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There Is Absolutely, Positively, No Way LeBron Can Keep This Up …

It took seven back-and-forth games, but the NBA’s most perplexing team will continue to confuse observers — and statistical models — for at least one more round.

The Cleveland Cavaliers ensured that by beating the Indiana Pacers 105-101 in Sunday’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal finale, earning LeBron James a trip to the second round for the 13th time in his storied career. James was incredible in Game 7 on Sunday, with 45 points (on 64 percent shooting), 9 rebounds and 7 assists. The performance capped one of his greatest series ever; he led the Cavs in points, assists and rebounds over these seven games against Indiana.

But the Cavs’ big questions are still unanswered. Can Cleveland keep advancing while asking so much of its best player? And is this team really still good enough to contend for a championship? This series provided few insights.

When James finally got a little help in Game 7, it came in the unlikely form of center Tristan Thompson. Despite scoring only 3 points (in 24 minutes) during Games 1-6, Thompson produced a crucial double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) in Game 7. But on the whole, James’s teammates were still not efficient Sunday, shooting just 16-for-49 from the field to finish off a series in which they made only 38.8 percent of their shots — even as James himself shot an impressive 55.3 percent from the field.

In fact, for all of James’s heroics, the argument could be made that the Cavs were the least-convincing winner of any playoff series in modern history. (Going back to 1984, when the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams.) Before Sunday, no team in that period had won a series while being outscored by more than 34 total points — a “record” that belonged to the 1990 Portland Trail Blazers, for their win over the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference finals. Despite winning Game 7 by four, the Cavs were outscored in the series by 40 points, the worst total point differential for a winning club in a series since 1984.1

Now the Cavs will advance to face the top-seeded Toronto Raptors, and once again the stats have major doubts about their ability to win. Their defense is historically weak by the standards of a champion. Our CARM-Elo model gives Cleveland a 29 percent chance of knocking off the Raptors and an 11 percent chance of making the Finals. The logic there is clear: If the Cavs struggled against the Pacers with home-court advantage, why should they be favored without it against a Toronto team that was 6.1 points per game better than the Pacers during the regular season?

Then again, the Cavs are, well, the Cavs. They’ve eliminated Toronto in each of the past two postseasons, by a combined margin of 8 games to 2. They have the LeBron trump card to play in any crucial game. (After Sunday, James is the all-time NBA leader with 34.9 career points per game in Game 7s.) A James-led team has represented the East in the NBA Finals every single season since 2011. All signs point to that streak ending this year — except it hasn’t ended the past few times that all signs pointed to it ending.

No matter what happens next, though, let’s appreciate the amazing show LeBron put on in Game 7 against Indiana. It was the kind of performance reserved for history’s greatest players, and the Cavs needed every bit of it to extend their season and keep on confounding the stats deeper into yet another spring.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Yes, 34 points of that differential came in Game 6 alone, a massive Pacers blowout. But the Cavs were also outplayed for far longer stretches of the series than they dominated: They won just 11 of the series’ 28 total quarters.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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