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Can we all agree that LeBron rules the Eastern Conference?

Cavs star headed to fifth straight Finals and sixth in nine years

POSTED: May 27, 2015 8:13 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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GameTime: LeBron Makes History

The crew discusses LeBron James' fifth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

LeBron James is back in the NBA Finals, and he's taking the Cleveland Cavaliers with him.

It could have been anybody in the Eastern Conference, really. But in James' and the Cavaliers' case, if he were to boost a boast from old rival Paul Pierce, he'd bellow, "That's why I brought me here!"

There's no need to minimize the contributions of James' teammates in wine and gold -- the efforts of Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and, for only the second time in the series Thursday, gimpy Kyrie Irving. But there's no reason to overstate those, either, because the common denominator in this is the man from Akron.

Had James chosen last summer to stick in Miami, he likely would be heading to The Finals again with cohorts Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, coach Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat. Had the Knicks figured out a way to lure him to New York, he would have been the diamond around whom team president Phil Jackson and coach Derek Fisher fashioned their triangle.

Had James spun a wheel, frankly, and signed with whichever Eastern Conference team came up -- Chicago, Brooklyn, Washington, Toronto, you name it -- the result possibly would have been the same: James heading to the championship round for the fifth consecutive year, unprecedented in league annals for anyone who didn't play with the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics. That's how rare his talents are, that's how much he has evolved as a player and leader.

Philadelphia? OK, maybe James wouldn't have dragged the lowly, lacking-in-ambition Sixers all the way to the Finals. They'd have been more interested in finding and drafting the next LeBron than working with the current one. Still, based on his record, his determination, his influence on the players with whom he shares locker rooms and, of course, the level of resistance in the East, would you have bet against them?

I don't know how many chapters we have in the book as far as this season [goes], but there's at least five.

– LeBron James

As it turned out, in what for many was the happiest storyline of last summer, James chose to go home, returning to the franchise that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2003 and enjoyed its headiest times with him for seven seasons. He went back to clean up what he'd left undone. Back to Cleveland, a city of diehard sports fans who've been dying hard for a half century (the 1964 NFL Browns are the town's last title team).

Preaching patience, sounding committed to a championship plan built over several seasons, James required little of the former and needed just one of the latter to get the Cavaliers to the brink of what they all crave. Half of one, really, the Cavs' 19-20 first half of 2015-16 exposing their flaws, hinting at their potential and launching them, through various permutations, to the team they've become.

Cleveland went 33-9 from that January low point, transformed by a pair of trades (for Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith) and by James' physical and mental re-commitment. Now it has needed just 14 games to cut through three rounds -- four against the Celtics, six against the Bulls, four against the Hawks -- tying the 2003 Nets and 2013 Spurs for the quickest path to The Finals since the NBA expanded the first round to best-of-seven in 2003.

Cavaliers React To Winning The Eastern Conference Title

Coach David Blatt, LeBron James, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson talk about their crazy season and heading the the NBA Finals.

"No matter what happens from here on out," James said, "to see what we've accomplished being a first-year team together that's had different changes through the course of the season, that's faced so many obstacles -- injuries here, transactions here, lineups here -- it's something we can be very proud of."

The Cavaliers figured out a way to blend the talents of their Big Three -- James, Irving and Kevin Love -- and more recently, they resourcefully have learned how to win with only one of them. Or one-and-a-half. As Love and Irving went down, taking some of their gaudy offensive numbers with them, Cleveland's defense went up, approximating some of the netting James' Miami teams could throw at opponents.

NBAStore.com: Get Cavs Eastern Conference champs gear!

That was on display throughout the East finals against Atlanta, the Hawks sputtering along at 42.2 percent shooting and averaging just 92.5 points in getting swept. Cleveland outrebounded the Hawks by an average of 12.8 per game and outscored them by an average of 13.3 points. Thompson was a beast in filling the void of Love's injury, averaging a double-double. Irving got a hero's welcome-back by starting and lasting 22 minutes Tuesday, and plugger Dellavedova heard ovations even louder.

"I don't know how many chapters we have in the book as far as this season [goes]," James said, "but there's at least five."

Cleveland fans have fallen in love with all of them -- "Shoot, J.R.!" is a cry from the rafters, a sign of how starry-eyed the folks have become -- but the matchmaker, the Neil Clark Warren behind all this sudden, intense attraction has been James. He nearly averaged a triple-double in the sweep -- 30.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, 9.3 rebounds, levels no NBA player has matched or topped across the board in playoff history -- yet he sat out the entire fourth quarter of the 118-88 Game 4 laugher.

Hawks React To Game 4 Loss

Mike Budenholzer, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague talk to the media after Tuesday's Game 4 loss.

"We've got a group of players that have a lot of grit and a lot of character," said Cavs coach David Blatt. "And we have a champion who leads them in the right way, a guy that is not only a fabulous basketball player but he is an experienced winner who's about the right things and who leads his guys in a way that empower them and does not belittle them. In a way that lifts them."

This makes five straight and six of the past nine Finals in which James has or soon will perform for the East representative. At age 23, when he thought it was only about the basketball, he carried a team built with Larry Hughes, Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sasha Pavlovic to the Finals, where they suffered the same fate as this year's Hawks.

Heading to Miami in search of better help, he got the Heat to the Finals in 2011 when it wasn't ready to win and then back three more times when it was (San Antonio disagreed last June). And now he's done it again with a Cleveland team that, with Love sidelined and Irving absent for two of this round's four victories, doesn't look on paper all that more formidable than the one eight years ago. (Heed the asterisk here: Veteran sub James Jones also will be going to his fifth straight Finals, having followed James from Miami. In this case, it's the Joneses keeping up with the Jameses.)

In squatting on the East's side of the championship round, James has reduced a bunch of good coaches and swell teams to also-rans. He has effectively blocked, with no end in sight, a generation of peers from what they seek as surely as Michael Jordan did to ringless legends such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone and John Stockton.

His confidence has gone to another level

– Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer on LeBron James

"His confidence has gone to another level," said Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer, who dealt with James in the Finals as a Spurs assistant and entered his lair when he became Hawks coach two years ago. "Watching how he orchestrates and, I think, has a great command for where he wants his teammates and what's important in the moment, and the confidence he has in himself to make the right play..."

Budenholzer talked about the benefit of these playoffs, right through the sweep, in helping his team grow for future runs. Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, All-Stars, spoke of getting better in their third year together next season.

But Dellavedova and Thompson, Smith and Shumpert and Mozgov, hobbled Irving and street-clothed Love, a crew essentially thrown together over the past eight months, they're the ones headed to the Finals. All because the man who owns the East grew up in Akron, not in Evanston or Auburn Hills or Buckhead or New Rochelle.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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