NBA

Cavaliers back to their best as LeBron raises bar to superhuman levels

Jay Asser 06:42 09/05/2017
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The king stays the king: LeBron James. Picture: Getty Images.

Flipping the proverbial switch should never be made to look this easy, but then again, LeBron James makes a lot of absurdities look easy.

One month ago, after back-to-back losses to Atlanta that crippled Cleveland’s grip on the Eastern Conference’s top seed, we were asking “what’s wrong with the Cavaliers?” for what seemed like the umpteenth time since the season began.

Today, in this moment, the only question worth asking regarding Cleveland is whether they’ll even lose a game ahead of an inevitable third-straight trip to the NBA Finals.

The Cavaliers’ current air of invincibility isn’t just the result of them getting to this point again, but an effect of how easily they’ve done it – two sweeps stemming from LeBron playing out of his mind, deadly 3-point shooting and much-improved defence.

It hasn’t been flawless by any means. There have been small lapses interlaced with the long stretches of dominance, which, aside from reminding us this team isn’t perfect, have almost made their performance seem more impressive.

Take the first-round sweep against Indiana. Yes, the Cavaliers never truly looked threatened and the short series indicates as much. However, they earned their wins by a point differential of one, six, five and four, respectively, for a plus-16 total in the match-up. That tied Cleveland with the 1975 Golden State Warriors for the lowest margin of victory in a four-game sweep in NBA history. Basically, it was as close of a sweep as we’ve ever seen.

No one considered the Pacers to be the type of team to capitalise on the Cavaliers’ weaknesses though. So if Paul George and little else could play the defending champions that close, what would happen when Cleveland met a team of real substance?

As it turns out, not a whole lot changed. In fact, the Cavaliers feasted on the Toronto Raptors more comfortably than they did Indiana, claiming another sweep against their foes from north, but this time with an average margin of victory of 15.2 points.

It’s difficult to discern how much of the series was a case of the Raptors not playing well or failing to take advantage of opportunities, and how much of it was Cleveland just stomping on – what at the time seemed legitimate, yet in hindsight has proven to be just cute – belief a revamped roster with Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker could hang and maybe even conquer their giants.

Any time Indiana or Toronto came close to turning the tide, the Cavaliers responded and kept them at arm’s length. Playing with fire has been nothing new for Cleveland and they’ve taken it to heightened levels of daring this season, but it’s almost as if they’re mastering how much and when to care in the playoffs. Instead of taking it by game though, as they often did during the regular season, it’s been by possession in the playoffs.

That type of flaw makes them human, even as they employ an immortal force in LeBron. It’s an interesting concoction which both makes them more interesting than their impervious rivals in the Bay and emphasises just how ridiculous LeBron is.

The best player on the planet isn’t just maintaining his otherworldly level as he rises in age, he’s unfathomably getting better. And you can only imagine what little room remained between what LeBron had already accomplished and what’s actually physically, humanly possible.

Yet here we are, in the midst of 32-year-old LeBron having the best postseason of his career with averages of 34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.5 blocks, 55.7 per cent shooting from the field and 46.8 per cent from deep. Granted it’s been eight games and tougher opponents await on the horizon, but time and time again LeBron has made it clear that there’s nothing he can’t do.

The Cavaliers’ issues in the regular season had little to do with LeBron himself, but it’s not a coincidence they’ve turned it on while he’s gone Super Saiyan. As one of the best to ever play the game, LeBron can cover up cover deficiencies like very few others can.

Will it be enough for him to lift the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the fourth time? The Golden State Warriors still loom large and that will be a mountain the likes of which LeBron has never scaled before. But as unavoidable as that question will become in a few weeks’ time, it’s not something Cleveland have to worry about as they prepare for the penultimate step in their journey.

Right now, all that matters is the Cavaliers have somehow managed to play their best basketball of the entire season at the very exact time they wanted and needed to.

And, because of LeBron James, no one is surprised.

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