LeBron stamps his authority as Cavs head to the NBA Finals

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    Any talk of LeBron James’ decline has been proven somewhat premature. James averaged 30.3 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 9.3 apg and 1.5 spg while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 4-0 rout of the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals.

    James led both teams in each of the aforementioned statistical categories and he became the first player in NBA playoff history to average at least 30 ppg, at least 11 rpg and at least 9 apg in a series.

    James may not have quite the lift that he used to — though it was hard to tell that when he took off from the dotted line and dunked in game four versus Atlanta — but he still has the ability to lift himself and his teammates above everyone else in the Eastern Conference.

    James is the only player who did not play for the Bill Russell-era Boston Celtics to make it to five straight NBA Finals. Say what you want about the disparity in strength between the conferences over the past few years, but James has accomplished something very special.

    His career has included three distinct phases. In the first phase, he could do no wrong. He gave the once-moribund Cavaliers instant credibility and he led them to the 2007 NBA Finals.

    However, the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavaliers that year and James was unable to bring the Cavaliers back to the championship round, despite the fact that they had the best team in the league in 2009 and 2010. James’ puzzling passivity at key times during playoff games and his inability to either post up or consistently make jump shots prevented him from taking the final step to greatness.

    After James bolted for Miami, he had a subpar performance in the 2011 NBA Finals and it seemed reasonable to wonder if he would ever figure out how to use his talents to lead a team all the way to a championship.

    During this second phase of James’ career — from 2008 to 2011 — the narrative shifted from James being a player destined for greatness to James possibly being a player who might never quite figure out the championship formula.

    But then something clicked. James finally understood that to win a title he had to assert himself as a scorer and take over games and series. He could not lay back and observe. He had to attack.

    In order to do that, he improved his jump shot and he added a post up game to his repertoire. Now, daring James to shoot and daring James to score were no longer viable options for the opposing team.

    That new mindset resulted in James leading the Heat to back-to-back titles, marking the third phase of his career.

    When James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014, he vowed to complete unfinished business and bring the city its first professional sports championship since 1964.

    After a slow start by James individually and the team collectively during the regular season, the Cavaliers have come on strong.

    James has been dominant during the playoffs, scoring at least 30 points in seven of Cleveland’s 14 playoff games. The Cavs won all seven of those games and they are 12-2 overall in the postseason.

    The only blemish on James’ 2015 playoff statistical resume is his shooting. His career playoff field goal percentage is .477 — including a career-high .565 last year with Miami — but this season he is shooting just .428, his worst percentage since 2008.

    Normally, that is not a good enough field goal percentage for the best player on a championship team and (spoiler alert) I do not think that James will lead Cleveland to victory over the eventual Western Conference champion.

    However, James has had a major impact in almost every playoff game, even when he’s shot poorly.

    His worst performance was probably Cleveland’s Game 6 closeout win versus Chicago in the second round. James shot just 7-23 from the field and scored a 2015 playoff low 15 points, but he also had 11 assists and nine rebounds. He played strong defence.

    Golden State has been the team of the year from day one and will most likely win the championship, but during the 2015 playoffs James has provided notice that he is still a dominant player.

    David Friedman
    David Friedman

    David Friedman has covered the NBA for more than a decade, and in doing so, has interviewed nearly two dozen members of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List. You can find his work at 20SecondTimeout.