“Underdog? Me? I will never be an underdog!”
That’s what LeBron James told Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer after his Cleveland Cavaliers advanced past the Bulls.
Without even knowing his team would face the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Eastern Conference finals, James declared the opponent irrelevant. So it is when you’re the best active player on the planet.
“I think we have a great chance,” James continued. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re gonna play hard. We’re gonna give ourselves a fighting chance.”
And so James confidently advances into the conference finals for the fifth straight year, and sixth in the past seven.
Meanwhile, the Hawks venture where no Hawks team has ever gone before.
The Hawks have won 68 of 94 games with a roster which includes four all-stars, none of whom leads the team in scoring in the playoffs. They’ve played a true team game, relying on movement, passing, defense and unselfishness that endeared them to a populace long jaded by their indifferent play.
They play like a team to such an extent that they garner criticism for not having a “go to” guy, a flaw considered fatal in the playoffs.
Where you need a guy like LeBron James.
James did the right thing last summer and returned to Cleveland with the expressed desire of delivering the city its first championship of any kind since the Browns won the NFL championship in December 1964. Who could have imagined that it would be the Hawks blocking his route into the Finals? Especially after all the imbecility that dominated the Hawks offseason?
By Saturday, James knew the Hawks were up next, and he poured out plenty of praise to Chris Haynes of the Plain Dealer: “They’re a great team. They’ve been a great team all year. They’ve been the No. 1 seed in our conference all year for a reason, and it’s going to be highly competitive.
“They’re balanced. You can’t just key on one guy. All five guys that’s on the floor at that time, you have to have your antennas up. I think it starts with Jeff Teague. He’s an all-star for a reason. His aggressiveness, the way he pushes the tempo, and then it just falls into everyone else on that team. They do a great job of playing together.”
And just what are the Hawks up against? Well, throughout his career, James’ highest playoff scoring average comes in the conference finals. In fact, his two most memorable playoff performances came during conference finals.
In Game Five against the Pistons in 2007, James scored the Cavs’ final 25 points, in the fourth quarter and two overtimes.
Just ponder that for a moment.
He also poured in 29 of their final 30, and 48 overall. Cleveland won, 109-107, and then won Game Six to advance to the Finals for the first time.
Leading the Heat against the Celtics in Game Six in 2012, James scored 45 points and pulled 15 rebounds. He called it a career-defining performance.
Career-wise, James has won 23 of 37 games in the conference finals. He’s averaged 29.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He’s also shot 49 percent.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Hawks, who have never been here, will be trying to stop in this series.
Of course, James has a decent supporting cast as well. A mid-season trade brought in J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. After that trade, the Cavs rolled to a 34-10 record, and then went 8-2 in the playoffs.
While Kevin Love will miss the series, and with Kyrie Irving hobbled and questionable, reducing the Big Three to the Big One, James remains the One that matters.
The supporting cast stepped up in the series win over the Bulls. Shumpert, Smith, James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson all had their moments. The Cavs won Game Six, 94-73, with Irving barely playing (six points) and James shooting 7-of-23.
But make no mistake. James will now be at center stage. It will take every bit of teamwork from their entire rotation for the Hawks to top James’ sure-to-come heroics.
How can you possibly bet against James in this series?
By having watched the Hawks play for the past six months. They’re on a new stage, but they’ve got an excellent, complimentary cast.
Hawks in seven.