Well after midnight, a fatigued and frustrated Chauncey Billups slumped in a chair at his house and reluctantly turned on SportsCenter, knowing what he was going to see.
On the last day of May in 2007, the first hot night of the late spring in suburban Detroit, the Detroit Pistons lost a crushing overtime home game to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their precocious 22-year-old star, LeBron James.
Billups watched the highlights showing James scoring 29 of his team’s last 30 points to upset the Pistons in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to take a stunning 3-2 series lead over the No. 1 seed Pistons, a team that had owned the Cavs over the previous few seasons.
The behind-the-back escape dribble that set up a dagger jumper. The vicious basket attack that came with so much force that Billups’ defensive stalwart teammate, Tayshaun Prince, cowered out of instinctive self-preservation. The twisting underhanded layup that proved to be the game winner as James zigzagged through the Pistons’ famously stout defensive layers.
“I didn’t realize until then what he’d done to us,” Billups said. “I sat there and watched it and I said to myself, ‘He’s figured it out.’ I figured it out, too. I knew we were going to be done, it was the start of the end for us.”
A year later Billups was traded and the breakup of the Pistons, who won the title in 2004 and made six consecutive conference finals appearances, was officially underway. They haven’t recovered since. James knocked them out of the playoffs twice more in the first round, both sweeps, for good measure.
This is a scene that has played out repeatedly over the past decade. Teams at the top falling under James’ sword or rising challengers smothered in the East, which he’s headed toward winning for the seventh consecutive year and eighth time in the past 11 seasons. James has conquered the conference like no one since Bill Russell, when the league was significantly different and there was no salary cap or free agency to act as a buffer to dynasties.
“I’ve played every team in the Eastern Conference in the postseason, or I’ve played for the team,” James said. “There’s no surprise for me.”
Indeed that is correct: James has beaten every team in the East in the playoffs except for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. The Magic got him in the 2009 conference finals and they haven’t met since. Every other team has been sent packing by James and even the Heat and Cavs, with whom he won titles, have been devastated when he left in free agency.
James is a certified East homewrecker. He has laid waste to promising cores and forced numerous trades and coaching changes. He’s now to the point where he might be preventing trades as teams try to guess when his prime might be over. The Boston Celtics may very well be employing that strategy and only mildly covering it up.
“It’s real frustrating to continue on losing to the same team or the same person. It’s real frustrating,” Indiana Pacers star Paul George said in April after being eliminated for the fourth time in the past six years by James.
“This is what I work hard for in the summers, to try to help lead a team on my own and ultimately it’s who I’m going to always have to see and face. I always come up short. Didn’t do enough again.”
George and the Pacers pushed James to a Game 7 in 2013. They were up 2-1 in 2012 but lost in six and worked hard to get home-court advantage for 2014 but lost again in six. Coming up short over and over to James seemed to ruin them as players started to drift apart and management was forced to change tactics. Roy Hibbert got traded, David West left in free agency and coach Frank Vogel was fired. George also suffered a terrible injury, breaking his leg in the summer of 2014. Now the Pacers’ future is uncertain, James having whipped them again.
“I sat there and watched it and I said to myself, ‘He’s figured it out.’ I figured it out, too. I knew we were going to be done, it was the start of the end for us.”
Chauncey Billups on LeBron’s East takeover
All this started when James and the Cavs eliminated the Washington Wizards three consecutive years in the playoffs, from 2006 to ’08. The 2006 series, James’ first, had two games come down to the final seconds and another that ended in overtime. Some Wizards players from those teams still lament that James got away with traveling on a key play in one game and the vital free throws Gilbert Arenas missed after James trash talked him in another.
“We were convinced we could beat them; we were convinced we could beat him,” said Caron Butler, part of the core of that Wizards era along with Arenas and Antawn Jamison. “But he just kept getting better and better and it was clear to us, he was going to be our roadblock. We thought we were the big brothers at the park and we were going to teach the little brother a lesson. But he figured us out.”
After three straight losses to the Cavs, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was fired in 2008. Arenas and Javaris Crittenton ended up submarining that team when they brought guns into the locker room in 2009 and were given long suspensions. Butler and teammates Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Jamison were traded and a challenger was gone.
When the Chicago Bulls lost a competitive 4-1 series to James and the Cavs in 2010 they hoped it could be turned into a net positive. Young guard Derrick Rose starred in the short series and Joakim Noah, in addition to insulting the city of Cleveland, showed promise as a valuable postseason performer during the first-round series.
