If there is one thing I’ve learned about myself while watching the NBA Playoffs over the last five years, it’s that I will inevitably be disappointed. I will be disappointed because I am a fan of the underdog, and the underdog does not beat LeBron James. I will not stop rooting for the underdog. LeBron James will not stop beating underdogs. These are facts.
As a Celtics fan, some of the sweetest moments of the last decade have involved the Celtics beating LeBron. Beating him in Cleveland. The Celtics never conquered LeBron’s Miami Heat, though they came within one game in 2012. The Celtics made their way to the title in 2008 by surviving LeBron’s Cavs in 7 rugged, offensively-challenged games. In only one of those Eastern Conference Semifinals games did either team reach 100 points. Teams were routinely held under 75 points. It was a gruesome affair. The Celtics won. LeBron, who shot 35% from the field over the seven games, had very little help. I bet you can’t name two of the three next-highest scorers for Cleveland in that series. The Celtics shot 42.5% in the series, and 28% from deep. The Cavs shot 41% in the series. 30% from deep. It was all ugly, all the time. And that’s how LeBron lost in 2008. Without any offensive help. I’ll give you a second….
Zydrunas Ilgauskas. 11.9 points.
Delonte West. 11.4 points.
Wally Szczerbiak. 10.7 points.
LeBron famously moved on to Miami, where he would have gratuitous amounts of offensive support and much nicer weather. Where Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, and numerous others spread the floor, and where Dwyane Wade helped carry the crunch time load. The Heat were dominant. LeBron was able to wisely conserve his energy in order to play power forward when it was necessary. He transformed his game, became an intimidating post threat and a pinpoint passer. The Eastern Conference landscape shifted dramatically.
The Detroit Pistons aged and slowly disintegrated, though not without one last fight in 2008. The Pistons have been free-falling since then. The Josh Smith fiasco. Andre Drummond and Stan Van Gundy better come up with some magical potions soon, or Pistons fans will lose any optimism after two decades of very good to great teams.
The Boston Celtics rampaged through the East in 2008 and took the title, and came very close to adding another title in 2010. Up three games to two, the Celtics lost Kendrick Perkins, who went down with a knee injury in the first quarter of Game 6. Injuries mounted in 2011 and the team slowly disintegrated, though not without one last glorious fight in 2012. The Celtics took a 3-2 lead in the East Finals, before LeBron’s insane 45-point (19 of 26 from the field) effort squelched any hope of the Celtics returning to the NBA Finals. The Heat built a 13-point halftime lead at TD Garden and didn’t look back. The Celtics kept Game 7 close, before losing steam in the 4th quarter. Game. Set. Match. End of an era in Boston.
The Orlando Magic rode Dwight Howard and hot three-point shooting to the Finals in 2009. After winning 59 games in 2008-09, the Magic repeated with 59 more wins the following year. Winning percentage in years since: .634, .561, .244, .280, .305. The Magic began rebuilding in 2012. I think the statue of limitations ends next year. After that, it’s just “rebuilding.”
Derrick Rose’s body couldn’t handle the demands of Derrick Rose’s athleticism. After adding Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, and watching Jimmy Butler emerge into a two-way star, the Bulls seemed prime for another run at the title this year. When Kevin Love went down in the first round, things seemed very possible for this Bulls team. A few plays turned their series with Cleveland. LeBron hit a couple of crazy shots. Pau Gasol injured his hamstring. The Bulls pushed the Cavs to six games and then went softly into the night in a forgettable Game 6 meltdown of offensive ineptitude.
And now we’re left with the 60-win Atlanta Hawks. A feel-good story all season long. And there’s nothing left to feel good about. Injuries have wiped out the Hawks. First the NYPD broke defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha’s leg in a nightclub incident. Then Al Horford pinky finger was dislocated at the beginning of the playoffs. Then DeMarre Carroll went down with what looked like a horrific ACL tear, but turned out to be a hyper-extended knee and bone-bruise. Then Kyle Korver’s ankle was broken by the bowling ball known as Cavs guard Matthew Dellavedova.
Of course, the Cavs have been dealing with their own injuries to numerous players. Love’s shoulder. Irving’s ankle issues leading to knee tendinitis. The Cavs depth has surprised most. Depending on Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones was not what GM David Griffin had in mind when dreaming about the playoffs in March. The injuries to LeBron are visible as well. He just keeps playing. Grimacing and stretching his legs. But LeBron just keeps going. He is inevitable. His team will win again because he makes everyone else so much better and because he is bigger, stronger, faster and hyper-intelligent on the court.
LeBron is 30 years old. For the last five years, the Eastern Conference playoffs have felt inevitable. Unsurprising.
In 2013, I jumped on the Pacers in February, admiring their Celtics-style defense and the emergence of Paul George. Heat over Pacers in 7 games. Three of the first six games were grinders. Brutal and close. Game 7: Heat blow out the Pacers by 21.
In 2014, those Pacers started the season 40-11, looking every bit as dominant as a team might look, before slumping to the regular season’s finish line. Slowly, the Pacers pulled themselves together and got back their defensive intensity as the playoffs moved on. They would meet the Heat in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch. After giving the country a ray of hope in a Game 1 win, the Pacers went on to drop Games 2, 3 and 4 in increasingly ugly fashion. They squeaked out a Game 5 win, making the series look respectable, before the avalanche of Game 6 hit them. Miami’s 25-point win gave the Eastern Conference Playoffs a similar final note. Demolition.
The Pacers lost Paul George over the summer to a freak leg injury. Their franchise is now aging and about to disintegrate.
You know the story…
LeBron is 30 years old. The Golden State Warriors and their continued mastery of the NBA stand in LeBron’s way. Kyrie Irving’s ankles and knees will rest until Thursday, June 4. Both of the Conference Finals series could end in four game sweeps. We could be waiting for nine days. Game One of the Finals will surely be a sloppy contest, filled with rust and dust. There won’t be a sense of inevitability to the Finals. LeBron and his Cavs will be done with the East. There will be dramatic moments. Steph Curry’s ascension to the top of America’s sporting landscape will continue.
It leaves me with a question, though. How old will I be when the Eastern Conference Playoffs become intriguing again? Will LeBron be 37? A full-time Karl Malone-type of power forward who no longer chases down blocks in the open court? Will LeBron be 40? The best sixth-man in the NBA? Will LeBron retire at age 35, too proud to continue playing after his legs betray him?
For now, LeBron remains close to his peak. Putting up ridiculous numbers, and instilling fear in his opponents. The Hawks are just one team in a long line of them. Hopefully they manage one win before their time is up in these East Finals.