LeBron James is King of the East, but can he carry Cavaliers to title?
At the risk of oversimplifying these Eastern Conference finals, there are only so many ways to bridge the divide that exists between a team that has LeBron James on its roster and an opponent that does not. Toronto pushed back against that deficit all series, and most successfully in Games 3 and 4. Eventually it overwhelmed the Raptors. James played with ease and energy through his 41 minutes in the clinching 113–87 Game 6 win Friday, imbuing so much of what the Cavs did with unmistakable purpose. Toronto’s runs were dismissed out of hand by a team that moved the ball, scrapped to defend and earned its place in the championship round.
The Raptors, just as they had summoned enough pluck to survive the Pacers and push past the Heat, found the scores and stops to cut into their mounting deficit. DeMar DeRozan began the fourth quarter with a jumper to pull Toronto within 10, establishing in that moment a closing plausibility. Why not? This game had felt slightly out of reach for the Raptors since its opening minutes, but a team of their quality can at least position itself well for one last gasp. The exhale, unfortunately for Toronto, came quickly. Within five minutes, a 10-point game had grown into a 21-point game despite DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s best efforts. It reinforced then what seemed clear from the start: This series was beyond the Raptors’ reach.
That starts with James, though Toronto didn’t have much more luck containing Kyrie Irving (30 points, nine assists) or containing Kevin Love (20 points, 12 rebounds, four three-pointers). Any offense charged with ball movement and featuring those three will stress every element of an opposing defense. The Raptors couldn’t hold and although they worked hard to cover as much ground as possible, smart passing easily outpaces defensive rotation. Some of the Raptors’ shortcomings were personnel-driven, as was clear whenever the Cavs optimized their floor spacing by playing James, Love, and Channing Frye together in the frontcourt. Others were sins of overcommittment—scrambles so desperate and close-outs so frantic they left the next level of the defense exposed. Cleveland was on top of every breakdown.
Those will come less frequently in the Finals, regardless of whether the Cavs ultimately match up against the Thunder or the Warriors. Both are flexible enough to actually defend the basket without completely losing Frye or Love on the perimeter. Neither will be so forgiving of Cleveland’s defensive lulls or its weaker defenders in general; whichever team comes out of the West will attack the Cavs to the point of frustration. Anything resembling the half-commitment of Games 3 and 4 will prime the Eastern Conference champions for a fall. Even its best, most dedicated defense yet might not be enough to cover all the angles teams like the Thunder and Warriors have available to them.
Yet James will again reset Cleveland to a place of advantage, if not quite to the same extent as in the conference finals. When he has the ball in his hands, James still stands as the most devastating physical force in the league. When he’s on the floor, James transforms the Cavs from a mass of talent into a cerebral, cohesive body. The King of the Eastern Conference will play as many minutes necessary and do as much as is required to give the Thunder or Warriors a series. This will be James’s sixth straight Finals for a reason. No player in the league is more qualified to adjust to that moment, and none is more eager to puzzle through the quirks and coverages to come.