A Thought-Tormented Age

Image result for mutineers of the bounty

The mutineers turning Lt Bligh and some of the officers and crew adrift from His Majesty’s Ship Bounty, 29 April 1789 –  Robert Dodd (1790)

You remember the switch, don’t you? Consider it flipped. Riding a fully-engaged LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers ripped the doors off the Toronto Raptors in Game 4 on Monday night, completing another sweep against a team which hasn’t beaten them in the playoffs since 2016. In a rather pedestrian[1] performance, James chipped in a mere 29 points to go along with 11 assists and eight rebounds. It was certainly his worst game of the series, and the Cavs won by 35.

It took a surprising seven-game first round series against the Indiana Pacers to really light a fire under him, but since the candle’s been burning, he has been his typical forceful self. What finally clicked against the Raptors wasn’t just LeBron riding the high of his clutch Pacers series form. Instead, as LeBron was great, so, too, were his teammates. Better late than never.

How LeBron continues to do this – dispelling notions of aging and becoming a wily vet while still being at the peak of his athleticism – is something that we will ponder for generations to come. In his fifteenth season, LeBron may be playing the best basketball of his career.

We’ve been saying the preceding phrase for a decade now. Like the man himself, it never gets old. FIFTEEN YEARS OF (PERHAPS[2]) THE GREATEST BASKETBALL PLAYER OF ALL-TIME, AND HE JUST KEEPS GOING.I know you can go onto any social media platform – something you should never do, under any circumstances – and almost incidentally read about how we as a society are collectively not appreciating LeBron James enough[3], but some things ring true.

The gist of the matter is something like this: as LeBron goes, so go the Cavs. It has always been that way, for every single team he’s been on at least since pulling on the green and Vegas gold of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School at the turn of the millennium, and, if I had to guess, probably longer than that.

It was certainly that way in the first series, against a revitalized post-Paul George[4] Pacers squad. Victor Oladipo had no problem whatsoever going toe-to-toe with the best basketball player in the world, and the Pacers nearly staged the mutiny the Eastern Conference has been waiting on since 2010. In that series, the Pacers held a +5.7 average scoring margin, outscoring the high octane Cavs by 40 points over the seven games.

Better yet, LeBron averaged 34.4 points, ten rebounds and eight assists on 55% shooting from the field. The rest of the Cavs roster averaged 60.5 points. In scoring alone, LeBron constituted 36% of his team’s output, and that’s not even taking into account the assists. Oh, right: LeBron James might be the best passer in the history of the NBA, to boot.

The Cavaliers did not win a single game in the Pacers series by more than four points. When James went to the locker room with cramps in the third quarter of Game 7, Cleveland was only up two. It seemed like the door to which LeBron held the key was about to be kicked open, and it would be the Pacers – erstwhile enemies of LeBron during his time in Miami, with George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson doing the bidding – who would do the kicking.

And then…a LeBron-less Cavs team woke up and put together a run beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, with Kevin Love, George Hill and Tristan Thompson[5] leading the way. By the time James returned to the game, with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter, Cleveland had grown its lead to eight. Hope dissipated, the vanquished accepted their fate, and the mortals stood in awe of themselves. It was good, clean fun, even if Lance Stephenson was still involved.

Having a first round series go to seven games was, er, rather atypical for a LeBron-led team. To wit: it was literally the first time that has ever happened in his career. He hasn’t lost a Game 7 of any kind since 2008, when the KG-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo[6] Boston Celtics blew through the Cavs on their way to the NBA title.

But LeBron was 23 then, and he’s 33 now. When he sat at the podium following Game 7, visibly drained like an accountant on April 16th, he made us feel tired when he said he was tired. The Toronto Raptors? Man, it’s time for bed.

What the Raptors managed to pull off over the course of this regular season was a Queer Eye-level makeover which addressed concerns while highlighting strengths. DeMar DeRozan coaxed something of a three-point shot out of his decidedly midrange-heavy game. Their bench was the best in the league, and they maintained both a top-five offense and defense. People started to buy back into the Raptors, again, even after all we know about their playoff history.

