For the past six years, any Eastern Conference team hoping to have a shot at an NBA title knew that, to get one, it would have to go through LeBron James. And for those six years, James has been an immovable object, throwing back one challenger after another.
James entered this postseason searching for a seventh straight NBA Finals trip — last accomplished by Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics teams in the 1960s — with his position as vulnerable as it has ever been. His Cleveland Cavaliers entered the playoffs with the second-worst defense in the NBA since the all-star break and didn’t look any better in squeaking out a pair of victories at home against the Indiana Pacers.
And that was before the first half of Game 3 Thursday night in Indianapolis, when the Pacers scored a whopping 72 points and led at halftime by 25 points. No team had ever come back from a halftime deficit that large in playoff history, and the Cavs certainly didn’t look as though they would become the first.
But most teams don’t have a singular talent like James at their disposal. And as he showed in the second half Thursday night, he can do things few — if any — can even dream. James had played every second of the second half, put up 41 points (28 in the second half), 12 rebounds and 13 assists and led Cleveland to a 119-114 victory over Indiana, giving the Cavs a three-games-to-none lead.
The fact James did it all while co-stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat the entire fourth quarter after going a combined 8-for-29 only underscores the magnitude of the achievement.
“He just willed his team and said, ‘I’ll put you guys on my back, going to make every play, make the right play,’” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue told reporters. “LeBron willed us home … 41, 12 and 13, played the whole second half.
“That’s what playoff basketball is about. You got to be willing to sacrifice and lay it on the line to win a game, and that’s what he did for us.”
James has done it time after time since leaving Cleveland for Miami in 2010 and beginning this run of dominance atop the East. One after another, James has run through the teams standing in his way, batting aside all comers with barely a second thought. The few times he has been challenged — such as when the Celtics took a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals in 2012 — he’s proven more than capable of rising to the occasion.
It’s easy to forget, on nights such as this, that James is in his 14th NBA season. He’s 32 years old — an age when virtually every other elite player begins to shift into a decline phase of their career. Instead, James was among the league leaders in minutes, averaged 26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists (the latter two both career highs) and kept a Cavaliers team that played through a host of injuries and changing parts chugging along throughout the season.
His brilliance is so complete, and his dominance so overpowering, that even with Cleveland’s obvious flaws and the amount of mileage he’s accrued on his body, who is going to stop this team from making yet another NBA Finals trip? The Toronto Raptors, after acquiring Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline, were supposed to be a stiff challenge in the second round. Now, after the Bucks obliterated them in Milwaukee Thursday night to take a 2-1 series lead, it’s possible Toronto won’t even make it that far.
The Bucks, led by their own incredible talent in Giannis Antetokounmpo, are still too green, too raw to sufficiently challenge the Cavaliers — though watching James face off against Antetokounmpo would be fascinating. At that point, it seems very likely that it will be John Wall, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards who will be awaiting Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals.
Unlike the past two teams that faced the Cavaliers for the right to get to the NBA Finals — the Atlanta Hawks two years ago, and the Raptors last year — the Wizards won’t be afraid of the moment. Washington showed this season in going toe-to-toe with Cleveland twice (losing in overtime at home in February before blowing out the Cavaliers in Cleveland last month) that it relishes the opportunity to face James. Still, even the most die-hard Wizards fans are going to find it hard to mount a convincing argument that their team can take down James. They may remember the Wizards’ last consistent playoff team a decade ago, when James swept aside the Gilbert Arenas-Caron Butler-Antawn Jamison teams that once captivated Washington.
Those battles came as James was just beginning to show how dominant he would become. A decade later, everyone knows that the Eastern Conference championship goes through him, no matter where he is.
At some point, some day, that will change, and someone else will take James’ throne. But Thursday night he proved that that day has not yet come. And given how long and how completely James has been in control, it would be foolish to bet that day is coming anytime soon.