BOSTON – The debate rages around LeBron James, fiery hot takes sucking the oxygen out of every arena he walks into. Who’s the greatest? Even James will engage on it. Last summer, to a wide-eyed group of campers, he declared his pursuit of “the ghost [who] played in Chicago.” And as James marches into his seventh straight NBA Finals, the gap between him and Michael Jordan has never been closer.
It was a 135-102 conference finals-clinching win for the Cavaliers on Thursday in a game that wasn’t even that close. Cleveland’s dismantling of Eastern Conference contenders has been systematic. The upstart Pacers fell first, then the vet-heavy Raptors. Boston was a plucky top seed that accomplished the Everest-like feat of avoiding a sweep. Yet the Celtics go into the offseason knowing the home-court advantage they fought for yielded three double-digit TD Garden defeats.
It’s seven straight Finals for James, eight overall, and a chance to win back-to-back titles for the second time in six years. Some will never let go of James’ past, the softness he showed in his final days of his first run in Cleveland, “The Decision” that came to define him. Yet James’ accomplishments are unavoidable. He began this Finals run when Blackberry’s were en vogue and celebrated this one with Richard Jefferson Snapchatting behind him.
Jordan is a basketball immortal, but in the greatest debate his warts are often glossed over. His 6-0 Finals record is the top line of his résumé, but three straight first-round playoff defeats to begin his career is a routinely disregarded part of it. Jordan didn’t leave Chicago for greener pastures but he didn’t win anything until the Bulls fertilized the roster with Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and others around him, either. James is criticized for running coach David Blatt out of Cleveland, but Jordan’s clashes with Doug Collins were among the reasons Chicago fired Collins in 1989 and elevated an unheralded assistant named Phil Jackson to the top position.
At 32, James remains an inimitable NBA force and has left the rest of the conference wondering what can be done to stop him. Toronto built a strong foundation, added Serge Ibaka at midseason and was toyed with. Boston has built a deep stable of young talent, but these conference finals were glaring evidence of just how far the Celtics have to go.
There will be calls for Boston to be aggressive on the trade market, to spend the draft capital the team has stockpiled. Yet patience has never seemed so prudent. It can draft Markelle Fultz next month, sweet talk Gordon Hayward this summer and wait for James and these Cavaliers to slow down.
Asked what he hoped his team took away from this series, Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “What elite looks like.”
It’s on to the Finals for Cleveland, to Golden State, to another chance for James to burnish his résumé. It’s Goliath vs. Goliath, two titans who squashed all the Davids along the way. The Cavs and Warriors are basketball’s Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, peers engaged in a never-ending war. The Cavaliers’ comeback last year was historic, and the infusion of Kevin Durant into the rivalry adds another fascinating layer to it.
The Warriors added a top-five talent to a 73-win roster last summer. Cleveland’s improvement is more organic. Kevin Love’s connection to the team has never been stronger, and Kyrie Irving is a rapidly emerging superstar. Irving’s 42 points in Game 4 saved a potentially disastrous defeat, and he posted 24 points and seven assists in the clincher. Three years ago James cited working with Irving as one of the reasons he looked forward to a return to Cleveland, and the bond between the two is the deepest it’s ever been.
“I think that [our] synergy has come a long way,” Irving said. “In our beginning stages, I think we didn’t want to step on each other’s toes because of how special we both are and the other pieces we have on our team. That’s a hard balance to figure out.
“But when you look at how this team is run and who are the driving forces behind it, it has to be myself and ‘Bron. We understand that. It falls on our shoulders, as well as everyone else, but we have to carry it.”
A third-quarter 3-pointer pushed James past Jordan for the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list, and now he is four wins from tightening the title gap between them. Yet as the clock wound down on Thursday, James’ gaze turned to Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, two teammates for whom this feeling was unfamiliar.
“You’ve got one [Williams] with 12 years, first Finals appearance, and another guy [Korver] with 14,” James said. “Just to see the excitement around my teammates – I do it for them. They give it back to me as well.”
The shadow of Jordan forever hangs over James, yet you will never see him retreat from it. The pursuit of a Jordan-level legacy consumes James. Jordan inspired millions of kids during his playing career, and a supremely gifted one from Akron, Ohio, was one of them.
“I wear the number  because of Mike,” James said. “I think I fell in love with the game because of Mike. When you are growing up, and you are seeing Michael Jordan, it’s almost like a god. I didn’t ever believe I could be Mike. I started to focus on other players and other people around my neighborhood because I never thought you could get to the point where Mike was.”
James isn’t Jordan, and any side-by-side comparison is incomplete. James is at the peak of his powers, still has years left to play. The Warriors are his next challenge, a basketball Voltron as formidable as any challenge ever faced. The debate over the NBA’s greatest player will rage around him, and James knows there is one way to move it. Beat Golden State, collect title No. 4, cement his place among league immortals. Here comes LeBron James, for Jordan, for it all.
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