Decade of Dominance: LeBron James' first Finals run in Cleveland

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The 2017 postseason marks the 10th anniversary of LeBron James’ first run to The NBA Finals, when his play powered the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first championship series.

Since that 2007 Finals trip, James has been in The Finals six times, winning three championships in that span. He led the Cavs to the title in 2016 and, as the Cavs enter The 2017 Finals, we look back on how James’ seven career Finals appearances have shaped both his career and the NBA at large.

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Caron Butler saw him coming, from miles away.

And he knew there was nothing he and his Washington Wizards teammates could do to stop him.

We all saw LeBron James, the young wunderkind with the headband and the otherworldly athleticism, the one-man highlight reel and self-proclaimed “Chosen One” who stormed the league from the moment then-NBA Commissioner David Stern said his name on that stage in New York on Draft night in 2003.

Decade of Dominance series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Butler, though, saw what the kid would become: a true technician, a youngster just four seasons into an all-time great career who had seemingly already mastered the art of the game, a player who could not only elevate his own game, but also the games of those around him.

It was undeniable, especially for Butler and his Wizards team that had to battle LeBron and the Cavaliers in three straight postseasons on the way to the Cavaliers making their first appearance in The Finals in the summer of 2007.

“It was so amazing, you know, competing against him three straight years in the playoffs,” Butler said. “We always said to ourselves, once he figures it out, it’s game over. He was always just that much better than everyone else. His basketball IQ, the way he got to his spots on the floor and was able to score and he took the below average player and made them really good. Once you saw that, I knew he was going to be on the big stage for many years to come.”

The fact that we’re 10 years removed from LeBron’s first trip to The Finals is not lost on Butler, retired now and working as an analyst for several networks, including NBA TV and ESPN.

Still, no one could have predicted a decade of dominance like the one LeBron has produced, not based on the make up of the team that started it all. No one could have predicted the twists and turns he would engineer and endure along the way.

Nine times in his 14 NBA seasons, LeBron has led his team to the conference finals. His current run — seven straight trips to the conference finals, and three straight in this, his second go-around with the Cavaliers — is Bill Russell-Celtics-level dominance.

Not even the most optimistic of observers could have foreshadowed this sort of run when LeBron lined up alongside Larry Hughes, Zyldrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic and Drew Gooden for the opening tip in the 2007 Finals against the Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs.

A dominant player rises in the East

The Detroit Pistons were the class of the Eastern Conference, having won a title in 2004 over the Hall of Fame-laden roster that featured a Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant-led Los Angeles Lakers. The next season, the Pistons battled Duncan’s Spurs to the wire in a seven game Finals the following season. They were in the midst of a run of six straight trips to the conference finals themselves.

The Miami Heat captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2006 as LeBron’s good friend and Draft classmate, Dwyane Wade, joined forces with O’Neal to turn up the heat on South Beach, but they weren’t built to last and they went into rebuilding mode.

It wasn’t even clear then whether or not LeBron was the young superstar in the league you should bet on, what with Dwight Howard carving out a space for himself with the Orlando Magic as the league’s most dominant young big man.

Butler, however, insists we all should have seen the seeds of what LeBron had already planted in his native Northeast Ohio.

“Ask someone, I mean a true hoophead, and they couldn’t tell you who was on that team with him. I was in those series and I don’t remember who we matched up against all these years later.”

Caron Butler, on the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers

“We tried to always add depth at the forward position to keep alive body on LeBron,” Butler said of how the Wizards tried to counteract young LeBron. “It was myself, Jared Jeffries and and other guys. We tried to block him in and blitz him. But whatever you showed him, he just dissected it. He was a special talent, like I said, high IQ, and he just picked a defense apart.”

Mike Dunleavy Sr., the NBA’s Coach of the Year winner in 1999 who coached the LA Clippers from 2003-10, agrees with Butler … with the benefit of hindsight. Even from afar, only facing a young LeBron twice a year in an era when the unquestioned most dominant player in the game, he believes the signs were there.

“I think everybody knew you could build a team around him,” said Dunleavy, now the coach at Tulane. “But you figured you have to put some players around him, some real players, to get to a championship level. And the other thing, I defended him so weird early in his career because I thought he was just one of the greatest basketball minds and how he always delivered the ball on the money. When I saw him play I said to myself, ‘this guys is a point guard.’ And it turns out he is a point guard, you know.

“There was this notion that he had to be able to score against two and three players to be effective. And I’m like, ‘no, you got to get him better players, surround him with guys who can make shots.’ It wasn’t about building a wall around him defensively. We all learned that pretty quickly.”

