East still doesn't stand chance vs. LeBron

CLEVELAND -- The giant Nike billboard across from Quicken Loans Arena doesn't get the TV time the old one did, nor as many people lining up at all hours to be photographed in front of it. The massive black-and-white image has melded into just a part of the skyline.

"We are all witnesses" is what it read for years, with a shot of LeBron James' face looking skyward and his arms spread with darkness surrounding him, before it was ripped down with haste five years ago.

The one that replaced it last summer is very much the opposite: James pictured from behind as he shares the frame with thousands of fans and "Cleveland" arcing across his back. There are no other words. The differences inside those massive four corners illustrate the different way James views himself and his role now than he did then.

"My emotions, it's very emotional to be back in this city," James said after his Cavaliers finished off the Atlanta Hawks in a 4-0 sweep with a resounding 118-88 victory.

"When I made my decision to come back here, I knew what I wanted to do, but I knew it wasn't going to be easy. It's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, and it's going to be the toughest task for me to try to get this team back to the Finals."

It is natural to default to comparisons to others when trying to evaluate what has become the James Era in the NBA. And by these narrow, if meaningful, measures, he's going to come up short. At least for now.

He's not Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or especially Bill Russell, based on the quantity of titles. But, whoa, the quality of his work.

On Tuesday, James scored 23 points with nine rebounds and seven assists to close out one of the most lopsided conference finals in history and one of James' most prolific series of his career. He finished three assists short of averaging a triple-double in the four games, settling at 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game -- and that's probably only because he wasn't needed for the fourth quarter.

For the sixth time in the past nine years, James put his hands on the silver ball that is the Eastern Conference championship trophy. For the 15th consecutive series, he beat an Eastern Conference opponent. For the fifth time in a row, he's going to represent the East in the Finals, something that hasn't been done since the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s.

James has now played in 41 conference finals games in his career, and he's won 24 of them. He has averaged 29.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.5 assists in those seven series.

"I think [LeBron's] confidence has gone to another level. Watching how he orchestrates, I think he has a great command for where he wants his teammates and what's important in the moment and the confidence that he has in himself to make the right play, whether it's making a shot, making the pass. As a leader, he's grown." Mike Budenholzer

Jordan, the man he's forever chasing and probably never catching, played in 45 conference finals games, averaging 31 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists.

Even by the Jordan standard, the East has fallen under James' domination.

His teams in Cleveland and Miami are now a perfect five-for-five when being the second seed going into the postseason. It now stands as an outlier that James' Cavs teams in 2009 and 2010, both of which won in excess of 60 games and were the No. 1 seed, didn't reach the Finals. The Orlando Magic and then the Celtics in those years caught him before he was fully formed. In retrospect, lucky them.

"We have a champion who leads the team the right way," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "A guy that is not only a fabulous basketball player, but he is an experienced winner who's about the right things and who leads his guys in a way that empowers them and does not belittle them, in a way that lifts them."

This hasn't been James' best season -- the early injuries suppressed some of his overall numbers -- and this wasn't his best playoff series. He missed 49 shots and had 14 turnovers in the first three games, for example.

But never has he been in better command. When he lost Kevin Love, when he fell down to the Chicago Bulls after a Derrick Rose buzzer-beater, when Kyrie Irving was put on the shelf, never did James waver. Instead, he seemed to operate with even more sureness, at times looking like he was controlling all nine other players on the court.

James never doubted he had complete control of this series, moving around the floor in almost a playful tone at times. The Hawks swallowed some bad breaks, with injuries to DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver, and a terribly timed ejection for Al Horford. Under different circumstances, perhaps they could have won a game or two. Against this version of James, still in his prime and king of this conference, there was no way they were beating him four times.

"I think his confidence has gone to another level," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "Watching how he orchestrates, I think he has a great command for where he wants his teammates and what's important in the moment and the confidence that he has in himself to make the right play, whether it's making a shot, making the pass. As a leader, he's grown."

While all of it was old hat to him, not once did James stop encouraging his teammates -- from taking the lead during some bench huddles, guiding them through rotations and strategies on the floor, or leaping off the bench to congratulate a teammate while he was supposed to be resting. James' influence was in full bloom.

By most physical measures, he isn't quite the same player he was a few years ago, when he was quicker, could jump a little higher and had more energy to defend. In everything else, though, James has never been better.

It's because of that experience and perspective that he could sit back and evaluate what happened Tuesday. Like this entire postseason, he knew exactly what chord to strike.

"No matter what happens from here on out, to see what we've accomplished being a first-year team together that's had different changes throughout the course of the season, that's faced so many obstacles throughout the season -- injuries here, transactions here, lineups here -- it's something we can be very proud of," James said.

"For us to be sitting at this point today being able to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, this is special. It's very special."