BOSTON— At first the evidence was a trickle, and now it’s pouring in that the challengers to the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference are indeed defined by the F-word of the year: fake.
Do you need to see any more proof? (Assuming you are indeed still watching.) When the East finals shift to Cleveland on Sunday, will there be a shred of suspense or a sense of the unexpected left in this series? Does LeBron James need to drop another 20-point half or chase down another block to sway the one or two souls on the planet who are unconvinced?
Perhaps not. What we’ve learned the last month, and what was rammed home with the intensity of LeBron’s swat of Avery Bradley’s shot against the glass Friday, is that the East pack is wack. The Cavs are now 10-0 in the playoffs against the field, with a realistic chance of running the table, which would say more about the competition than it does about them.
Cleveland’s latest piece of work was a 44-point Game 2 pasting of Boston at TD Garden, with the Celtics certainly absorbing one of the more embarrassing home losses in East finals history. It was a tip-to-buzzer rout — the Cavs’ 41-point halftime lead is the largest in NBA playoff history. Following a Game 1 win where the Cavs led by 28, the Celtics have theoretically yet to show up in a series that began on their court, their reward for finishing with the best record in the regular season.
They managed to do that mainly because LeBron didn’t want it bad enough, or really at all. A four-game losing streak and a pair of three-game losing streaks by the Cavs in the final month conceded the best-record to Boston, and LeBron rested four times down the stretch. It was the ultimate diss, a backhand to the face of the Celtics. It was LeBron and the Cavs shrugging, gift-wrapping an “advantage” to a challenger and liking their chances anyway.
At some point during the season, the priorities shifted for the Cavs. Regular-season superiority and front-running gave way to preserving health and resting limbs. The Cavs by then sized up the challengers in the East and decided their main enemy was a major injury, not John Wall or DeMar DeRozan or Paul George or Isaiah Thomas.
“Everybody in the world knows they’re good,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “We kind of go through the regular season progression of how good they are and then in March and April we’ve got to answer all the questions about what’s wrong with Cleveland, and it’s like, they’re going to be fine, and now they’re who they are.”
In the process of downshifting in the regular season, LeBron also cost himself the MVP award. The splashiest news Friday wasn’t the second game of an Eastern Conference finals, but — horrors! — LeBron not being named one of the three finalists for an award he has won four times. It was the first time since 2008 that LeBron won’t finish in the top three. While the basketball world screamed foul, LeBron smirked. Unlike Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, LeBron didn’t spend every bit of his precious energy on the 82-game grind. Once again, he didn’t need to, not in the East. Besides, truth be told, he places a greater emphasis on winning the Finals MVP, as he should. That trophy is the highest honor in the game, because with one exception (Jerry West in 1969) it means you were the best player on the championship-winning team.
“My only job is to be the MVP to this team every night I play,” LeBron said, before uttering a chilling reminder: “This league knows what I bring to the table.”
By willfully surrendering the regular season, the only edge Boston would have is hosting a Game Seven at the Garden in the East finals. Of course, given the pair of punches to the face they just took, the Celtics will be lucky to see a Game Five.
Mighty as they’ve been in the playoffs, the Cavs were mildly disrespected by the team Boston beat to reach the East finals. Bradley Beal and the Wizards took Boston to the seven-game limit in the semifinals, and then Beal went on Washington TV and said the Cavs tanked late in the season in order to avoid matching up with the Wizards and their quick guards in the second round.
“Cleveland didn’t want to see us. They knew we were going to give them that competitiveness and challenge, you know?” said Beal.
The implication from Beal was clear: Washington was a better threat than Boston. And while that might’ve been the case …
“Beal is a good young player,” said Cavs forward Richard Jefferson. “But to say that about a team that’s 10-0 in the playoffs, about a team with the best player in the world? It’s always the guys sitting at home who have something to say. If they were that good, then get to the East finals. Get here. Well, they’re not here.”
The Cavs we see now, ripping through a conference without a challenge, is almost a carbon copy of the Cavs of three years ago when the Hawks were the No. 1 seed. Likewise, the Hawks hardly looked the part of a kingpin, and it showed in the East finals when they were swept by the Cavs, who were without Kyrie Irving for three of those four games.
“As good as we’ve been,” LeBron said, “we have another level.”
And so, one by one, all of the contenders are falling quickly and quietly. The Pacers looked surprisingly frisky in the first round before feeling the broom, followed by the Raptors, and now gloom will follow the Celtics’ charter flight to Cleveland. Thomas has a sore right hip that caused him to miss the second half Friday, and he might not be 100 percent for the duration of the series. He’s the only impact player on the team.
Anyway, another East flag is on the horizon for Cleveland, and for LeBron, it would be his seventh straight. In the end, this is more about him than the Cavs, because he’s the difference maker.
LeBron James is generating plenty of performances that are becoming legendary that normally would lock in large audiences this time of year. He’s scoring almost at will, elevating teammates with precise passes and decision-making, and adding layers to his legacy. His eighth straight playoff game with 30 or more points ties Michael Jordan’s record streak. Yet while the Cavs’ romp through the East, and here in the conference finals, is removing all doubt, it’s also removing any reason to watch the inevitable.
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