The Bulls made a pitch to James as a free agent a few months later, touting their growing core of Rose, Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson. The Bulls also made presentations to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When they couldn’t open enough salary-cap space to sign all three and Rose declined to directly recruit James, the window closed.
That turned out to be penal. James was devastating in beating the No. 1 seed Bulls in the next season’s conference finals, averaging 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. He beat them again in 2013 with the Heat and in 2015 back with the Cavaliers, when James averaged 26 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists plus hit a demoralizing buzzer-beater in Game 4 that essentially decided the series.
The Bulls fired coach Tom Thibodeau after the loss and later traded the injury-ravaged Rose and Noah. Deng and Gibson were traded, too. As with the Pacers, James ended the Bulls’ season four times in a six-year run.
“I don’t come into a series with baggage, maybe others do but I don’t,” James said. “I’m a preparation guy. Each series and each game is different. You prepare for that.”
With all due respect, it doesn’t feel that way.
The Celtics got the best of James in 2008 and 2010, two energy-zapping long series that were humbling to James. In the wake of losing Game 7 in ’08 — despite his 45 points — James publicly challenged the Cavs’ front office to get him better players. They did and the team won 60 games in the next two seasons. But the loss to the Celtics in ’10 with an aging roster led him to make a change and move on to Miami.
In a way those Celtics teams, led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, broke up what had been a promising Cavs team. James more than returned the favor. The next year, with his new team in Miami, James combined with Wade and Bosh to average 71 points and 25 rebounds a game to beat the Celtics in five.
James collapsed to a knee at the series-clinching buzzer, overcome with emotion after finally besting a rival. He hasn’t stopped beating them since — he is one victory away from ending the Celtics’ season for the fourth time in seven years.
The Heat beat the Celtics again in 2012, winning in seven games after James’ 45-point explosion in Game 6 in Boston became a signature moment in his career. The breakup of the Celtics began afterward when James helped recruit Allen to Miami as a free agent, a defection that has still not been forgiven by his former Boston teammates.
After Boston lost in the first round to the New York Knicks in 2013 — James and the Heat won that season’s title — Celtics coach Doc Rivers left to coach the Los Angeles Clippers and it triggered a rebuild that saw Pierce and Garnett dealt to the Brooklyn Nets in an NBA-shaking trade that is still showing effects to this day.
“I knew what the Celtics felt like,” Billups said. “There was a time when we felt like were LeBron’s kryptonite. We beat him in the 2006 playoffs and we beat him all the time in the regular season. But once he got that confidence and he knew he could beat us, we were done. We all knew it.”
The Nets ended up paying a record $ 197 million in salaries and payroll after trading for Garnett and Pierce. They lost to James and the Heat 4-1 in the second round in 2014. Pierce left in free agency and Garnett was later traded. After much fanfare, James buried that threat quickly.
Many organizations tried over the years, but the Atlanta Hawks built perhaps the closest thing the league has seen to a replica of the San Antonio Spurs and their egoless, team-first, ball-sharing offense in the 2014-15 season. Put together by former Spurs player and executive Danny Ferry and coached by former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks ripped off a 19-game win streak, had four players named to the All-Star team and racked up 60 wins to land the No. 1 seed in the East.
The Cavs swept them in four games in the Eastern Conference finals, with James averaging 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists along the way. The next season the Cavs swept the Hawks again, this time setting a record by making 77 3-pointers in the four games — including 25 in Game 2 alone.
By midway through this season, four of the starters from that 60-win team were gone as Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver were traded (Korver to the Cavs) and Al Horford and DeMarre Carroll had left in free agency. Another team’s hopes crushed under James’ heel.
The Toronto Raptors had their two best teams in franchise history between 2015 and ’17. After winning just one playoff series since joining the NBA in 1995, the Raptors won three over the past two seasons in addition to their first two 50-win seasons.
In the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, James averaged 26 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while shooting 62 percent and the Cavs beat the Raptors in six games. James had 33 points and 11 rebounds in the clincher in Toronto, which the Cavs took by a humbling 26 points.
This season the Cavs did the Raptors in again, sweeping them in the second round as James had perhaps one of the greatest series of his career, averaging 36 points, eight rebounds and five assists. The average margin of victory was 15 points.
Four key Raptors — Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson — will be free agents this summer. It seems likely not all of them will be back as perhaps yet another team faces its mortality after dealing with James. If that happens, there should be no shame. They will have company.
“That’s all in the past, I’m more of a present guy,” James said, trying to dismiss his record against East peers. “I’ve been lucky to be in the postseason for 12 straight years. I guess I’ve experienced a lot.”