- - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The 2018 top-seeded Toronto Raptors are over there in a dark corner, nursing their drinks and muttering about being swept in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The 2015 top-seeded Atlanta Hawks are in another corner, reminiscing about their 60-win season and the broom they endured in the Eastern Conference finals.

Across the room, the 2017 top-seeded Boston Celtics and the 2011 top-seeded Chicago Bulls (62 wins) have their heads together, peering at tablets that loop highlights of the sole victory each managed in their respective conference finals.

Those loud voices coming from the bar? They belong to the 2014 top-seeded Indiana Pacers, bragging about how they extended their conference finals to a whole six games.

The Pacers disparage everyone assembled but speak especially ill of the 2012 Chicago Bulls, who otherwise might’ve qualified for admission here but were upset by No. 8-seed Philadelphia in the first round.



That’s real ignominy, not what Toronto just suffered. The Raptors shouldn’t feel too bad about joining this club, identified by a gleaming plaque on the door:

“Top Seeds Vanquished by LeBron James.”

Membership is almost a badge of honor. Just ask the old-timers, the 2007 top-seeded Detroit Pistons, who founded this group when James was a spry 22-year-old who crashed the NBA Finals. Those Pistons spent four seasons alone but now they have plenty of company.

James is making his eighth consecutive appearance in the conference finals, He has treated the East like his personal jungle gym since taking his talents to Miami and subsequently returning to Cleveland. Other teams get to play, but only for so long.

When people talk about differences between Michael Jordan and James, they often mention Jordan’s killer instincts. He stepped on competitors like cigarette butts, stomping out any smoldering hope.

Only once did Jordan’s Bulls fail to enter the playoffs as the East’s top seed. The No. 1 designation went to the 1993 New York Knicks, who lasted six games against Chicago in the conference finals.

Conversely, only twice during this run have James’ teams been the East’s best in the regular season: The 2013 Heat and the 2016 Cavaliers. In each of the other six seasons, some other squad thought it might be better and might have a chance based on results over 82 games.

But four — not 82 — is the magic number where James is concerned.

Western Conference foes have been much more successful in reaching the threshold for a series victory, as evidenced by their 5-3 record in the Finals against James-led teams. Even this season, if James advances to his fourth consecutive championship round, Golden State or Houston will be heavily favored to drop his record to 3-6.

Unfortunately for teams in the East, they aren’t good enough and/or haven’t figured out a way to beat him when it matters most.

Maybe one of the up-and-coming squads in Boston and Philadelphia will pull off the feat soon. No one expects it to happen this month, but James eventually must relinquish the throne. He’s 33 playing like he’s 23, but that can’t last much longer. Right?

Through two rounds and 11 games this postseason against Indiana and Toronto, James is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4. rebounds and 9.0 assists. That’s better than his playoff averages of 28.4, 8.9 and 6.9 entering the season.

His scoring inside the arc is up substantially. Prior to this campaign, James’ postseason percentage on two-pointers was .530. During these playoffs it’s .622, as remarkable as a running, one-handed, one-legged, buzzer-beating, game-winning bank shot.

His dominance could lead the Raptors to fire Dwane Casey — who on Wednesday happened to win Coach of the Year. Or maybe Toronto will break up the squad that has reached the playoffs five consecutive times while averaging 52.6 victories per season.

Aside from the Celtics and Sixers, every Eastern Conference team is banging its head, trying to find a solution to the problem James represents. They can’t count on him relocating to the West and giving them a better shot at reaching the Finals. And if he joins Boston or Philly, his streak might carry over into next decade.

Perhaps the only remedy is time.

Changing the coach or reconfiguring the roster gives the impression that management is hard at work, unwilling to settle for the status quo. But until James slows down, doing something very well could yield the same results as doing nothing at all.

And the TSVLJ Club can continue to accept new members.

⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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