It was a massive shock to the system for the Cleveland Cavaliers to not be the No. 1 seed in the 2017 Eastern Conference playoffs. For the defending champions to finish the regular season at just 51-31 and second in the conference behind the Boston Celtics was a major disappointment by any measure.
Their 2016-17 season included five, yes, five three-game losing streaks, LeBron’s worst month since his rookie year, and a number of baffling home losses to lesser squads. And maybe most importantly for the looming postseason, seeing the defending champions finish the season 20th in scoring defense was an alarming sight.
As has been the case ever since LeBron returned to Cleveland, there was hysteria about the regular season — how much he was resting, how much he was passively aggressively tweeting about his teammates, whether or not Kevin Love would be traded, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The question was once again whether or not LeBron and the Cavs could flip the switch and turn it on for the postseason. And after a sweep of the Pacers in the first round, the obvious answer is yes, and please stop freaking out about the regular season.
The Cavaliers are fine, they were always going to be fine, and the Eastern Conference still runs through them. No matter how many games his team wins in the regular season, any team that has LeBron James is the favorite to reach the NBA Finals and probably win them too. What, you think it’s a coincidence that he’s been to the NBA Finals in six consecutive seasons across two different teams?
But what may be more fascinating than the Cavs’ resurrection that everyone should have seen coming from a mile away is how they are doing it and just how well LeBron James played against the Pacers in their annual Round 1 sweep.
James’ line against the Pacers: 32.8 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 9.0 APG.
If we didn’t just watch Russell Westbrook average a triple-double over an entire season, we’d be saying it’s one of the most ridiculous statlines we’ve seen in recent memory.
LeBron has done some pretty remarkable things in his career, especially in the postseason. Skip Bayless, eat your heart out. Remember when he scored the Cavs’ last 25 points in a Game 5 Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Pistons in 2007? Or the buzzer-beater against Orlando in 2009? Or when he scored 37 in Game 7 of the 2013 Finals to beat the Spurs?
Then there was the capstone to his career, single-handedly winning the Cavaliers their first NBA championship with arguably the best three-game stretch in postseason history. Facing a 3-1 deficit against the team with the best record in the game’s history, LeBon went 41/16/7 in Game 5, 41/8/11 in Game 6, and 27/11/11 in Game 7.
With all that in mind, this may be a bit of blasphemy to type, but right now LeBron James may be playing better than he ever has in his career.
Just take the Cavaliers’ Game 3 comeback against the Pacers as evidence. The Cavs were down 25 points at the half in what seemed to be a throwaway game that highlighted every single one of their deficiencies. Then James put the team on his back like he did 10 years ago in Detroit. He led the way with a triple-double and 41 points and a dazzling array of highlights.
Most impressively, though? He led the comeback with fellow superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the bench. The unit on the floor for the Cavs? James, Channing Frye, Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, and Iman Shumpert.
This was James’ full Hall of Fame offensive arsenal on display. The driving ability, the passing vision, even his sometimes-maligned three-point shooting was locked and loaded. For all this time, the debate around James has been the help that he needed to get over the top. But as he showed in Game 3, it’s all about him right now and it doesn’t matter who is on the court with him.
This is what separates James from Harden and Westbrook for many in the MVP debate. While James’ regular season may have been overshadowed by that pair, he did average a career high in rebounds and assists while also shooting 54 percent from the floor, the third-highest rate of his career. Given those numbers amidst the Cavs’ struggles makes them all the more impressive.
But it’s James’ ability to make his teammates better — and most importantly, win huge playoff games — that puts him over the top. The irony is that James has done so in taking another step forward because of how the NBA has evolved and the success of players like Harden.
Offense is king in today’s NBA. Scoring went up again this season and all but one team averaged over 100 points a game this season. Ten years ago, there were fewer than 10 teams that averaged 100 points. Just five of the 31 playoff games thus far have been won by scoring less than 100 points (two each in the Clippers-Jazz and Bucks-Raptors series). The Cavs averaged just over 112 points per game in their first-round sweep of the Pacers.
The evolution that has come is the increased value of the three-point shot and the disappearance of the mid-range jumper. Teams now know that the most efficient and effective way to score points is in the paint or at the three point line. The Cavs have embraced today’s NBA and given James a roster of three-point specialists that allow him to spread the floor and use his greatest assets — his size, speed, and passing — to their greatest potential. That’s why players like Frye and Korver have been such crucial additions for the Cavs.
Seeing James master and re-master the game is truly a special experience. Even at the age of 32 with so much mileage on his legs and playing a league-high in minutes per game this year when he was supposed to be resting, James is only getting better. It’s like watching Tom Brady and Drew Brees and the veteran quarterbacks of the NFL pick apart defenses and age like fine wine. Maybe it shouldn’t be so improbable because these are some of the greatest players of all time in their respective sports.
James has never before averaged 32/9/9 during a playoff series like he did against the Pacers. The closest comparison might be the 2015 NBA Finals when he was a true one-man band without Love and Irving against the Warriors. In that series, he averaged 35, 13, and nine in a losing effort. However, he only shot 39.8 percent from the field.
Against Indiana, James shot a staggering 54 percent from the field and 45 percent from three-point territory. In this first-round series, James combined his Herculean efforts from his younger days when he carried an entire franchise on his back with the killer efficiency that brought him championships in Miami. It’s that combination that could make 2017 Playoffs LeBron the best of them all.
Before the postseason, some were asking whether it was the beginning of the end for James’ era. As unbelievable as it may seem this deep into his unbelievable career, we may still be witnessing James’ prime. With James finally getting a decent rest after sweeping the Pacers, the rest of his postseason journey should be incredibly fun to watch.