LeBron James will hit the NBA Finals for the eighth straight season on Thursday, 2018’s championship round will be his ninth in total and that’s just the way life works for the league LeBron’s taken over to the best of his ability. The last time James missed the Finals, Conan had a beard.
The 33-year old repeatedly proves dynamic enough to lead great squads, middling groups, injury-wracked rosters and whatever the hell the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers are to the best chance they’re ever gonna get. He never leaves the floor the same as when he found it, win or lose, all the blocks look different.
The game’s most fearsome player wasn’t at his best against the Boston Celtics in this year’s Eastern finals, nobody could be, the Celtic defense pressed and pleaded with James, tossing all sorts of stylish defenders at the Obvious One until he copped toward a compromise.
Seven games, but LeBron was going to win. The Celtics looked like they had six fellas on the ready to stay locked in lane with James during Game 1 yet by the time Game 7 hit it felt like a favor that James had even given Boston one more home contest to gnash through.
LeBron doesn’t just outlast teams, he scares them off the idea of immortality. Nobody should want to live this long, to play with this much spirit deep into every spring before a week or week and a half spent short of clinching. Entire towns, really big basketball towns, have been told to go take the decade off.
Boston gave its all and still looked whipped and for the next few months all we’ll remember are the eyes that LeBron left them with, and how the gaze looks so damn familiar. Mickael Pietrus wasn’t the first to acquire this feeling, to earn this burn, but he was part of the reason this became possible for LeBron, part of the reason a Finals trip became so impossible for so many in James’ bracket.
The Guadeloupean swingman was a defensive hound, catted about as the sort of diligent stopper that could get in a future someone like LeBron’s way during the scouting days leading up to the 2003 draft, the one that saw LBJ go tops overall to Cleveland and Pietrus sweat up to No. 11.
Pietrus was as outta nowhere as James was outta somewhere, yet by the time Mickael’s Orlando Magic faced James in 2009 in the Eastern finals, the prep had caught up to the rep.
LeBron fell in that series, Pietrus was as big a part of that as your eyes would allow:
"My numbers were ridiculous," James said, laughing. "And they called Mickael Pietrus the LeBron stopper at the time, too. I averaged like, 40."
“Like, 40,” because it was only 38 points and eight boards and eight assists, yet James still called Pietrus by his full name and the Cavs still lost a series that a lot of people thought they should win.
Those 2009 Magic were the last Eastern Conference squad that beat LeBron when he should have had a better chance, tapping at the same click-and-drag approach that’s taken James to the Finals in every year since the turn of this decade.
Seizing a chance to cut James’ endowment off at the nards a few years later, Boston signed Pietrus to a one-year deal just after the 2011 lockout ended. The Celtics outclassed James during Boston’s 2009 and 2010 postseason wins over Cleveland before comparing unfavorably with LeBron’s first season in Miami in 2011, losing to the Heat in five Eastern semifinal games.
LeBron moved on to look silly at the hands of Dallas in the 2011 Finals and Pietrus could only add to that hesitation — he eventually fouled James out of Game 2 of the 2012 Conference finals, Mickael doing his damnedest in the last few days before LeBron put it all together.The problem with LeBron is that he gives every series something to consider, before we get wise.
Every single postseason turnout since 2010’s move to Miami had come complete with reasons for pause, excuses for what briefly appears to be some function of competitive balance.
The second problem is what ends things, James creates a brand new team for himself during each playoff series and none of it feels fair in the moment, nothing seems justified in an argument with a season that everyone else had to start in October. The opposition’s expectations are cornered and yellowed by the time spring starts, ancient by Game 3, anachronistic by summer.
Al Jefferson gets it, he’s heard it twice from LeBron now, both times in the first round.
The scoring big man and the Charlotte Bobcats only wanted one playoff win from each other when they put ink to paper in the 2013 offseason, three years and over $40 million and please, roll your way to one Game 4 conquest in the first round so that we can push these Bobcats back into Hornets, so that Michael Jordan can sell Charlotte on what’s springing forward.
He was the nail to hang the beer light from.
Late in the first quarter of Game 1 in 2014 Jefferson planted a little funny as he moved to distract Chris Andersen on the Birdman’s way toward a dunk — hardly an unreasonable defensive suggestion. The Bobcats were up 21-12 before Andersen flushed, when Jefferson’s left foot tore into three or maybe four.
