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LeBron James is still unstoppable when he cares

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LeBron James always rises up when the world begins to doubt him.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

One of the greatest proverbs of our time is that “men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.” We can create a variation of that to say, “men lie, women lie, actions don’t.”

LeBron James can say that he doesn’t care about regular season games all he wants — that he didn’t go into the game against the Celtics with any extra motivation, and that because he’s been to six straight NBA Finals, home-court advantage doesn’t matter to him — but he sure as hell played like he did against his team’s direct challenger in the Eastern Conference.

People who don’t care about regular season games wouldn’t swat away Marcus Smart’s layup with two hands and then go into the crowd to shake hands with opposing fans.

The Celtics are supposedly the team that can beat the Cavaliers in the East. While Cleveland has been struggling of late — with their defense in shambles, threatening to overtake the Lakers as the most inept unit — Boston had only lost two of their last 11 games going into the contest. They were hot enough to tie Cleveland and threaten to take the No. 1 seed right from the defending champions.

If there ever was a time to overthrow LeBron James, this was it.

That usurpation was easier in concept than it proved to be as an action. With the game close after the first quarter, James and his teammates decided that they were done entertaining the Celtics as challengers. James scored 15 points in the second quarter, after scoring four in the first. The Cavaliers outscored the Celtics 22-4 in the first 6:40 of the second quarter, and by halftime, the game that was advertised as a matchup between the two best teams in the conference, was over. Cleveland led by 15 points, and the lead would only balloon from there.

The Eastern Conference is a bygone conclusion. Teams like the Celtics and the Raptors and the Hawks, in other years, have been good. They’ve had great players, coaches, and have managed to reach new heights — but unfortunately none of those teams have a LeBron James. And that’s really the ultimate decider here.

What LeBron James did against the Celtics was remind them, in the most embarrassing fashion, that he rules over them, the conference, and the league. He is still their king.

He’s the equivalent of the Incredible Hulk in the first Avengers movie. When he cares about a game, he is near unstoppable.

Except, of course, James retains the intelligence of Bruce Banner when he decides to impose his force on those smaller than him, like Smart. He could challenge many coaches in the league in that regard.

He’s still one of the best passers in the league, one of the best scoring threats. He’s still too strong, too fast, and, when his jumper is working, much too multifaceted for two defenders to handle him, let alone one.

When James cares about a game, even when he says he doesn’t, he stays in it until the last four minutes of the fourth quarter of a blowout. He finished the game against the Celtics with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. In turn, he put an end to the speculation that this might be the year that his team doesn’t turn it on in preparation for the playoffs, and stopped all conversations about his imminent downfall and the rise of anyone else. He put everyone back in their place.

It’s understandably impossible for him to always perform at this peak. Beyond the normal physical and mental fatigue of going hard every single night, he has played an incredible number of minutes in his career. It is a wonder that he’s still in one piece. And this Cavaliers season has been maddening for how little he has been able to rest. His minutes per game are absurd for someone his age and mileage, especially when his team’s success in the finals depends on how healthy he is at that stage.

So James tends to cruise through a lot of the regular season, because those 82 games are practically beneath him at this point. We know that a LeBron James team will always be all right, and most likely end up in the finals. And even with a lax attitude, he’s legitimately in the MVP conversation once again. That’s just how good he is. Even when he doesn’t really try, he’s better than almost everyone else.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, to wait for the downfall of LeBron James. He’s done everything there is to do, and has won every NBA accolade possible. He should be at the twilight of his career, slowly inching past the last few records that stand before him. But he’s not there yet. He still hasn’t had a significant drop off. He’s still the best player in the league. And his perpetual stardom created a collective impatience where many people are jostling to be the first at the scene of his fall. There’s a drive to be the first to break the story of LeBron James no longer being LeBron James.

That means that every little argument with a teammate, every subtweet, any run of bad form — and even what would be legitimate worries for other teams, like the Cavaliers porous defense — is looked at as the possible smoking gun. It never is. James just comes back out and dominates the season’s chosen challenger and the cycles starts again.

The best way to ward off this temptation to bury LeBron, as the Celtics were just reminded, is to keep in mind that no one has much of a chance against him when he cares. They haven’t for the last six years, and they still don’t today. It’s better to accept that reality and enjoy the dominance of LeBron James than to delude yourself into thinking that it’s coming to an end.