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2017 NBA Playoffs

LeBron James returns to his dominant self as Cavaliers put away Celtics

James passes Jordan as all-time playoff scoring leader

BOSTON — As Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue raised his hands to accept his team’s third consecutive Eastern Conference championship trophy, his excited players gathered around him tight.

J.R. Smith stood front and center, rubbing his hands and the trophy. Kyrie Irving stood just behind his coach.

And where was LeBron James during this celebration? James stood way in the back, somewhat detached from the group. It was likely an attempt not to take the spotlight off his teammates.

But how can you attempt to hide when you — James — are making your seventh straight trip to the NBA Finals? How do you duck the spotlight on the night you pass Michael Jordan to become the all-time leading scorer in NBA playoff history? How do you score 35 points, grab eight rebounds and pass off eight assists and think you can fade to black?

On Thursday night, LeBron James was back. His return came after two games in Cleveland, where he played six subpar quarters — a stretch that had fans doubting whether his greatness was, indeed, Jordan-like.

Count that as a minor hiccup, as James was completely dominant in Cleveland’s 135-102 win Thursday night, leading the Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference title again.

Basketball fans get their wish: Golden State vs. Cleveland for a history-making third straight year. LBJ vs. Kevin Durant. Kyrie Irving vs. Stephen Curry. The two most dominant teams in the NBA Finals in the rubber game of their series — and both teams are, for the first time entering the Finals, healthy.

“I’m going to be honest, I’m not in the right mind to even talk about Golden State,” James said after he emerged from the Cleveland locker room celebration early Friday morning. “Golden State, they’ve been the best team in our league for the last three seasons, and they added an MVP. That’s all I can give you now.”

James stressed? Don’t buy the rhetoric, especially after he led the dismantling of a Celtics team that edged the Cavaliers for the top seed in the East. James was dominant from the tip and appeared to be back in form of the guy who left the Celtics devastated in blowout losses the first two games.

After the Celtics split the two games in Cleveland, there were expectations that Boston would return home a different team.

No one expected to see another lopsided defeat like Game 2, when the Celtics trailed by 41 at the half.

It nearly happened again. While Cleveland’s dominance was not as historic as in Game 2, it was equally as demoralizing:

  • The Celtics allowed Cleveland to score 75 points in the first half (James led the way with 20), the most for an NBA team in the first 24 minutes of a playoff game since the Dallas Mavericks rang up 83 points against the Sacramento Kings in 2003. The 109 points after three quarters were the most allowed by the Celtics in the playoffs in the shot clock era.
  • Boston fans who filled TD Garden never witnessed their team with a lead this series. The Celtics became the first team in 20 years to never hold a lead at home while playing at least three home games in a playoff series.
  • And the Celtics became the first team since 1990 to allow a playoff opponent to score 40 points in three separate quarters (the 1990 Celtics did it against the Knicks). The 33-point loss in Game 5 earned this Celtics team the distinction of having the largest margin of defeat in an elimination game in the long, storied history of the franchise.

“I thought we played a little too haphazard,” is how Celtics coach Brad Stevens explained it. “Our offensive mistakes led to bad defense, and it just kind of snowballed on us.”

It’s not that the Celtics are a bad team. They earned the top seed in the East this season and were able to steal Game 3 in Cleveland despite playing without the league’s third-best scorer, Isaiah Thomas.

The Cavaliers are just so far superior to the Celtics and the rest of the teams in the East. Just as Jordan, once he learned how to win, denied championship opportunities to so many great players — such as Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller — during the 1990s, James is having the same impact on players in the East.

So, if you can’t beat him, join him.

Derrick Williams is glad he did. Williams, who never fulfilled the potential of being the second overall pick in 2011, is going to his first NBA Finals after being cut three months ago by the Miami Heat.

Kyle Korver is glad he did. Korver, who began 2017 playing with the Atlanta Hawks, gets to go to the NBA Finals for the first time in his 14th season.

And Deron Williams is glad he did. Once considered one of the top point guards in the NBA, Williams’ career appeared to be on a downward spiral after five seasons in Brooklyn and a disappointing half-season in Dallas. He was signed by Cleveland in February after Dallas waived him. In the first half on Thursday, Williams was, besides James, the best player on the court, as he scored all 14 of his points in 13 minutes, hitting five of six shots.

“Having played with him before, I knew how special he was as a teammate,” Williams, who teamed with James to win Olympic gold in 2008 and 2012, said earlier this week. “He just makes everybody around him better.”

Making his teammates better is the main edge that James has over Jordan, who, while occasionally setting up teammates for big moments, was more comfortable embracing the opportunity to shine in big moments.

When James was asked whether he’s focused his career to “be like Mike,” he said that his approach is far different.

“I did pretty much everything Mike did as a kid,” James said, explaining that he chose his number, wore the compression sleeve on his leg and sported black and red shoes just like his favorite player. “[But] it’s been part of the plan since I really started taking this game serious, to say, ‘How can I get the youth to feel like passing the ball is OK?’ Scoring the ball is so heralded in our sport. I want the fundamentals of the game to be as great as they can be.”

LeBron James (No. 23) of the Cleveland Cavaliers scores a 3-pointer to pass Michael Jordan in career playoff scoring during the game against the Boston Celtics during Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2017 NBA playoffs on May 25 at the TD Garden in Boston.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

His record-breaking moment came with 2:42 left in the third quarter on a 3-pointer. The play went without any acknowledgment from the crowd. But as James sat on the bench during the break in play that followed, Irving got in his ear and told his teammate to grasp the significance of the moment.

“I told him not to take the moment for granted,” Irving said. “That’s an iconic moment for what he did for the culture and the game of basketball, and it’s nothing short of legendary. I wanted him to enjoy it. He always shows great humility with his accomplishments.”

Maybe it was that humility that led James to the back of the group during the trophy presentation. Maybe he wanted to allow his teammates that time to shine, without the focus being on him.

Maybe that’s why, as the trophy ceremony ended, James was the first to exit the arena to get to the locker room, where the real celebration would take place.

Then someone called for an official team photo with the trophy and James was, at first, reluctant to return.

Yet when the photographers were ready to snap, James shouted, “Hold on.” Then he positioned himself right next to the trophy, and smiled.

James was front and center, exactly where he belonged. And exactly where he’ll need to be at the start of the NBA Finals June 1 if the Cavaliers are to win back-to-back titles.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.