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This Eastern Conference Crown Is Truly LeBron’s Masterpiece

LeBron James has racked up some pretty extraordinary accomplishments in his 15-year pro career, but few are as impressive as his effort in leading this particular Cleveland Cavaliers squad to the NBA Finals. Missing an All-Star teammate from an already underwhelming supporting cast, on the road against a Boston Celtics team that had been 10-0 at home in the playoffs, in a Game 7 (where the home team was 104–26 in postseason history1), James had a lot standing between him and an eighth straight Finals trip. And yet, here he and the Cavs are once again, set to play for another NBA title, following Sunday’s 87-79 win in Boston.

How’d Cleveland break Boston’s home-court stranglehold on these playoffs? For one thing, the much-maligned Cavaliers defense stepped up in a big way in Game 7, holding the Celtics to a stunningly low 89.4 points per 100 possessions after allowing 107.7 in the series’ previous three games at TD Garden. It helped that the Celtics bricked so many shots in the second half — they went 3-20 from 3-point range, including a number of open looks — but the Cavs also clamped down and played some of their best defense of the season during Game 7.

The Celtics’ offense disappeared in Game 7

Offensive statistics for the Boston Celtics at home in the 2018 Eastern Conference final, by game

Games Pace Off. Rating 2-Point % 3-Point % Free Throw % Assists/100 Poss.
Home wins 95.6 107.7 49.6% 34.0% 87.5% 23.9
Game 7 loss 88.2 89.4 47.8 17.9 73.7 20.4

Boston won Games 1, 2 and 5 at home before losing Game 7.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

James was his usual otherworldly self on Sunday, of course, pouring in 35 points with 15 rebounds and 9 assists. (He also played every single minute of the game.) He remains the NBA’s all-time leader with 34.9 career PPG in postseason Game 7s. But unlike many of Cleveland’s playoff losses, he got a little bit of help from his teammates; in addition to James, three other Cavs (Jeff Green, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson) scored in double-figures. It was enough to propel the Cavs to victory, even though the team shot just 26 percent from 3-point range — which tends to be the most important barometer of Cleveland’s performance in any given game.

At the same time, the Celtics appeared to be a bit too inexperienced to close out the veteran Cavs in a situation where playoff seasoning matters a lot. Had the Celtics won, they’d have been the second-youngest team2 to make the Finals since 1974 (older than only the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers). Instead, Boston’s youth showed as the Celtics were a team-worst -20 with star rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year phenom Jaylen Brown on the court together, and fill-in starter Terry Rozier suffered his worst game of the playoffs in Game 7.

Fortunately for the Celtics, though, they have a ton of talent on hand for the future. This is only the beginning of something special for coach Brad Stevens’ squad. For Cleveland, meanwhile, this season has felt like the end of something special practically all year.

Between the failed Isaiah Thomas trade, coach Ty Lue’s leave of absence, multiple injuries to Love and a midseason shakeup that ended up yielding few impact players for the postseason, it has been a chaotic ride for the Cavaliers. “We’ve had four or five seasons wrapped in one,” James told reporters earlier this month. “We know what the narrative has been about our team.” Unlike past seasons when the Cavs breezed through the East playoffs with seldom a loss, Cleveland was pushed to the limit by both the Celtics and the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs.3 Nothing has been easy.

All things considered, then, this NBA Finals run has to be considered one of James’ crowning achievements. Although James talked up his supporting cast in his postgame comments, I went back and re-ran the numbers from this story, in which we used Basketball-Reference’s Box Plus/Minus to estimate the true talent4 of every player LeBron played with on an NBA Finals run. And that method says that this is easily the worst crop of teammates James has ever dragged to an NBA Finals — even worse than the one he had while being swept by the San Antonio Spurs as a 22-year-old in 2007:

This is LeBron’s worst NBA Finals supporting cast ever

Box Plus/Minus talent ratings for LeBron James and his cumulative teammates for NBA Finals teams, weighted by postseason minutes

James Teammates
Season Team Offense Defense Total Offense Defense Total
2018 CLE +6.6 +1.8 +8.4 +0.7 -2.6 -2.0
2007 CLE +6.3 +1.8 +8.1 -3.3 +2.5 -0.8
2015 CLE +6.5 +1.3 +7.7 +1.2 -1.9 -0.7
2014 MIA +7.6 +1.4 +9.1 +0.3 -0.2 +0.1
2017 CLE +6.0 +1.6 +7.6 +3.0 -2.0 +1.1
2013 MIA +7.9 +2.3 +10.2 +0.9 +0.8 +1.7
2016 CLE +6.2 +1.6 +7.9 +3.4 -1.0 +2.4
2012 MIA +7.4 +2.4 +9.8 +0.9 +2.8 +3.6
2011 MIA +7.2 +2.5 +9.7 +2.3 +2.1 +4.5

Ratings are generated using a multi-year weighted average of BPM, regressed to the mean and adjusted for age. Teammate ratings represent the team’s hypothetical points per 100 possessions (relative to league average) if James was replaced with a league average (0.0 BPM) player.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

That means James and the Cavs are destined to be a heavy underdog in the Finals, whether they’ll face the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors. But what else is new? Much of James’ poor NBA Finals record (he’s 3-5 all-time in championship series) is because he’s gone into the matchup facing such long odds in the first place. That’s a direct product of his ability to carry shorthanded teams deeper into the playoffs than any other player would be able to — and in Sunday night’s win, James just provided the best example of that yet.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Per the Elias Sports Bureau.

  2. According to the average age of the postseason roster, weighted by minutes.

  3. Granted, they did sweep the Toronto Raptors in between.

  4. Using a multi-year weighted average of BPM, regressed to the mean and adjusted for age.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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