The Boston Celtics’ tandem of All-Stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen would come later, a super team created to challenge the upstart Cavaliers and aging Pistons for Eastern Conference supremacy.

So the organic nature of what occurred in Cleveland in 2007 truly came out of nowhere. In fact, that Cavaliers team wasn’t considered championship material. LeBron was their only All-Star and he still had skeptics who weren’t sure if he was ready to carry a team to a championship level.

LeBron’s greatness takes center stage

The thinking was, back then, that after a year or two of banging their heads against the wall the Pistons had created, the Cavs might be ready to knock it down and reach The Finals.

“A great player, a transcendent player can accelerate your process,” said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, who was the general manager of the New York Knicks from 2003-08. “And I think there was a consensus even then that he was that type of player.”

When the playoffs started it was clear LeBron was prepared to take his game to another level. The Cavaliers swept the Wizards after season-ending injuries to both Butler and Gilbert Arenas left them defenseless against the onslaught.

“People don’t even remember that roster, I bet you,” Butler said. “Ask someone, I mean a true hoophead, and they couldn’t tell you who was on that team with him. I was in those series and I don’t remember who we matched up against all these years later. And that was our play-by-play chalk talk. But that just goes to show you … it’s a credit to his greatness on what he was capable of doing in terms of how he was able to elevate the level of other guys, average players in a lot of respects, below average even, that much better.”

The Cavaliers battled the New Jersey Nets for six games in the conference semifinals, knocking Jason Kidd and his crew out of the postseason and advancing to the conference finals for just the third time in franchise history.

Next up was the showdown with the Pistons, the they’d have to go through eventually, if they were ever going to ascend to a championship level in the Eastern Conference and in the league. LeBron turned in his finest NBA moments, to date, against a stout Pistons team that simply could not stop him.

Detroit series signals a star’s arrival

The matchup between the 2006-07 season’s top two teams in the Eastern Conference did not disappoint. LeBron rallied the Cavaliers from a 2-0 deficit after they lost Game 1 and Game 2 by identical 79-76 scores, giving the hometown fans hope that something special was in the offing.

Cleveland held serve at home in Game 3 and Game 4, taking both of those gritty, defense-first affairs. But it was Game 5 that saw LeBron truly come alive, turning in one of the most spectacular performances in playoff history.

In a one-point game with just over six minutes to play in regulation, LeBron came of age. He scored 11 of the Cavaliers’ final 12 points in regulation, all nine points in the first overtime and all nine in the second overtime to lift his team to a shocking 109-107 upset at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

He finished with 48 points, scored 29 of his team’s final 30 points, including a ridiculous 25 straight to put the Cavaliers in a position to vanquish the mighty Pistons in Game 6 on their home floor.

LeBron reflected on that performance earlier this season while the Cavaliers were in Detroit for their final game at the Palace. He seemed unfazed all these years later by what had to feel at the time like an out-of-body experience for that baby-faced 22-year-old on the highlights.

“I haven’t ranked games yet because I’m still going, I’m still playing,” he told reporters. “When I played that particular game, I was exhausted. I had nothing left. I left everything out on the floor. … I’ve had a lot of memories, obviously, but it’s been fun to play here in this building and get to see the history. I’ve had a lot of games here, battles with great teams. The fans have always been pretty great.

“I’ve been in some good zones before. I’ve put up some big numbers. I’m not a high-volume guy; I’m not just casting up shots and hopefully seeing if they’re going in. I’ve always understood the scoring time … and keeping the main focus, and that’s to win.”

The Cavaliers polished off the Pistons two days later at home in Game 6, cementing LeBron’s legacy as the change agent for a Cavaliers fan base starved for the sort of success that seemed on the horizon.

Falling short in The Finals

Yet, for all that was accomplished against the Pistons, the franchise’s first trip to The Finals would be over quickly. The Spurs were a championship machine by then. Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were all in the primes of their careers and San Antonio’s roster was stocked wth quality veterans and specialists at every turn. They were simply too good for whatever LeBron and Cleveland could muster.

They swept the Cavaliers with LeBron struggling against the defense of veteran agitator Bruce Bowen.

But there was excitement surrounding what the Cavaliers had accomplished. The future looked extremely bright. LeBron had officially arrived. Even Duncan acknowledged as much, telling LeBron in the aftermath that his time had come.

“This is going to be your league in a little while,” Duncan famously said as the two embraced in a hallway after Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena.

If only they knew how their careers would intertwine in the coming years.

Sure, this was just the beginning for LeBron, his championship journey still unfinished but well along its way.

The twists and turns on the way, however, no one could see coming.

Decade of Dominance: Part II — LeBron’s move to Miami

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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