Tuesday, June 02, 2015

SPORTS STORY >> LeBron’s fifth-straight final is a remarkable feat

Leader sports editor

The seasons changed, the jerseys changed, the teammates changed, the competition changed. Just about everything in the NBA has changed in the last five years – even the commissioner.

But there’s been one constant through that stretch – LeBron James in the Finals.

James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 4-0 sweep of the Atlanta Hawks last week to send the franchise to its second-ever NBA Finals and first since 2007. Tomorrow night’s game against the Golden State Warriors will mark James’ fifth-straight appearance in the Finals.

He and teammate James Jones are the first players since Bill Russell to accomplish that feat, but Jones has essentially ridden James’ coattails to that accomplishment. Still, the two Cavs are the first non-Celtics to ever reach five-straight Finals, which shows just how difficult it is to reach the Finals.

Take a moment to absorb that information. Not even NBA legends like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson have accomplished that feat. Not even Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant during the Lakers’ dominant stretch in the early 2000s.

As a member of the Miami Heat, James went 2-2 in the Finals over the last four years, winning two in a row before falling short against a very determined San Antonio Spurs team at the end of last season.

This year, James has the chance to lead the Cavs to their first NBA championship in franchise history and cap his return to Cleveland in triumph. To do so, though, James will have to take on an unprecedented role, even for him.

All five of James’ journeys to the Finals these last five seasons have been different, but they’ve all been similar in the fact that James has been the one constant on the floor while other key starters/teammates have had their share of injuries.

Dwyane Wade, as great of a player as he is – a surefire Hall-of-Famer, has battled various injuries over the last several years. Chris Bosh had to overcome his share of injuries as well throughout James’ stint with the Heat.

This year, Cleveland’s Kevin Love’s season ended in the first round of the playoffs after he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. Kyrie Irving has played exceptionally in his first-ever playoffs, but nagging knee and ankle injuries have forced him to sit out multiple games.

James has had his share of injuries as well, but has played through them and carried the Cavs to victories throughout the playoffs. Like in game three of the Eastern Conference Finals, where he overcame a 0 for 10 start to finish with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.

James has not only been on the floor throughout the playoffs, but at 30 years old, has had a career-high usage rate this season. This postseason, he’s averaging 40.7 minutes per game and 25 shots per game with a 42.8 field goal percentage. Last postseason, he averaged 17 shots per game.

His assists and rebound numbers through these playoffs are also career bests – 8.3 assists per game and 10.4 rebounds per game, which shows how much he’s been forced to stretch his game with Love out and Irving playing on one leg.

This postseason, James leads the Cavs in points (27.6 PPG), rebounds, assists, steals, minutes, free throws made, player efficiency rating, usage rating, defensive win shares and several other categories.

The team has no doubt overcome its share of adversities this postseason, and the Cavs have always been able to rely on the durable James to carry them through those hard times, and that’s what makes this year’s trip to the Finals the most impressive of them all for James, and that’s saying something, considering this will be his sixth overall appearance.

He led the Cavs to their first Finals appearance in 2007. It was James’ first Finals appearance as well, and that team had no business being there. It took incredible and truly legendary performances by James to get past the more talented Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals that year.

The fact that the Cavs got swept in their first trip to the Finals is in no way an indictment against James’ ability. That year, it was essentially him versus an all-time great San Antonio Spurs team that had three future Hall-of-Famers (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker). Well, four counting head coach Gregg Popovich.

After a few more years of failing to get back to the Finals, because of the lack of talent around him, James famously took his talents to South Beach and joined the Heat.

James’ tenure with Miami was highly successful – four-straight Finals appearances and two NBA championships. He, as any player that’s ever played any sport does, needed better talent around him to win a championship, which is why he left Cleveland for Miami.

He had to go to Miami to learn how to win a championship, but he also had to learn how to become a better player as well, which he’s done and has continued to do each year since.

Now, in his return to Cleveland, James is using the experience he gained in Miami to instill confidence in players like JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson, who were used to losing before this season.

James not only elevates the play of his teammates, but he’s made Cleveland coach David Blatt look a lot better than he actually is. He did the same thing with Mike Brown during his first stint with the Cavaliers, and even though Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is a very good basketball coach, James made him look a lot better as well.

If Cleveland can upset Golden State, led by league MVP Stephen Curry, in the Finals, it will be the biggest accomplishment of James’ storied career. The Warriors boasted the best record in the NBA – at 67-15, and they’re by far the most complete team in the league.

Curry is the best shooter in the league, averaging almost 30 points a game this season, but isn’t the only sharpshooter with two-guard Klay Thompson on the perimeter. Thompson averaged almost 20 points per game during the regular season.

Forward Draymond Green averaged a double-double this season with 14 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Center Andrew Bogut, a former No. 1 overall pick, has the team’s highest field goal percentage at 57.6, and forward Harrison Barnes averaged 11 points and five boards per game throughout the regular season.

The Warriors also have solid players coming off the bench, such as guard Leandro Barbosa, guard/forward Andre Iguodala and center Festus Ezeli.

Golden State is also the healthier of the two teams, though it’s had its share of players getting banged up.

As for Cleveland, it’s going to take more of what got the team to this point if the Cavs expect to be successful in the Finals, and that’s nothing short of greatness from James.

He’ll need big-time contributions from every one of his teammates, and they’ll have to find a way to keep the Splash Brothers (Curry and Thompson) from getting hot, and Green and Bogut from making an impact inside and out. They’ll also have to find a way to keep the Warriors’ role players and bench contained.

The Warriors are no doubt the favorites, and they should be. They’re the best team and they have the league MVP. But the Cavs have the best player.

If the Cavs can somehow find a way to win this series without Love and without a healthy Irving, it’ll be James that finds that way. It won’t be Blatt or anyone else associated with the Cavs organization other than James.

If he can do it, again, it’ll be the biggest accomplishment of his career. If he can’t, it should not hurt his legacy. He’s going to leave it all on the floor, and if he fails, he fails. But he’s going to give everything he has to bring the city of Cleveland its first-ever basketball championship and first pro sports championship since 1964.

That’s his guarantee to his teammates, coaches and the city of Cleveland.