Greatness can be defined in many ways. When it comes to LeBron James, his greatness lies in making the extraordinary look ordinary, the remarkable look routine and the unprecedented look customary.
We can do the whole LeBron vs Michael Jordan debate to death, but with James preparing to play in his eighth straight NBA Finals, it’s more interesting to examine what makes him so exceptional in his own unique way.
The only other players in NBA history to have reached eight straight Finals were part of the Boston Celtics teams of the 1950s and 60s. No disrespect to Bill Russell, who is the greatest winner the sport has ever seen with 11 rings and 10 consecutive Finals appearances, but the game and league now are incomparable to that time period.
LeBron's been in the NBA Finals longer than most players have been in the NBA. pic.twitter.com/tPMMl2THJU— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 28, 2018
In the modern day, no one has done what LeBron has. You can wave his 3-5 record in the Finals around all you want in an attempt to diminish him or make another all-time great look better in comparison, but ultimately it won’t be James’ ceiling that will be the primary reason he goes down as arguably the GOAT (greatest of all-time), but rather his baseline.
By beating the Celtics 87-79 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, LeBron solidified something we had already theorised but never had definitive proof of: that he can take any team to the Finals, regardless of circumstances.
There is no Kyrie Irving anymore to be the Robin to James’ Batman and help carry the load. Kevin Love, the only other All-Star on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster, played all of five minutes in Game 6 before suffering a concussion that kept him out of the decider. And even he has struggled to play that sidekick role. LeBron’s chief support in Game 7? Jeff Green.
Cleveland started the season with one roster and are going to the Finals with another. What remained after a slew of deadline deals was a veteran cast with championship experience, but role players nonetheless who’ve wildly fluctuated in the playoffs.
The one true constant has been James and he has somehow managed to drag this incredibly flawed and top-heavy team to the Finals, proving he can get as close as possible to winning it all by himself, no matter who’s around him.
When Bill Russell reached his 8th straight Finals appearances, he had 7 teammates in the clincher.— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) May 28, 2018
6 of the 7 were Hall of Famers.
The other was a 4-time All-Star who once averaged 25 PPG.
In the win to clinch his 8th straight, LeBron's highest scoring teammate was Jeff Green.
Simply reaching the Finals, of course, is not the ultimate goal for anyone, let alone for a deity like LeBron. Winning the title is always the mission and it’s likely James is going to fall short of that again in what may well be another lopsided Finals.
But there’s a wide gap between competing for a title and actually winning one, which is why practically every team that has ever hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy did so with multiple All-Stars or future Hall-of-Famers. It’s really damn hard to reach the top of the summit in the NBA and no one can do it on their own.
No one was supposed to come this close to doing it on their own either. Yet here we are, with LeBron having broken that barrier. He’s exceeded our wildest imaginations for how much impact one single player can have on a basketball court.
You might be saying, “What has James really accomplished? Everyone expected him to get back to the Finals and his competition wasn’t anything great, especially compared to the West.”
It’s true the Cavaliers may have already been eliminated by now if they were in the West bracket and that they needed seven games to dispatch an undermanned Celtics team missing two All-Stars to injury. It’s also true that LeBron has mostly met expectations at this point as he was always the favourite to return to the Finals.
Those expectations, however, weren’t based on the capabilities of the Cavaliers as a whole. They were the result of blind faith in James. And even though that faith was tested more than it ever has been, LeBron still rewarded it in the end.
If that’s not greatness personified, what is?
Sit back and enjoy the ride because the NBA is delivering us not one, but two Game 7s in the conference finals.
This will be the first time since 1979 that both conference finals have gone down to a deciding Game 7. For reference, that was more than five years before LeBron James was even born.
With the talent on display and storylines on offer between the remaining four teams, we could be in for something epic.
That got us thinking of the greatest Game 7s in history. Here’s our top five:
2016 NBA Finals – Cleveland Cavaliers 93-89 Golden State Warriors
It’s fitting the list starts with this all-timer, because James and the Warriors will be in action over the next two days.
Game 7s in any round of the playoffs are tense enough, but in the NBA Finals? That’s another level. And this battle two years ago didn’t disappoint as it featured James’ legendary chase-down block and Kyrie Irving’s game-winning 3 in the final minutes as the Cavaliers came back from 3-1 down to defeat 73-win Golden State and raise their first banner.
