LeBron James, currently marching toward his eighth straight NBA Finals appearance, has demoralized and single-handedly vexed a plethora of Eastern Conference foes over his career. The great Paul George-led Indiana Pacers could never overcome the great LeBron-led Miami Heat teams.
The Washington Wizards could never defeat LeBron during his first stint in Cleveland.
The Atlanta Hawks have faced a LeBron-led team three times in the playoffs, never winning a single game against him, even after securing the conference’s No. 1 seed in 2015.
Unsurprisingly, the Toronto Raptors — which was the best regular-season team in the Eastern Conference this year — did not live up to their expectations.
The playoffs begin an entirely different season in which LeBron thrives and the Raptors, like the rest of conference, do not.
But, as easy as it may be to bash the Raptors’ poor playoff performance yet again, this is about LeBron, not them.
“You’re looking at probably one of the guys that’s going to go down as one of the greatest ever, and it’s a matchup nightmare for anybody,” Dwane Casey, head coach of the Raptors, said.
“We’ve seen it with Michael [Jordan], we’ve seen it with Kobe [Bryant], we’ve seen it with a lot of great players … for whatever reason, we got the unlucky draw every year, going against him.”
LeBron truly is transcendent, a once-in-a-generation, league-altering talent.
Like Michael Jordan before him, certain teams have risen and fallen because of his greatness.
Ironically, the Cavaliers of yesteryear were one of those teams that could never beat Jordan, losing five separate times to him throughout his playoff career. The shoe is now on the other foot solely because of LeBron.
Basketball, like no other team sport, can be dictated by one player’s greatness. These types of athletes are rare. Among the most prominent are LeBron, Jordan, Bryant, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It is finally time LeBron’s greatness, even before he retires, is compared. Like no player before him, even Jordan, LeBron is the league’s toughest matchup, as alluded to by Casey.
Improving with age like a fine wine, steak or Benjamin Button, LeBron has every imaginable skill set. He is a vaunted defender — when engaged — and his flurry of offensive weapons now include post ups, layups, fast breaks, three-point shooting and — a new upgrade this postseason — an unguardable step-back jumper.
Paired with his otherworldly passing ability, LeBron, at age 33, is, possibly unlike any previous season prior, an unstoppable force. His team, though, become its greatest when his teammates play at their best.
Most elite teams today force the ball from LeBron’s hands by double-teaming, rather than letting him beat them on his own.
That is why his 2018 motley crew of Cavalier teammates — recently mocked during a Saturday Night Live skit — still must play their best for LeBron to succeed.
However, LeBron never gave up on his team: “I believe in my teammates. So as everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series, I just continued to tell them, ‘Listen, we can’t win without each and every one doing their jobs, and being as great as they can be.”
His stats are game-altering. However, LeBron surpasses his peers because his unwavering consistency on the court instills the belief in his teammates that they can win any game or playoff series because he occupies the court with them.
LeBron’s performances, like that during Game 3 on May 5 against the Raptors, can go a long way in instilling this mentality.
With eight seconds remaining on the clock, the Raptors had just tied the game at 103 after trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter. The Cavs called timeout.
They decided to inbound the ball in the backcourt and let LeBron drive the length of the court, building up a head of steam.
He drove toward the basket, picking up his dribble around the three-point arch.
He launched toward the baseline, away from the basket off the wrong leg — his left.
He rose up above his defender who had guarded him as best as anyone could and effortlessly kissed the ball off the glass.
The Cavs won the game 105-103, and as LeBron explained afterward when asked about the shot, tongue in cheek, “the level of difficulty of that shot is very difficult. Don’t try it at home.”
On May 7, LeBron and the Cavs obliterated the Raptors 128-93, completing their sweep and advancing to yet another Eastern Conference Finals.
From the Raptors’ perspective, guard DeMar DeRozan explained: “Maybe they just got our number. Things just don’t go right for us.”
No, the Cavs did not have the Raptors’ number; LeBron did.
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