The Eastern Conference finals met their formal end on Thursday night, but in truth they had been in LeBron James’ back pocket for weeks. LeBron has had the power to end any game in this series at his urging. One time he let it slip. Another was put into jeopardy by his foul trouble before Kyrie Irving stabilized the Cavs and James put them over the top. Whether Isaiah Thomas—the third-highest scorer in the league this season—played or not in this series proved inconsequential. Cleveland exercised its complete control, reminding Boston at every turn just how little say it had in the matter.
Just in case the Celtics (or the world) hadn’t gotten the message, the Cavs threw out a 43-point first quarter almost nonchalantly. In the second, any time the the Celtics pulled within 20 sparked the home crowd to celebrate. The TD Garden had been filled for an unwitting formality; where the Boston faithful had seen hope in a game and a half of competitive basketball, James saw only the call for an early wrap. He bombarded the Celtics while overtaking Michael Jordan as the top postseason scorer of all-time, pushed the game out of reach by the third quarter, and retired early to the bench to blow his nose in peace. The Celtics were wrapped up in a tissue and summarily discarded.
This was the kind of game that featured a James Jones put-back dunk and J.R. Smith licking beer off his own arm. Whenever necessary, James could overwhelm any Celtic in his path. Just for kicks, Irving could dominate for minutes at a time by shifting into isolation overdrive; in the early third, for example, Irving scored 11 points in just over three minutes. Kevin Love sidestepped his way into three after three and the Cavs looked every bit like the kind of offense only one team in the league can match. They’ll meet that team next week in the only series in these playoffs to matter. It is a genuine shame that so little of this postseason has been a fair fight, but the build-up brings us to these captivating ends.
Cleveland and Golden State will meet in the Finals for a third straight season. Their annoyance with one another is palpable, a dynamic only likely to be stoked by Warriors owner Joe Lacob calling for a rematch on account of “unfinished business,” or by Cavs coach Tyronn Lue insisting that—against any conceivable logic—the Thomas-less Celtics are actually more difficult to defend than the Warriors. These two teams never meet quietly. They exchange elbows and barbs, press conference potshots and looks of incredulity. We didn’t get a competitive playoffs. But we will get another occasion to see the definitive best teams at each other’s throats. We’ll be treated to a third chapter of an all-time rivalry between two of the best teams ever. If this season felt as though the Cavs and Warriors were circling one another all year, it’s because they were. Every other team this season will be hazy in the game’s long memory.
All that’s left to sort out is how the NBA’s most unstoppable and cerebral player, flanked by two stars and all the spacing he could ever need, will fare against a team structured to be unguardable. There is no answer for the riddle of how to defend Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson all at once. But damned if it won’t be brilliant to watch James, a genius in his field, furrow his brow and dive into the puzzle headlong. It takes an unbelievable alignment of talent and vision to make LeBron an underdog in any series. The Warriors have managed it—so much so that Lue already seemed to be sweating some of the Cavs’ habits when it came time for his sideline interview.
When Lue and his staff saw the Cavs completely lose track of Jonas Jerebko in an underwhelming defensive exchange, they probably imagined the fallout in blue and gold. When Irving spun out comically on a screen as he was chasing Avery Bradley, they might have seen the same scenario play out with Klay Thompson popping open instead. For a team to play a bit loose in a blowout in the making is understandable. Yet for the Cavs, to lose the grip on their game plan or execution for even a few minutes in the Finals could be too much to bear. Cleveland is, in 97% of its matchups, more than capable of erasing any of its mistakes with an overwhelming run. Golden State is the one, brutal exception.
Maintaining that kind of discipline might seem impossible if we hadn’t seen it done just a year ago in the final three games of a championship series that already seemed decided. Here’s to continuation of that premise: basketball’s greatest problem solver poised to take on the one obstacle that seems beyond him.