1988 NBA Finals – Los Angeles Lakers 108-105 Detroit Pistons
This one featured a weird ending that would never happen today, as the crowd flooded onto the court before the clock ran out. Magic Johnson also hit Isiah Thomas – who only managed 10 points and seven assists on a sprained ankle – on the last play, but no foul was called as the Lakers were crowned champions.
1981 Eastern Conference Finals – Boston Celtics 91-90 Philadelphia 76ers
This was quite the rivalry back in the day and Game 7 was a worthy chapter to close out a phenomenal series.
Boston at one point trailed by double digits, but came storming back before Larry Bird banked in a famous shot in the final minute that would serve as the game-winner. The 76ers had a chance to steal the game on the final play, but Bobby Jones couldn’t connect with Julius Erving on an alley-oop inbounds pass.
1969 NBA Finals – Boston Celtics 108-106 Los Angeles Lakers
To truly get a sense of this game, you have to know the backstory. Lakers owner Kent Cooke had put celebratory balloons in the rafters before the game in anticipation of his team winning, but the move got the attention of Bill Russell, who made sure those balloons never fell as Celtics held on in the final minute to claim their 11th championship.
1957 NBA Finals – Boston Celtics 125-123 St. Louis Hawks
There may not be many people left that remember watching this game, but it was as dramatic as you can get.
The Boston Celtics were pushed the limit by the Hawks, who sent the game to overtime on two free throws by star Bob Pettit. That set the stage for a crazy last play in which the Hawks sent an inbounds pass full court, which caromed off the backboard and to Pettit, who couldn’t hit from point-blank range as the Celtics narrowly escaped.
The teams have traded blows throughout the Western Conference Finals and Golden State have already managed a win on Houston’s floor (Game 1), so while the Rockets will benefit from home-court advantage, several other factors will be at play.
Here’s a breakdown of adjustments and areas to watch for both teams heading into the most important game of their season.
Move the ball
It sounds obvious, but Golden State have to start Game 7 with the same offensive approach they had to close Game 6. That means less Kevin Durant isolations and post-ups, and more of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson cutting and coming off screens.
But the Warriors should liberally use their three offensive stalwarts in on-ball actions as well, with various pick-and-roll combinations, especially with Thompson as the screen-setter. The sharpshooter has been deadly in those spots in this series, often slipping early for a spot-up look. It’s challenged Houston’s switch-everything scheme, catching them off guard with the timing.
The addition of the Klay Thompson pick-and-pop set the last two games pic.twitter.com/Ls0BIvTyfI— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 27, 2018
The Rockets were impressive in the first quarter of Game 6 when they built up a 17-point lead, but they were helped by Golden State mistakes. Specifically, the Warriors struggled to pick-up Houston’s shooters in transition – not just on fast-breaks, but off makes as well – and didn’t apply much ball pressure in the half-court.
Especially with Chris Paul out, the Rockets want to get up as many 3s as possible, so players like Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza aren’t going to be shy in launching right off the catch, whether there is a defender nearby or not. The Warriors have to make it harder on Houston by taking away many of those looks and forcing them to put the ball on the floor.
Houston are averaging 19 turnovers in their three losses in the series, which have resulted in 22.7 points per game for Golden State.
Some of these turnovers have been the kind you expect against a formidable defence, like strips and shot-clock violations. But a lot have been inexplicable, such as errant passes and mental lapses. The Rockets have to clean that up and take care of the ball, otherwise they’ll give Golden State’s offence even more ammo in transition.
Play through others for stretches
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Houston may fare better by relying a little less on Harden with Paul likely out again.
The reason? The Rockets are basically playing a six-and-half-man rotation, with Luc Mbah a Moute getting fringe minutes. Coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have any other players he trusts, so there will be a large burden on Houston’s regulars, including Harden obviously.
But pushing too hard on the pedal with Harden early could wear him out by the end of the game. Gordon has to get more of the shot-creating responsibility as a ball-handler to keep Harden fresher. It will be a delicate balance for D’Antoni, but it’s not untenable if managed better.