At this point, it’s an early summer tradition unlike any other. Schools close down, pollen kicks in, the neighborhood pool opens for the season, and LeBron James goes back to the NBA Finals. And with the Cleveland Cavaliers posting a 135-102 avalanche over the Boston Celtics tonight in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, winning the series 4-1, James will be doing it again: for the seventh consecutive June, LeBron James will be playing on the league’s biggest stage.
This will be the Cavs’ third consecutive trip to the Finals, and the third year in a row they’ll match up against the Golden State Warriors. For the first time in NBA history, the same two teams will play three times in a row in the postseason’s final round.
“This is a big step for us,” said Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, “especially what we went through all season, and we were doubted throughout the regular season. To come back and do what we did, to go 12-1 in the playoffs, to be back playing good basketball, I’m very happy, and I’m going to enjoy it until we play Golden State.”
But before the Cavs could set up the historic three-match, the Cavs had to get past a pesky Celtics team which managed to remain competitive in this series despite losing their All-Star point guard, Isaiah Thomas, to a hip injury. After the Cavs dropped Game 3 in Cleveland, then bounced back with a win in Game 4 despite some shaky moments, and to get the series-clinching Game 5 victory, the Cavaliers turned to their Big Three of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
From the opening tip of Game 5, the Cavs basically played their greatest hits. There was Irving breaking ankles and spinning in double-pump layups off the glass. There was Kevin Love spotting up along the wings and crashing the boards. And, probably most importantly, there was LeBron James, doing all those things only LeBron James does. After turning in a few aimless quarters during Games 3 and 4 back in Cleveland, James played at full capacity in Game 5, coming out in the first quarter and posting 11 points, six assists and four rebounds as the Cavs jumped out to a 43-27 lead. James plucked passes from midair, found teammates loitering unguarded on the opposite side of the court, drained contested threes with the shot clock running down, flashed down the lane and flushed tomahawk dunks.
For Cleveland, it was a comprehensive offensive performance in the first half, as the Cavaliers either got to the rim or kicked it out for 3-pointers — they attempted only one shot in the first half that wasn’t either a 3-pointer or in the paint. By halftime, James had 20 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, and the Cavs were up 75-57.
When Boston started the third quarter with a jolt of energy, Irving quickly resurrected his ball-handling mixtape tribute act from the second half of Game 4, blowing by a variety of defenders to score 13 points in the period. The Cavs’ starting five played the entire third quarter and outscored the Celtics 34-17.
“As crazy as it sounds,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, “going into halftime we had cut it to at least a manageable number. And then we come out, we get some tremendous looks, and Kyrie goes nuts and ends us. That’s basically what happened.”
James capped his performance by knocking down a trio of 3-pointers at the end of the third quarter, which helped James pass Michael Jordan’s 5,987 points and become the NBA’s all-time leading postseason scorer. In 34 minutes of action, James finished with 35 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. James made 13 of the 18 shots he attempted, and had a plus/minus rating of 36.
For James, moving past Jordan was especially meaningful. “I wear the number  because of Mike,” James said. “I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike, just seeing what he was able to accomplish. When you’re growing up and you’re seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. So I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike. I started to focus myself on other players and other people around my neighborhood because I never thought that you could get to a point where Mike was. So I think that helped shape my game. I think the biggest thing for me sitting here today after breaking the all-time scoring record in playoff history is that I did it just being me. I don’t have to score the ball to make an impact in the basketball game. That was my mindset when I started playing the game. I was like, if I’m not scoring the ball, how can I still make an impact on the game? It’s carried me all the way to this point now, and it’s going to carry me for the rest of my career because scoring is not No 1 on my agenda.”
“He’s been so special for us,” said Love. “We know what he brings to this game as a whole, brings to this league, our organization. Every night he brings it for us, sets the tone, and it’s no different.”
And now the stage is set. To get there, the Cleveland Cavaliers went 12-1 on their journey through the Eastern Conference playoffs. It may not have been as easy as they made it look, but now the real challenge looms: the mighty Golden State Warriors, who went 12-0 in their Western Conference playoffs run and are looking to extract revenge after being up 3-1 in last year’s Finals before losing to these Cavaliers.
About an hour after the final buzzer sounded, James took a seat at the interview podium, a black cap pulled low on his brow. Moments later, his teammates Love, Tristan Thompson and JR Smith wandered into the room, carrying with them the Eastern Conference Championship trophy and took seats alongside James. As Love snapped a selfie and Smith scrolled through his social media mentions, James was asked for his take on the impending battle against the Warriors.
“I’m going to be honest, I’m not in the right mind to even talk about Golden State,” James said. “It’s too stressful, and I’m not stressed right now. I’m very happy about our accomplishment. Golden State, they’ve been the best team in our league for the last three years, and then they added an MVP. That’s all I can give you right now, because I’m happy and I don’t want to be stressed. They cause a lot of stress, and I’ll get to that point when we start to prepare for them.”
By Lang Whitaker
First appeared on NBA.com Global