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.