The Bobcats would win the quarter but lose the game and the series, Jefferson grimaced through three-quarters of it.
By 2014, Jefferson had already worked his way back from a torn meniscus and ACL reconstruction, he’d developed bone spurs by age 21 and was ready to practice through the “mad pain” of a self-diagnosed stomach ache, in 2006, before a hospital decided he should have his appendix out.
Al was three games in on the left foot that needed an entire summer off, Bobcats gotta represent, but by Game 4 things were becoming something more than mad:
"I wouldn't wish this [pain] on anybody," said Jefferson, who averaged 18.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in the series' first three games. "This is the worst pain I've dealt with in my career."
Jefferson would have to sit Game 4, the Charlotte Bobcats’ best chance at a gentlemen’s sweep in the face of LeBron (30 points, eight rebounds, six assists, 67.1 True Shooting) and his defending champs. Bismack Biyombo was Game 4’s replacement, the Bobcats disappeared without ever earning a playoff win, LeBron used the butt of the hammer handle to knock MJ’s nail back through the plaster.
When Jefferson’s Indiana Pacers took LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games during the 2018 postseason, an available Big Al didn’t see a second’s worth of action.
Pacers coach Nate McMillan probably didn’t want to embarrass his 33-year old with mop-up minutes ahead of the summer, when Indiana will likely decline the team option on the final season of Jefferson’s contract with the club.
Not after all he’s played through.Nate Robinson was a cornerback.
He got to start six times as a freshman for the Washington Huskies in 2002, the first football year that high school senior LeBron James (all-state high school receiver in two seasons prior) had to sit out in preparation for the NBA draft. Nate Rob lapped up two picks and 34 NCAA tackles in the same months that LeBron plotted his maneuver around that entire organization.
Robinson was always an oddity, any NBA player should be at (maybe) 5-9, but the pro could burn possessions and the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls badly needed someone to help with both pulling the wool and the wagons after Derrick Rose’s ACL tear.
The Bulls shocked the NBA in ending Miami’s 27-game regular season win streak during 2013’s regular season (Nate Rob slapped James) and in piling on the Heat at home to somehow steal Game 1 of a Eastern semis showdown in spring. A decade after sitting out his final football season, LeBron James dove into Robinson during the loss, bloodying Nate’s lip.
Nate responded later with a hearty swat of LeBron’s lay-in attempt during Game 3. James finished that contest with a team-leading 25 points and a win, he’d miss 31 of 51 shots during the final three contests of the series but the Heat weren’t about looking back, Chicago didn’t get a second win in the semis, the Bulls declined to re-sign Robinson during the 2013 offseason.
Nate last played NBA ball during a 23-minute cameo with the New Orleans Pelicans in 2015, the burst that left both sides unsatisfied, no NBA team has come close to giving Robinson his ninth NBA jersey in the piled-up seasons since.
Robinson reached out to James on Instagram partway through the 2017-18 season, after LeBron let it be known that his team needed “a fucking playmaker” for the playoff stretch.Nate Robinson is not on the Cavaliers’ postseason roster.Joakim Noah and Roy Hibbert were on the same All-Star team twice, in 2014 and 2012. The two worked on outfits that won as many or more games that LeBron’s Miami Heat managed in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
It was 2014 when Noah ranked fourth in MVP voting, two spots below LeBron, and when Roy Hibbert’s Pacers reached for four more regular season wins than James’ Heat.
Younger and taller than James, both centers seemed certain to lord over whatever LeBron chose next — turned out to be Cleveland — ready for the spirit of the sport’s length to check what it should in the face of a forward that doesn’t seem fair.
Noah ran his legs into the ground, galloping after James, chasing what was asked of him by the Bulls. He’d never be the same after dragging a bum leg through a 2014 first round loss to the Wizards, wrecking his career in an attempt to pitch his way toward LeBron’s turn at bat.
Roy Hibbert never recovered from Indiana’s withdrawal from its senses down the stretch of that same season, the Heat embarrassed the Pacers in the Conference finals.
Hibbert didn’t play in 2017-18, Noah only worked 40 minutes before the Knicks asked him to take a break from the team’s he’s signed with through 2020.
Hindsight hasn’t puffed out a cloud to cover the view of what seemed available, both pivotmen were that profound: Hibbert contributed emboldened basketball, Noah’s work was nothing less than inspirational, neither one of them has a home inside the NBA right now.LeBron James turned 30 two days before 2014 ended.
