But at the end of all things, the Cavs had LeBron James, who threw down a ridiculous triple double (37/18/13). The Hawks missed a couple of missed open threes that could have sent it to double overtime. The Cavs now lead 3-0, and no one in the NBA has ever come back from down 3-0.
It's James' 12th career playoff triple double, which makes him second on that list, behind only Jason Kidd, who would usually only get 37 in 3 games. No one has ever had a game like that in the playoffs, and oh by the way, James started 0-for-10 and scoreless in the first quarter. Games like this are why I think James might be the best player in NBA history, simply because he does this kind of thing with less help. If James is off the floor, I don't think this Cavs team gets home court in the West. James is a game away from his fifth straight chance to win it all, and he's doing it with starting teammates who were part of the worst teams in the NBA in Denver and New York. As good as his numbers are, what he allows his teammates to do might be even bigger.
It's hard, honestly, to overstate James' contribution tonight. Had the Hawks won this game, it's 2-1 with the Cavs looking wounded, with Irving down and James, at some point, likely to lose tread with various cramps and knee issues. If the Cavs can close out the Hawks in Game Four -- and that's not a given, seeing how hard the Hawks tried tonight, down multiple starters -- they'll get a week and change off before the Finals, and no one will remember just how close this was to being an actual series.
There will be side chatter about Matthew Delevedova getting into his third incident in two weeks -- Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, and now, Al Horford -- and some kind words for Kent Bazemore and Tristan Thompson. But you can save yourself a lot of time and worry here. The Cavs have the best player on the planet, in a conference where only three of the top 15 players in the NBA play. The second of those guys is James' teammate. He's a bully in a small playground, and the lEast might have been won on the day he chose to stay in conference.
Finally, this. There's been a lot of one-note attack on what Sixers' GM Sam Hinkie has been doing for the past couple of years, or how teams in the East have just been unwilling to step up their game to combat James. Then you see games like tonight, and on some level, you just understand it. The only opponent that's strong enough to defeat James in the East is the one that gets all great players in the end -- age. And that might come sooner than you think.
James is 30 now, and will be 31 in December. He's already played over 43,000 minutes when you add in the playoff minutes. By comparison, he'll have played as much as Michael Jordan did when he was 34 and walking away from the game in Chicago for the second time. He's already played more combined minutes than Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Wait, there's more. The full list of active players with more regular season minutes than James reads like a graveyard. Antawn Jamison (he's active?), Joe Johnson, Jason Terry, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. He's 12th in all-time playoff minutes, with the only actives ahead being Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan.
Which makes tonight's Cavs win... bigger than even Game Five and Six when they turned the tide against the Bulls. This can't continue forever, even in games like this one, when it looks like it will.