Ben Solomon | The New York Times

LeBron James is one of the most dominant players in the Eastern Conference.

April 9, 2017

LEE | LeBron Proves He Rules the East

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The month of March was a disaster for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team, supposedly in the business of contending for a title come June, went an abysmal seven wins and 11 losses. This stretch, at least temporarily, lost them the one seed to the Boston Celtics. Head coach Tyronn Lue publicly questioned the team’s drive and defensive discipline. With the playoffs only a couple of weeks away, the Cavaliers were seemingly falling apart at the worst possible time.

With such a dramatic collapse, last Wednesday’s game was seen as a pivotal test for the Cavaliers. At the time of the game, Boston and Cleveland had identical records. Many predicted that whoever won this game would go on to clinch the one seed in the Eastern Conference. It was billed as a closely fought battle between the two best teams in the East, potentially having ramifications in each team’s playoff hopes.

And yet, the game turned out to be nothing like expected. The Cavaliers won. But what mattered more was the manner in which they did so. They thumped the Celtics to the tune of 114-91, and without their best rebounding big man in Tristan Thompson. All over the floor, the Celtics were simply outmatched. No one could handle LeBron James, who had 36 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on 64 percent shooting. The Celtics were especially beaten on the glass, with Kevin Love grabbing 16 rebounds, five of them offensive. More than that, the Cavalier’s defense, which had been so porous throughout the season, smothered the Celtics. Even the normally raucous Boston crowd was quiet, echoing James’ legendary performance there in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.

It seems to be a song and dance every season with LeBron’s Cavaliers. In his first season back, they went through well-documented growing pains, having a losing record at the midway point of the season. Last season, they were trounced by the Warriors in January, and by the end of the season, there was plenty of talk claiming that Warriors guard Stephen Curry had taken James’ mantle as the best player in the game. The Cavaliers had significant depth issues for the first half of the season and an incredibly poor March — a LeBron James-led team had not lost double-digit games in a single month since his rookie season — meaning that, once again, scrutiny was on the Cavs.

And yet, they have always come through when it mattered most: the playoffs. The Cavaliers have made the Finals every season since James’ return, and James himself has been to six straight NBA Finals dating back to his Miami days. This season, it is difficult to see who can actually topple them. For all their progress this season, Wednesday’s game shows that the Celtics, even if they are close behind in terms of regular season record, are still a ways-off from challenging LeBron on the big stage. Last season, the Toronto Raptors took the Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but pointing out the length of the series masks its one-sidedness: despite losing two games, the Cavaliers still outscored the Raptors by over a hundred points over the course of the series, including a 30-point drubbing in the Air Canada Center to clinch the series. Those who point at Cleveland’s shocking loss at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks on Friday should also be reminded that the Cavaliers have swept the Hawks the last two postseasons. At this point in time, it is difficult to pick out a team in the Eastern Conference that could be said to be legitimate favorites over LeBron’s Cavaliers over the course of a seven game series.

Perhaps the number one thing that can bring down the Cavaliers is something out of everyone’s reach. Cleveland’s title hopes rest on LeBron; without him, they can no longer boast a near-guaranteed trip to the finals. James is now 32, and has played an absurd amount of minutes up to this point in his career. It is now well-documented that James takes it easy in the regular season to preserve his body, and he reportedly spends north of a million dollars a year to keep in top shape. Still, even with all this investment, father time is unbeaten. Even if he is perhaps the greatest athlete to hit the court, there will come a day when the King no longer rules the realm. Until then, however, it seems safe to say the East is his.