BOSTON – For nearly a decade, the general managers of the NBA’s Eastern Conference have had, essentially, one job: Arm, equip and overhaul their teams specifically to get past LeBron James and whatever squad with which he happened to be rolling.
They have failed. Miserably and spectacularly. And that’s even spotting them the first couple of summers to get their bearings after the whole “Super Team” genesis in Miami back in 2010-11.
James’ domination of the conference continued Sunday when he and the Cleveland Cavaliers persevered in Game 7 against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Clawing back from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits in the series, and playing the final seven quarters without their second All-Star, forward Kevin Love (concussion protocol), the Cavaliers hung around in an ugly game. They took advantage of a Boston team on training wheels – 7-39 on 3-pointers, oh my! – and snagged a ticket to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals.
For James, it’s eight in a row and nine overall, these Cleveland four added to the four he reached with the Heat from 2011-14. It’s a run unprecedented since Bill Russell’s Celtics were winning 11 championships in 13 years, a stranglehold on half of all Finals opportunities this decade. He has a 6-2 record in Game 7 situations, with nothing but triumphs after dropping his first two.
“I mean, the bigger the stage, the bigger the player, and he's been doing it for us since we've been here,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “The great quote from the great [Clippers coach] Doc Rivers is, ‘You always want to go into the Game 7 with the best player,’ and we have the best player on our team going into a Game 7. I like our chances. And he delivered again.”
Next year at this point, maybe by league proxy, James will have one hand tied behind his back. That’s the next logical step in handicapping him against the field.
He has made it to The Finals without his most talented sidekicks. He has taken or dragged along an ever-changing cast of teammates. This time, he did with arguably the Cavaliers’ barest cupboard since first dipping their collective toes in The Finals water back in 2007.
Two All-Star point guards, Kyrie Irving (with whom James won a ring in 2016) and Isaiah Thomas (from whom James won his freedom after five awkward weeks), already were long gone when Love went down. And now he was facing elimination with a shaky crew and a huge, inflated question mark hovering over his and Cleveland’s offseason, whenever it comes.
Then again, the Celtics were facing him. Like the Raptors, the Pacers, the Bulls, the Hawks and several others before them, Boston well understood the player through whom its playoff ambitions had to go.
“I think we’ve played now until May 25th and May 27th the last two years and we started on September 25th. That’s every day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said about his team’s 2017 and 2018 tangles with Cleveland in the East finals. “Every day you’re totally focused on this, and he’s gone past that eight straight times.
“It’s ridiculous. And he does it at this level and with the pressure, with the scrutiny – doesn’t matter.”
Plenty of the foes chasing James when his Finals streak began have headed into retirement ringless and unfulfilled. Others were in high school or grade school. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, for instance, was 13 years old when James began his streak against Dallas in 2011.
There are so many others like Horford, with tire tracks on their backs, no mercy coming their way from James and very little hope on the horizon. At age 33, James played all 82 games in the regular season for the first time in his 15-year career. He made it an even 100 with Sunday’s appearance and he did it with aplomb, staying on the floor for all 48 minutes.
“Our goal going into the series was to make him exert as much energy as humanly possible, and try to be as good as we can on everybody else,” Stevens said. “For the most part, I thought we were pretty good at that. Multiple games now in TD Garden, held them under 100, three games in the 80s – but he still scored 35. It’s a joke.”
James’ stats line – 35 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists – was enough this time because he got a reasonable amount of help. Three other Cavaliers scored in double figures, including Jeff Green, the journeyman forward who started in Love’s spot.
Being one of James’ teammates requires a thick skin for when things don’t go well. It also carries a sense of obligation, to occasionally come through the way Green did in Game 7 (19 points, eight rebounds) given the debt they all owe their resident superstar.
“You want to be there for him,” Green said. “You want to be in the trenches, in the battle, helping him achieve the ultimate goal. For me, it’s a no-brainer to go out there and give it all I have.”
Green was a part of James’ most tumultuous campaign yet, with so many twists and turns – the shotgun Irving trade, Thomas’ bad fit, a rash of injuries, a desperate reset at the trade deadline and a bumpy learning curve once the new guys arrived – that James and Lue casually referred to it as “five seasons” crammed into one.
“It's now six seasons in one,” James said after midnight. “I guess this is the last chapter for our team in this season. It's been a whirlwind. I mean, it's been [a rollercoaster]. It's been good, it's been bad, it's been roses. There have been thorns in the roses. There's been everything that you can ask for.”
For eight years, a conference full of rivals has targeted one player, who happens to be the league’s best, the first among alleged equals with the Heat and clearly the leader when he headed back home to Ohio. In that time, the players have worked, the coaches have schemed and the GMs have plotted.
No one has found the answer. None have stopped him. Fact is, nobody’s really laid a glove on him. It’s his conference, seemingly for as long as he wants it.
“It's been a satisfaction in the fact that I like to be successful,” James said. “But more importantly, just the work that I put into it. I mean, it's an every-single-day work ethic that I have while I'm playing this game, while I have the ability to play this game at this level. I love the competition.
“I think about the teams that I've played over this run and the players that I've played over this run, slightly. But more importantly, me just being healthy. I've been healthy throughout this run. I put a lot of work into my body, into my craft. Being available to my teammates and being available to my franchise, the two franchises I've been with, and throughout this run is what's been more important to me than anything. Always being available.”
It was late. James was weary. Another Game 7 in less than 24 hours would determine his and the Cavaliers’ next playoff challenge.
“I'll be available for at least four more games,” he said. “And we'll see what happens.”
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