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The Eastern Conference Still Belongs to LeBron James

By downing Boston in Game 7, LeBron not only clinched his eighth straight trip to the NBA’s biggest stage—he turned the conference finals into a staggering individual victory

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For the first time this postseason, TD Garden went somber. The buzzer sounded, and the Celtics were on the wrong end of the final score. The national TV broadcast fixated on LeBron James, as it often does, and he was wearing an Eastern Conference champs hat, as he’s done many times before. The King edged Boston for a 4-3 series win and, for the eighth time in a row, is headed to the NBA Finals.

“This is a hell of an accomplishment for our ball club,” James told ESPN’s Doris Burke after racking up 35 points, 15 rebounds, and nine assists in his 87-79 win over the Celtics in Game 7—his win, and Cleveland’s by default. LeBron had shouldered the load for the Cavaliers in these playoffs leading up to this series but exceeded even his performances against Indiana and Toronto in toppling Boston. Few players can will their way to a win; perhaps only LeBron can will his way to the Finals. Sunday’s triumph will go down as him escaping the East largely by way of individual victory.

The Cavs roster can be split into two groups: LeBron and not LeBron. Kevin Love, a five-time All-Star with a max contract to boot, is missing the defensive ability to bridge the gap. Tristan Thompson lacks the offensive prowess (and, on occasion, sense in general). Cleveland has gone through five point guards this season (Derrick Rose, Isaiah Thomas, Jose Calderon, George Hill, and Jordan Clarkson), and its best option at the position remains LeBron. He’s the answer to every one of his team’s questions, and although the talent discrepancy between him and his teammates has become a talking point during these playoffs, it’s worth fully appreciating what just transpired. Not one game in this series was played without someone on the broadcast pitying LeBron for his supporting cast; James averaged 33.6 points per game en route to beating Boston anyway.

Cleveland benefitted from Kyle Korver flashes, J.R. Smith flashes, and Jeff Green flashes, but those rarely came in the same 48 minutes. The only constant in the erraticism was the man leading it. No matter how alarming the Cavs’ defense or how ugly the team’s shooting, no matter what adjustments Celtics coach Brad Stevens made or how brilliant Jayson Tatum was, no matter how devastating it seemed that Love was forced to miss Sunday’s contest while in concussion protocol, LeBron was able to transcend it all.

By halftime of Game 7, it was clear that the end of this series wasn’t going to be pretty. None of the shots Korver, Jaylen Brown, or Terry Rozier took were falling, and many looked as though gravity was kicking into overdrive mid-arc. Boston and Cleveland were a collective 6-for-36 from 3-point range at the break and 16-for-74 for the game, serving as a reminder of who exactly was playing in this matchup. The Eastern Conference finals starred a backup point guard, an ascendant rookie (he was a joy to watch), and someone with “Average” in his nickname. On Cleveland’s end, it was James and the others, and once again James proved to be enough.

After Boston staked a 3-2 series lead on Wednesday, I wrote about how exhausting LeBron’s 2017-18 season has been. He looked winded after the first few minutes of Game 5; more than that, he looked human. He leads the postseason in minutes, he led the regular season in minutes, and for the first time in his career, he played all 82 games before the playoffs. The last time LeBron logged so many minutes in a regular season, he was 26 years old and entering his prime. At 33, he has yet to leave it.

In Game 6, LeBron went off for 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists; the elimination game that followed one day of rest added to an already crowded highlight reel. He was on the court for 48 minutes in compiling his 35/15/9 stat line, and 10 of his 15 boards were grabbed before halftime—only the second time LeBron’s ever reached double-digit rebounds at that point in a playoff game. Even the moments between buckets were remarkable, like him swatting Terry Rozier with such audacity that the guard may never try a one-handed dunk again. Or the tension that was palpable on the perimeter in the seconds before a LeBron dribble-drive as James amped up with Marcus Smart hovering. It felt like one-on-five at times, and the one won.

The first game of this year’s Finals will mark LeBron’s 101st game of this season. Never before has he played in so many, and now he’ll have to take on Kevin Durant or James Harden, Steph Curry or (possibly) Chris Paul. Whatever entertainment came from Celtics-Cavs seemed to happen in a bubble, as many people have long assumed that whichever team climbed out of the East would stand no chance against the Warriors or Rockets. The Western Conference finals have been billed as the real Finals. No one coming out of the East has the firepower to contend.

Of course, Cleveland didn’t look like it had the firepower to make it even this far. But LeBron James, as he often does, reminded everyone that he alone has it in him, the marvel in the mess.

An earlier version of this piece misidentified George Hill as Grant Hill.