LeBron James found a way on Sunday, just like he always does. By leading Cleveland to an 87-79 win over Boston in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron punched his ticket to his eighth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. No player since Bill Russell with the 1960s Celtics had been to four or more Finals in a row. LeBron has now done that for two separate franchises, with vastly different supporting casts. He’s the most versatile player in basketball history, adapting his game to maximize his teammates, regardless of who they are or what they can do. That ability has been on full display throughout this year’s playoffs, as an undermanned Cavaliers team has shapeshifted around LeBron in each series to advance.
Cleveland leaned on its defense to get past the Celtics. Kevin Love, the Cavs’ only reliable source of offense other than LeBron, went down in the opening minutes of Game 6 and didn’t play in Game 7 while in concussion protocol. There was no way for this team to beat Boston in a shootout without Love, so it didn’t try. Head coach Tyronn Lue stressed defense with every rotation decision. He started a lineup that had played only 24 minutes in the series prior to Game 7, surrounding LeBron with four veterans (J.R. Smith, Jeff Green, Tristan Thompson, and George Hill) who could switch screens, defend multiple positions, and hold up in single coverage without help.
Boston had no answer for that lineup, which registered a net rating of plus-23.3 over 53 minutes in the conference finals. Without the injured Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics have relied on a democratic offense that ruthlessly attacked the weakest link on the opposing defense. Their problem in Game 7 was there simply weren’t many weak links to attack. Lue cut his rotation to eight, with his worst defenders (Kyle Korver, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson) coming in off the bench. Boston immediately went at them when they were on the court, so Lue played them only a combined 35 minutes. He played his starters for 205 of a possible 240 minutes, and he never took LeBron out of the game.
Boston couldn’t create any offensive momentum. Al Horford and Jayson Tatum had moments of brilliance attacking switches, but neither could sustain them for long enough to force the Cavs to send help and get their teammates open shots. The Celtics shot only 7-for-39 (17.9 percent) from 3. No one in their supporting cast was able to create offense, as Jaylen Brown (5-for-18), Terry Rozier (2-for-14), Marcus Smart (1-for-10), and Marcus Morris (5-for-14) spent the game bricking shots off the dribble.
The downside for Cleveland in starting all of its best defenders came on the other end of the floor. The Cavs didn’t have much 3-point shooting with Love in street clothes and Korver getting spot minutes, allowing Boston to pack the paint and send multiple defenders at LeBron. The Cavaliers shot 9-for-35 (25.7 percent) from beyond the arc, and LeBron had three of their makes. He didn’t have much space to operate, which makes his statistical brilliance (35 points on 12-for-24 shooting, 15 rebounds, and nine assists) all the more staggering. Give LeBron an inch and he’ll take a mile, lowering his shoulder and powering his way to the rim.
The only other Cavalier to get much going offensively Sunday was Green, who had 19 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds. He has long been a punching bag around the NBA for his inconsistency, but came up big in the biggest game of his life, running into easy baskets, confidently attacking closeouts, and finishing over smaller defenders. Green did just enough to get LeBron some rest while he stayed on the court. Cleveland had only two other players (Smith and Thompson) in double figures, and almost all of their production came from LeBron spoon-feeding them open looks.
This probably isn’t a formula that can work over the long haul. Even LeBron can’t play this much over the course of an entire series. He tried to play all 48 minutes in Game 7 of Cleveland’s first-round matchup against Indiana, and his body couldn’t handle it. His defense on Sunday was hit-or-miss, as he lost Brown several times and couldn’t get as much lift in his legs as he needed, most notably when Tatum dunked on him on a drive in the fourth quarter. The good news for the Cavs is they have other formulas to which they can turn. That gets back to the shapeshifting: The way Cleveland beat the Celtics was very different than the way it beat the Raptors and Pacers.
The Cavs overwhelmed Toronto in the second round with their offense. Cleveland recorded a 121.5 offensive rating and 110.1 defensive rating in that series, as opposed to a 102.7 offensive rating and 102.1 defensive rating against Boston. Lue went with more offensive-minded players en route to a four-game sweep in Round 2, flanking LeBron with four 3-point shooters and blowing the Raptors off the floor. Toronto never found an answer for the two-man game between Love and Korver, and didn’t have enough offensive firepower to punish those two on defense.