His present was two weeks off.
"I've got 41,000 minutes in my career, including the playoffs," he said. "You drive that car in the winter time."
James was in his first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers and it wasn’t just the 30, it was the six months in the season that were left.
"I'm serious, I haven't felt right in a long time,” James ticked to Chris Haynes in December, "the way I was playing out there, that wasn't me. I had to do something."
The eight-game sit gave the Cavaliers seven losses and James a seat to straddle all the way into January’s second week. He’d return to average 29.9 points alongside the Cavaliers’ 11-6 record in 2015’s first month, the space when the Atlanta Hawks won every single one of the 17 games they played.
Each Hawk starter earned a piece of the Eastern Conference Player of the Month award.
C: Al Horford — Averaged 17 points and eight rebounds with 4.3 assists in January of 2015, Al’s clubs have dropped to teams featuring LeBron James in each of the four postseasons since.
PF: Paul Millsap — Contributed team-highs of 18.3 points and eight rebounds in January, fell to James in postseasons 2015 and 2016 as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue begged for his ATL counterparts to sic Millsap on LeBron. Millsap returned to his native Western Conference in 2017.
SF: DeMarre Carroll — Compiled marks of 12.3 points and 4.6 rebounds alongside outrageous defense in January. With James “enjoying a monster game against Carroll before the injury,” DeMarre badly sprained his knee in Game 1 of Atlanta’s Eastern Conference finals loss to LeBron’s Cavaliers in 2015, the first of three consecutive years he’d start on postseason teams that fell fitfully to James’ gang from Cleveland.
SG: Kyle Korver — Made 55 three-pointers at a 56.7 percent rate in January. LeBron’s teammate Matthew Dellavedova broke Korver’s leg during that year’s postseason loss to Cleveland, 2016’s sweep at the hands of the Cavs saw Korver lifted from the starting lineup after two games. Dealt to Cleveland in early 2017, Kyle has since become way better at basketball than Carmelo Anthony.
PG: Jeff Teague — The point guard averaged a team-high 8.5 assists alongside 16.6 points, winning the Player of the Week award during the snowy stretch of January that LeBron spent resting at his place in Miami.
Teague played well in ATL’s 2015 loss to James and the Cavs but shot just 34 percent against Cleveland during the 2016 rematch. Leaning on the swell of the former, Larry Bird and Tom Thibodeau succeeded in acquiring Teague during the respective summers that followed.
LeBron doesn’t work winters, he creates them.
Since moving to Miami in 2010, LeBron’s knocked 13 different coaches out of the Eastern bracket, only two of them (Indiana’s Nate McMillan and Celtic coach Brad Stevens) still have those gigs.
Thibodeau (three losses to LeBron) and pal Doc Rivers (two after the dumb Decision) are burping through turbulence even after fleeing to the West, Frank Vogel’s already been fired after running to the low expectations of Orlando’s rebuild. They still make jokes about the time LeBron’s Heat beat Milwaukee, Jim Boylan was the team’s head coach for that sweep and he now works as an assistant with James in Cleveland.
After his Pacers fell to LeBron four different times, Larry Bird decided he’d had enough of Indiana. The Bucks are on a second owner, the Bobcats are on a second name, the Knicks hired and eventually tired of Phil Jackson after James sent New York home in 2012, Toronto just canned this year’s Coach of the Year after Dwane Casey’s teams crumpled in James’ presence for three consecutive postseasons.
Chicago’s rebuilding, Stan Van Gundy’s gone, fuckin’ Budeholzer had to take a job with the Knicks and the Nets never had a chance.
Philadelphia fit all of Doug Collins’ grunt, The (entire) Process and Bryan Colangelo’s cuffy culture war into a failed seven-year attempt to get back to the LeBron that swept the Sixers in the 2011 playoffs. Philly couldn’t get past Boston, Stevens is ohfer three against James.
LeBron hasn’t been the only thing that’s stayed the same, that’d be preposterous to insist. Each and every one of these fallen coaches could accurately and quite painfully detail the ways in which James grew in every conceivable direction between the tip of Game 1 and when the other team ran out of games to lose.
James adapts better than anyone in NBA history to the frightful confines of the series he’s in. You have to have twice the team to beat him, maybe more.