LeBron James caught the ball and darted up the court as a one-man fast break, just as he’s done so many times over his NBA career. But this time, all the marbles were on the line. It was a trip to the NBA Finals for the eighth season in a row, and James wasn’t about to let the Celtics get in the way.
So he whipped right around Marcus Morris, and when Morris grabbed him on both shoulders, James muscled through the contact, converted the layup and got the foul. Then he pounded his chest and let out a deep, furious battle cry. That was the moment this one was over.
The Cavaliers may not win another NBA championship year. They’ll have a whole new animal in the winner of the Rockets vs. Warriors Western Conference Finals to deal with first. But defeating the Celtics, 87-79, in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals is an accomplishment of itself.
Was it the greatest accomplishment of James’ career? That’s up for debate.
ESPN’s Doris Burke asked James that very question just a few moments after he’d spent all 48 minutes on the floor willing his team to a victory. As exhausted as James was, he tried to give a complete answer:
“A lot is going through my mind right now, Doris. We’ve been counted out from a long time this season. Right around the trade deadline, no matter if we made a trade or not, I kind of just switched my mindset on saying let’s get the most out of this season I can, and I’m determined to get the most I’m trying to squeeze this orange until it’s no more juice left. This is heck of an accomplishment for our ball club, without our all-star power forward as well for basically two games. This team was undefeated in the postseason at home, and for us to do this and for me to be able to lead these guys, it’s a treat.”
What all did LeBron have to deal with?
- The Kyrie Irving trade: This season started off on the wrong foot. Irving reportedly suggested he didn’t want to play with LeBron anymore, forcing the Cavaliers to trade him for the best possible return. We thought Cleveland did well with that trade last summer to Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn pick and a 2020 second-round pick. Now, only the draft picks remain with the team.
- The Derrick Rose saga: The Cavs signed Rose to a one-year deal in the offseason, and he was supposed to be a solid backup for Thomas. But Rose got hurt, was forced into a walking boot, then reportedly questioned his basketball future. Without Thomas and Rose, Jose Calderon saw minutes at starting point guard for an extended period of time.
- Oh boy, Isaiah Thomas: Thomas wasn’t healthy to start the season, and the Cavs knew this. He had a hip injury that he opted to rehab without surgery, and it kept him out until Jan. 2. But even in his return, he was shooting his way into game shape. And his occasional offensive bursts weren’t nearly enough to compensate for his stature, weakness on defense, and public criticism of Tyronn Lue’s coaching adjustments. Cleveland went 7-8 in games Thomas played in, including several blowout defeats. That all led itself to...
- The roster blow-up: Yup, the Cavaliers blew everything up midseason. They traded Thomas and Channing Frye to the Lakers for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Cleveland sent Crowder and Rose to the Jazz for Rodney Hood, then traded Iman Shumpert to Sacramento for George Hill. Finally, the Cavs sent Dwyane Wade back to Miami for a second-round pick they probably won’t ever get.
- Kevin Love’s injury: Oh, did you forget? Love broke his left hand in a Jan. 30 matchup against the Pistons and missed a total of 21 games. Somehow, the Cavs went 11-10 without their All-Star forward. He also missed Games 6 and 7 of the East Finals with a concussion.
- Tyronn Lue’s health: Lue said chest pain had bothered him for over a year, but it wasn’t until a March 17 game in Chicago that he realized it was time to make his health the priority. Lue missed 10 games, returning to the sidelines on April 6 with two more games until the playoffs began. Assistant coach Larry Drew was the coach in the interim. The Cavs still went 9-2 without Lue.
- The fourth seed: Not the first. Not the second. Nope, not even the third. The Cavaliers finished with just the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, behind the Raptors, Celtics and 76ers. His team hadn’t finished fourth in the East since the 2007-08 season.
All that, and he still got his team with a majority of fresh, new faces into the playoffs. They withstood a resilient Indiana Pacers team in seven games in the first round, swept the top-seeded Toronto Raptors in the second, and defeated the Boston Celtics in Game 7 to advance to the NBA Finals on Sunday.
Is this the most impressive accomplishment in his career?
Well, he didn’t win a championship, and bringing another NBA Finals trophy to the city of Cleveland, given everything he’s gone through, would likely sit at the top of James’s accomplishment checklist.
But win or lose in the Finals, this has been one incredible season for The King’s reign.
The only other accomplishment that comes remotely close to what LeBron has done with this Cavs roster is coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against the 73-9 Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals. That was an incredible feat that delivered the city of Cleveland its lone NBA championship. That ring has to mean more to James than either of the two he won in Miami.
But with the roster turnover, the health issues left and right, the intra-squad controversy, and the playoff adversity, LeBron James has come out victorious in the Eastern Conference once again. It might not result in an NBA championship, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an accomplishment worth celebrating.
It actually just might be his best yet.