Against Indiana, Lue found the middle ground in emphasizing offense and defense. It took him several games to figure out which of his newly acquired players could be trusted in a playoff environment, and he tinkered with his starting lineup several times against the Pacers before opting to go with the veterans LeBron trusted (Thompson, Love, Korver, and Hill) in Game 7. Cleveland has now employed a different starting lineup in each of its three closeout games in these playoffs. Lue catches a lot of flak for his simplistic offense and tendency to overthink rotation decisions, but he’s also flexible and unafraid to experiment, valuable traits for a coach whose star player is as uncommonly versatile as LeBron.
Lue and LeBron are constantly probing the Cavs’ opponents over the course of a postseason series, looking for weak spots to attack while shoring up weak spots of their own. The playoffs are all about matchups, and Cleveland is uniquely positioned to create and exploit mismatches because it can restructure its identity around LeBron. He is a basketball genius who can figure out exactly what his team needs in a given series, and then adjust his game to provide it. That’s one reason he has been so remarkable in closeout games in his career. Play a team enough in a short amount of time and he’ll figure out a way to defeat it.
Versatility is LeBron’s defining trait, especially in comparison to his fellow all-time greats. He’s not as explosive a scorer as Michael Jordan, and he’s not as good a passer as Magic Johnson. He isn’t as dominant defensively as Bill Russell, and he’s not as unguardable in the post as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. What’s so incredible about LeBron is that he’s almost as good as all of those players in each of their strongest categories. None of the others could have succeeded on as many different types of teams as LeBron. James doesn’t have a position: He can play all five at a high level on both sides of the ball. Almost any combination of players can work around him. The past eight years are proof of that.
While LeBron’s 3-5 record in the Finals is often held up as a knock against him, his carrying those teams to the Finals represents a more impressive accomplishment. Cleveland will be a massive underdog against either Golden State or Houston in this year’s Finals, but that doesn’t make his work dragging the Cavs through the first three rounds of the playoffs any less impressive. What LeBron has done in 2018 goes right up there with what he did in 2007, when he led a team whose second-best player was Larry Hughes to the Finals. The same line of thinking applies to 2015, when he brought a team that started Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov to Game 6 of the Finals.
LeBron may not end up reaching Jordan’s mark of six NBA titles, but his eight consecutive Finals appearances will be just as difficult a mark for any future player to match. The sheer willpower and endurance necessary to make that happen in the modern NBA is mind-boggling. Only four teams have made four straight Finals in the past 50 years: the Showtime Lakers, Bird’s Celtics, LeBron’s Heat, and LeBron’s Cavaliers. (The Warriors will join that group if they beat the Rockets on Monday.) LeBron has played in 164 playoff games over the past eight seasons, the equivalent of two entire regular seasons (with two extra games thrown in for good measure). Most players would break down physically under that strain. LeBron has never suffered a serious injury.
LeBron shouldn’t be this good after 15 seasons in the league. He’s already played more career minutes than Jordan, even counting MJ’s two seasons with the Wizards. LeBron has dedicated his life to basketball, and he’s helped it reach new heights of global popularity. He’s not just the face of a franchise. He’s the face of an entire sport. That goes hand in hand his being in the Finals every year, no matter who he’s playing with.
LeBron can’t always win in the Finals once he gets there, but he doesn’t leave any points (or rebounds, or assists …) on the board. He uses his versatility to get the most out of his supporting cast, and Lue will shuffle pieces around him until something clicks. A team with LeBron James always has a chance.
“We’re right there,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told his team during a timeout taken three and a half minutes into the fourth quarter of a Western Conference finals Game 7 that hit nearly every single beat we’ve come to expect from Golden State and Houston. He shrugged his shoulders; his team had just missed its 25th consecutive 3-point attempt, a new ignominious NBA playoff record. “We’re right there. Right?”
In D’Antoni’s West Virginian drawl, that last word was stretched and pulled in strange directions, sounding like an affirmative as much as a question. Televised huddles are an exercise in intentional banality, but it was a revealing portrait of D’Antoni in the latest ever-the-bridesmaid moment of his career, a 101-92 loss that eliminated him one series shy of the Finals for the third time since 2005. That right? might’ve been the closest we’ll get to seeing D’Antoni express a crisis of faith. In that moment, he became a statistic; the Warriors inevitably draw out that sense of doubt in every series they play.
