BOSTON — Underneath the banners decorating the most accomplished franchise in NBA history, Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James silenced the Boston Celtics crowd in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals with an historic statement so loud they could hear it back in Oakland.
The four-time NBA MVP surpassed Michael Jordan as the greatest scorer in playoff history on his way to a dominating 135-102 victory that sent him to a seventh straight NBA Finals appearance. The only other players to match that feat have had their numbers retired in Boston’s rafters for a half-century.
“He just continues to perform and continues to come back and come back again and again and again,” Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving said of LeBron’s sustained success. “That’s the echo of greatness.”
The Celtics couldn’t get it out of their head, now with a subdued PA announcer reciting LeBron’s name after every made basket. James scored a game-high 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting in the win. He added eight rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block before sitting the entire fourth quarter, leaving no doubt he had recovered from a stomach bug that left him lethargic earlier in the series.
Irving added 24 points and seven assists, while Kevin Love collected 15 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and three assists. Even former All-Star Deron Williams got in on the action, scoring 14 points off the Cleveland bench. The Cavs have won 12 of their 13 playoff games entering the Finals, where, for the third straight year, they will face the Golden State Warriors, who enter the title round a perfect 12-0.
“We’re only four games away from our goal,” Love said, donning his third Finals hat in three years.
The Celtics exceeded all expectations in capturing the East’s No. 1 seed, reaching the conference finals and winning even one game against the Cavs without injured All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas. Avery Bradley led Boston with 23 points, and in a sign of how ugly Game 5 got, Gerald Green was the team’s next-highest scorer with 14 in garbage time. On this night, the only consolation prize was a “Let’s go Celtics” chant from the hometown crowd with their team trailing by 32 late in the fourth quarter. Well, that and the knowledge that, on June 22, the Celtics will pick first in the 2017 NBA draft.
“I mean, it’s pretty cool to think that in three weeks you’ve got the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after his best season. “It means that I’ve got to go straight to work tomorrow.”
But this night was less about crowning a conference champion than it was about James’ ascension in the basketball hierarchy. On this Thursday night in May, the self-anointed King James eclipsed one of Jordan’s most storied records, albeit in 33 more games and almost 1,500 more minutes, and moved one step closer to Bill Russell’s Celtics’ seemingly impossible run of 10 straight Finals appearances.
“What he’s doing right now is obviously on a level that has never been seen before,” said Cavs veteran Richard Jefferson, one of few active players left who faced Jordan. “To pass Michael Jordan when you’re still in the prime of your career, one of the greats of all-time, that record will be unbreakable.
“If he adds another 1,000 points, who is going to be able to come in and go to 10 NBA Finals in this modern age, this modern day?” the 36-year-old added. “Just to have the opportunity to do that. Go to the playoffs every year, average 30. Just the longevity to do that. The durability to do that. Most guys are fortunate to play 10 years, to play 15 years. But to have to play 12 years and go to the Finals 10 times and average 30 points a game? It’s impossible. I won’t live to see that record be broken.”
The Cavs went to work early in Game 5. Love turned on the faucet, scoring Cleveland’s first eight points to build a five-point cushion less than two minutes into the game. When J.R. Smith leaked out for a transition dunk that sprung the lead to 15-4 two minutes later, Stevens burned his first timeout. Boston responded with a turnover and a defensive three seconds violation, and the deluge was on.
Case in point: With four minutes left in the first quarter, Boston’s Jonas Jerebko passed the ball right to James. By the time he finished complaining to rookie teammate Jaylen Brown about not cutting correctly, LeBron dunked on the other end, Cleveland led 28-12, and Stevens called another timeout.
“The start of the game was so bad, I felt like it was hard for us to come back,” Bradley said, stating the obvious. “Even when we scored six or seven points in a row, I mean, we were still down by 20 points.”
Back-to-back Kyle Korver 3-pointers and a nifty Irving layup pushed Cleveland’s lead to 20. This time, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue called the timeout — to give his team a breather after a breakneck start, and to let a quiet TD Garden crowd wallow in the memories of blowout defeats suffered in Games 1 and 2.
The Celtics had Terry Rozier’s playmaking in the final few minutes of the first quarter to thank for only being down 16. A Jae Crowder three-point play to start the second trimmed the lead to 13, but just when it seemed like the Celtics might have plugged the leak, they started taking on water again.
James got to the line on three straight possessions — the last of which caused a miniature mutiny. Referee Ken Mauer whistled Green for a blocking foul on what the Celtics veteran felt was a clean strip. Green earned a technical for his verbal response, which was accompanied by vociferous “bulls***” chants from the crowd. The ensuing free throws bumped the Cavs lead back above 20.
“It sucks,” said Celtics forward Jae Crowder, who scored 11 points. “It’s the worst part of the year, being eliminated, falling short of your ultimate goal. It’s a pretty hard thing to swallow, so I’m pretty down.”
This is what LeBron does. He amassed 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a block by halftime. Cleveland entered the break with a franchise-playoff-record 75 points, and the Cavs might as well have begun making arrangements for next week’s trip to Oakland between quarters.
The Garden seats started to empty when Irving replicated his Game 4 heroics early in the third quarter. The four-time All-Star point guard scored Cleveland’s first 11 points of the second half, demonstrating an array of ball-handling and shotmaking that seemed exceptional even for Kyrie.
“Kyrie just goes nuts and ends us,” said Stevens. “That’s basically what happened.”
But LeBron opened the floodgates further. Six straight points never seemed easier than his two layups and cutting dunk midway through the third, and when a Love 3-pointer sent Cleveland’s lead to 30, James poured more history on for good measure. His 27-footer with 2:40 left in the third quarter gave him 29 points on the night and 5,989 for his career — two more than Jordan’s previous playoff record.
James dropped two more 3s on the Celtics before the end of the quarter, the Cavs started the fourth with Deron Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, and the lead soared as high as 39. Game over. Series over. LeBron and the Cavs are headed to the Finals. Again.
“This is a great moment, and this is not promised,” said James. “We know that. But once we start to lock in on that beast of a matchup that we’ve got next round, then we’ll be very focused.”
When the returning Finals MVP finally walked off the podium more than an hour after the game, all you could hear over the faint sound of fingers typing on keyboards was an echo of laughter from the Garden hallway, where LeBron and his teammates carried another conference finals trophy to the bus.
You can bet the Warriors were listening. Greatness is coming, louder than ever.
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