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NBA PM: LeBron James and His Playoff Dominance

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Heading into the 2017 NBA Playoffs, thanks in part to an inconsistent regular season that saw them moonwalk into the playoffs as the second seed in the Eastern Conference, most people could only wonder what had become of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Heading into their second-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors, few thought they would have an opportunity to make history. Yet, here they are.

After famously coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers have begun their 2017 playoff run with a sweep of the Indiana Pacers. They will enter play on May 2 having won eight consecutive playoff games, which is a rare occurrence.

Dating back to his days as a member of the Miami HEAT, James has led his teams to five consecutive first round sweeps. The HEAT swept the Milwaukee Bucks and Charlotte Hornets in 2013 and 2014, while the Cavaliers have now swept the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers in 2015, 2016 and 2017, respectively.

One would have to go all the way back to 2012 for the last time that a James-led team lost a first round game. That year, after taking a 3-0 lead over Carmelo Anthony and his New York Knicks, the HEAT lost Game 4 to the Knicks before finishing up the series in five games. Said a tad differently, James has led his team to 21 consecutive first round playoff series wins and a 24-1 record in the first round over the past five years. Dating back to 2008, his teams have gone a remarkable 36-3 in their first round matchups. One has to go all the way back to 2008 to find a first round playoff series of James’ that went to as many as six games.

Considering his quest to reach the NBA Finals for a seventh consecutive year, it’s fair to say, at the very least, no player has dominated an entire conference the way James has. Not Tim Duncan, not Kobe Bryant and not even the great Michael Jordan. Also worth mentioning? Each of the aforementioned all-time greats has a first round series loss on their resume. James does not.

Certainly, one could try to poke holes in the accomplishment. By now, we have heard it all from the detractors, but one thing remains certain, James was a great player long before he opted to take his talents to South Beach, and his incredible run began long before 2011—the year he first played in a playoff series with Dwyane Wade by his side.

With the Toronto Raptors standing before them, James and his Cavaliers are now running down another tiny piece of history. They are attempting to become the first team to ever win 10 consecutive playoff games two seasons in a row. They accomplished the feat last season, sweeping the Pistons and Atlanta Hawks and taking a 2-0 series lead over the Raptors.

If the Cavs do manage to run their current playoff win streak to 10, it would be just the eighth time a team managed to do that. It also wouldn’t leave the Cavs too far behind the 1999 San Antonio Spurs. Those Spurs hold the record for most consecutive wins in a single postseason, with 12. Featuring Duncan and David Robinson, en route to defeating the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals, the Spurs beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in the final two games of their first-round series and swept the next two rounds before taking a 2-0 lead over the Knicks in the Finals. That remarkable run ended with the Spurs winning the Finals in five games and is yet to be overtaken as the longest run spanning a single playoffs.

In terms of impressiveness, though, the 1999 Spurs probably still fall a bit short of the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers. Those Lakers won the NBA Finals after steamrolling the league to the tune of a 15-1 record. They swept the first three rounds before dropping Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals to the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers. They then responded by winning the next four. Technically, though, those Lakers “only” managed 11 consecutive playoff wins, one fewer than Duncan and Robinson’s 1999 Spurs team.

As for the longest playoff win streak ever, that also belongs to the Lakers—only Magic Johnson’s version of the team. Magic led his squad to 13 consecutive NBA playoff victories, spanning the 1988 and 1989 postseasons. After trailing Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons 3-2 in the Finals, the Lakers captured the title by winning Game 6 and Game 7. The following year, they swept the first three rounds of the playoffs before arriving at the 1989 NBA Finals for a rematch with the Pistons. Unfortunately, starting shooting guard Byron Scott was ruled out of the Finals after sustaining a hamstring injury while Magic Johnson missed Game 3 and Game 4 after pulling his hamstring in Game 2.

Ironically, the Pistons would go on to sweep the Lakers, ending the Lakers quest for a three-peat, as well as the longest playoff win streak in NBA history.

That was the last time an Eastern Conference team swept the NBA Finals.

In the end, the history lesson doesn’t mean much to James or his Cavaliers, but if nothing else, it certainly is interesting to put James and the feats he accomplishes into historical context. His Cavaliers are attempting to make history by winning a second consecutive NBA Finals. Along the way, though, they may inadvertently leave a few more marks.

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About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.