The improbability of the Warriors’ endeavors in the first two seasons of their dynasty has been eroded by time. The narrative foundation of Golden State games has shifted from an anticipation of the journey to the unbending reality of the Warriors’ ultimate destination. That’s a stark change in how we process the rhythm of their games. Watching the Warriors is almost like watching basketball via one of Sam Hinkie’s strange ruminations: Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order? Until it ends with a win, Warriors games are out of order.
The narrative beats that the Warriors instill over the course of 48 minutes can be both overbearing and oddly comforting, like a drawn-out will-they-won’t-they arc in a sitcom (yes, of course they will). Golden State puts the league in a constant state of déjà vu: A Rockets 15-point first-half lead in Game 7 only serves as fodder for the unyielding torrent to come in the third quarter, because that’s exactly what happened in Game 6. After Monday’s series clincher, Golden State over the course of the postseason has outscored opponents by a rate of 33.1 points per 100 possessions in the third quarter. Maybe it’s because those 15 minutes of halftime allow Draymond Green a chance to catch his breath and process all of the in-game adjustments that need to be made; maybe Steve Kerr puts on his own halftime show of motivational clipboard-chopping; maybe it’s just the masochism that develops with those in a position of power. Or maybe it’s as obvious as the Warriors make the sport: “Our talent took over,” Kerr said after the game. “I mean, it’s as simple as that.”
Steph Curry acknowledged a calmness in the locker room during halftime, despite the pressures of being down double-digits in an away game that could very well decide the future champion of the league and the moves made thereafter. His third-quarter eruption came and went like clockwork: Curry had 14 points in the frame, which included a two-minute stretch in which he scored 11 consecutive points for the team. It’s become something of a Curry signature: an offensive kick-start that restores order and reestablishes the values that the Warriors have built their team around for the past half-decade, notably the notion that Steph can turn himself into magma at a moment’s notice.
“We weren’t too worried, believe it or not,” Klay Thompson said after the game. Why would they be? More than any other team in the league (and possibly trailing only one player in the league), the Warriors control the narrative that surrounds both them and the teams they face. Which is why the most interesting and overwrought story of the Warriors’ season thus far is what, exactly, Kevin Durant means to this team, just as the early monotony of the 2000s Lakers dynasty was girded by the alpha tensions between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. It’s the only narrative in the Warriors universe that seems to have real-time stakes: Durant’s first half was the type of uninspired effort that keeps Warriors fans at an arm’s length in their support for him, although, just like the team as a whole, his performance evened itself out by the end. The 30-footer he drilled in James Harden’s face early in the fourth quarter to stunt a Rockets run was a soul-reaving gut punch, and exactly the kind of shot one might point to as an example of the Warriors’ tedious dominion:
We may be headed to a fourth consecutive Finals matchup between Golden State and Cleveland, but there has been a sense of optimism among the most prominent challengers to the throne. “I think we’re very close, obviously,” D’Antoni said after the game. “You know, some things we’ll tweak and we’ll get back on the horse and we’ll get these guys here pretty soon.” This wasn’t a sprint to the Finals the way last year was; both the Warriors and Cavs had grueling conference finals, and they’ll show each other their battle scars soon enough. Time isn’t done wearing away at what, from the surface, looks to be an infinite loop. There are costs to long-term greatness; how each side’s fatigue manifests is the most interesting subplot of the rivalry since the 2016 playoffs.
“Sometimes after you’ve reached a championship or two, the players who were key players might want something different—something more,” Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, winners of four WNBA championships since 2011, told The New York Times. “So how does that change the balance that made you so good in the first place? That’s why it’s so hard to repeat, because of change. Life happens to people.”
Massive changes are afoot as soon as the NBA Finals are over. So much of what we know about the league could be altered irrevocably. Cavs-Warriors IV could serve as a capstone to one of the most important sagas in this boom era of NBA history. For now, I’m willing to wade in the familiarity one more time. Golden State feels just as inevitable as it ever has during this dizzying four-year run, which is exactly why it could all change sooner than we think. Nothing gold can stay. Not even these Warriors. Right?