The Raptors spent the entirety of the regular season and the majority of the playoffs trying to convince everyone, including their own, dutifully pessimistic fan base, that they were for real. The shock of lightning which gave way to the DeRozan-Kyle Lowry pairing had finally reverberated, gifting that talented back court with complementary pieces.

They even won the first game in a playoff series for the first time since literal raptors were throwing change into payphones to call home. It was a budding dynasty, finally, and the spoils were heading north, with Aubrey Graham in full Raptors regalia, if not in full uniform.

When the Raps shook ever so slightly against the Washington Wizards in that first round, conceding two consecutive losses after leading the series 2-0, it started to feel like old times. When they then turned around and knocked the stuffing out of John Wall, Brad Beal and co. in the final two games, closing out the series in fewer than the requisite-for-Toronto seven games, the hope returned. From a team perspective, LeBron had just looked as vulnerable as at any time in his career. The Raptors were worth the hype.

In this way, then, Toronto is not strictly Sisyphean; the Raptors are more like if Sisyphus pulled out a blowtorch and took to his burdensome stone with glee. But then, the results are the same: a flame does not melt a stone, and the NBA’s lone Canadian squad could not freeze the best player in the world.

LeBron was predictably otherworldly, but it was the team around him, namely a revitalized JR Smith and the delicately intricate two-man action that Love and Kyle Korver had developed, which took the Cavs back to their dizzying regular season heights.

What lies ahead for James, at least in the immediate future, is as much a matter of philosophical and rhetorical debate as it is one of basketball. There is a truly exhausting number of asterisks people are going to place on this series, as if every other year in NBA history was completely injury-free, but one major one ties in the subplot that dominated last summer: Kyrie Irving asking for a trade from Cleveland, setting into motion one of the wackiest seasons of LeBron’s career.

Irving, of course, is sidelined, as is Gordon Hayward. Here are two things about those circumstances which render them a little less prominent: one, Al Horford is a top-two player on the Celtics, and that would’ve been the case had neither of Irving or Hayward been injured; and two, the Celtics that have stepped up in their places, including Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, have been downright excellent. Together, they have about as good a shot at knocking off the Cavs as the Celtics of yesteryear did.

Even so, in the East, it once again comes down to answering to LeBron James. His stranglehold on the conference is in its eighth straight May, and when push comes to shove, a team with him on it is always a more formidable proposition than a team without him. LeBron has been brilliant and must continue to be in order for the Cavs to reach a fourth straight Finals, and the Celtics have to be equally brilliant to have even a snowball’s chance in Hades of undoing his work.

Beyond that – well, let’s just watch the Conference Finals for now.

*     *     *

[1] Read: “not uniformly superhuman,” to be sure

[2] But not really “perhaps,” because we all know what Jordan’s been crying about online this whole time.

[3] And in a society that seems now to be perpetually on the brink of complete ruin, either by our own hand or someone else’s, I can see how being told to appreciate LeBron James might not be exactly the remedy you need to feel better about nuclear disarmament, or Ion Musk and EGrimes, or missing your nephew’s piano recital. Chopin’s Prelude in E minor is overrated, anyway.

[4] Who, again, did not have a totally worthless, no-show performance, at all, in what was probably his last game with the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of their first round series. He certainly would not have been better-served going fishing that night rather than vomiting a 2-16 line which featured more turnovers than points. Nope, Playoff P really stepped up when they needed him to. Good work, everybody.

[5] The latter of whom had cobbled together a grand total of 23 minutes of playing time prior to receiving his only start of the playoffs thus far in Game 7

[6] Yes, I’m including him; no, I don’t care that you don’t think he belongs there. You’re staring at pixels on a page representing words from a language that sort of arbitrarily fell together. I’ll put “Rajon Rondo” wherever I please.

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