed 11 of his first 14 shots - he turned to the teammates he had mentored all year for help.
And they responded. James doled out 11 assists, seven of which resulted in 3-pointers, and stepped up defensively, limiting the Bulls to 42 points in the final three quarters. He managed the game and got the most out of his young core.
"It’s really what LeBron is doing to you," Tom Thibodeau said of the Bulls' defense. "Because of what he’s doing, it’s opening up things for them. If you look at LeBron’s line, you can say 7-for-23 (shooting). But what he did in that game, he controlled it. He made plays, he found the open 3s and he had not only 11 assists, but a lot of other plays that led to a second pass and a wide open 3."
This certainly isn't how James drew it up when the season began. He expected to be sitting next to a point guard and a power forward at the podium, just not "Delly" and "Double-T." Irving, not Shumpert, was supposed to be going toe-to-toe with Derrick Rose. Love, not Smith, was supposed to be draining clutch 3-pointers. Anderson Varejao, not Mozgov, was supposed to be the Cavs' rim protector.
Things change, and James has adapted with his team. He admitted after the game that the Cavs "have no room for error," but their young core and underrated depth has allowed as much, especially against the Bulls. They won a game in which James went 10-for-30. Irving played 12 minutes in Game 6 and the Cavs won by 21 points. Smith missed two games and the Cavs survived.
"We’re never out of any game. Every game in the playoffs is going to be tough, every game is going to be close," Shumpert said. "Crazy stuff is going to happen, as you saw in this series. As long as we got each other and we keep everything in this locker room we’ll be fine."
And it all starts with No. 23.
This is why LeBron James returned to Cleveland.