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Defining greatness: Stephen Curry and LeBron James duel in Game 4

The two superstars get to work on adding to their legacies

The world has spent the past week remembering Muhammad Ali. Thousands gathered in Louisville, Kentucky, for The Champ’s funeral procession and luminaries spoke at his memorial service. His career as a boxer and life as an icon makes one ponder the idea of “greatness.” Within the realm of athletics, he is the modern yardstick. There were giants before him. His boxing predecessors, such as Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, most certainly arrested our complete attention. Baseball great Babe Ruth’s legend was so outsized that it approached myth. But Ali came around in the age of television, defining what is, you might say, modern greatness.

Hours after Ali’s memorial service ended, two great athletes got after it. Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry led their teams into Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The degree and character of each of these men’s greatness has been called into question in a way best described as omnipresent.

Where you at, Steph? The league’s MVP had been a low-ink facsimile of himself throughout the series.

You gonna lose in the Finals again, ‘Bron? Six Finals appearances in a row for James, featuring more tragedy than triumph.

What transpired in Game 4 went some ways to answering both questions.

Where was Steph? He was on the floor at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for 40 minutes, where he dropped 38 of the coldest points in Finals history.

“Business as usual,” Curry said. “We answered the bell.”

They did indeed. And so he and his crew headed home with a 3-1 series lead. This squad has lost five home games in two seasons. Stopping this man and this juggernaut in a closeout game in front of one of the great home crowds in all of sports? Nah.

Which brings us to James and his Finals record.

Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he’d tell his players “If you don’t think we can win, don’t get on the plane,” in reference to Game 5 in Oakland, California. But that might be coach-speak.

Although point guard Kyrie Irving answered the bell with 34 points, this Cavaliers team hasn’t proved, through four games, that it can pull off a Warriors impersonation and come back from the daunting 3-1 deficit like Golden State did last round.

James played for 46 minutes. He had 25 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists. He had seven turnovers, most coming as a result of what was a conspicuous (albeit fruitless) mania to even up the series. He was on edge all game, especially late, exchanging heated encounters with both Curry and power forward Draymond Green. But no dice.

It’s looking like The King is about to be 2-5 for his career in Finals series, a disappointing record for unquestionably the greatest player of his generation.

Five times a runner-up is more Logo than Jumpman. And as James ages and the league changes, how many more chances will he get? And who is stopping Curry and these Warriors? We will remember these Finals as career-definers.

President Barack Obama said Ali “will always be America.” It’s unfair to think that any athlete in this era of sports will ever even approach that significance and greatness. We have, however, witnessed some recent runners-up. Retired Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant gave us 60 points in his final act. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning let his supporting cast do the work in Super Bowl 50 and walked off the field a champion (with that same helmet mark on his five-head) but also confronting a 2-2 record in big games. And, in James and Curry, we are witnessing the cementing of notions of their greatness.

How great is LeBron James? How great could Stephen Curry be? This next game (or three) might tell us a lot.