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LeBron James and his fellow stars are doing the unimaginable: making NBA ratings blowout-proof

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

CLEVELAND — LeBron James sat in the corner of a victorious Cleveland Cavaliers locker room Monday night, an ice bag wrapped to each knee, his feet soaking in a tub of near frozen water.

He’d just dropped 44 points as the Cavaliers cruised to a 111-102 victory over the Boston Celtics that evened the Eastern Conference finals at 2-2. To celebrate, LeBron was FaceTiming with his 3-year-old daughter, Zhuri, whom the King playfully calls “Princess.”

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LeBron beamed like a proud dad, but Zhuri, as toddlers are prone to do, soon tired of him and asked to speak to Kevin Love. The Princess gets what she requests, so the phone was passed to the nearby Love, who said hello.

“Good game,” Zhuri said.

“Good game?” said Love, who shot 3 of 12 from the floor. “Not me. That’s your dad. I don’t know what game you were watching.”

LeBron James once again did LeBron James things Monday night in Game 4. (Getty)

Everyone laughed, LeBron maybe hardest of all.

Zhuri James may be new to watching the NBA Playoffs, but even longtime fans can be confused at exactly what is good in these conference finals, let alone why they keep watching.

By competitive standards, this has been a dog of a playoff round, a dreadful string of non-competitive games mucking up pro basketball’s “Final Four.” None of the seven games played thus far has been close or produced much drama, at least in terms of who was going to win. (Golden State leads Houston 2-1 in the West with games decided by 13, 22 and 41 points.)

Cleveland’s nine-point victory Monday represents the closest in terms of margin of victory this round in either conference (the first three in the East were decided by 25, 13 and 30). The average margin of victory for both series is still a whopping 21.9.

In truth, it was only this close because Cleveland dribbled out the clock at the end and Boston scored on an uncontested dunk. The game was truly over with a couple minutes left, but it was worse than that. Thanks to a big first quarter, Cleveland led by at least seven points for the final 39:27 of the game.

It was just another blowout in a round of playoffs in which that’s become the norm. Last year, it should be noted, was similar.

Yet each morning executives at the NBA, ESPN and TNT awake to ratings that, by most measurements, keep going up and up. Game 1 in the West was the highest rated ever. Social media engagement keeps setting records also. The league is rolling, especially among coveted younger fans, and the fact that no one can manage a close game hardly seems to matter. It stands to reason the West’s Game 4 will follow the trend.

The reason likely rests in Love’s comments — LeBron had a good game, at least if 44 points can be considered just “good.” Even if the game was never really in doubt, the ways in which James might figure out how to score was. There’s a dunk here, a step-back three there and a fallaway midrange jumper to sweeten it up.

On Sunday, in Golden State’s 41-point beat-down of Houston, it was Steph Curry who kept people glued to the television by dropping 35 points on the Rockets, many during an epic third quarter full of teardrop runners and isolation moves creating room for deep threes. It was compelling in spite of the score.

That’s 2018, though, Steph, LeBron, James Harden, Kevin Durant and the rest single-handedly saving these playoffs from what should be incredible boredom.

They’ve made the NBA ratings blowout-proof.

Watching some of the all-time greats pour in points has proven intoxicating for fans. This is individuals overwhelming a team game. No matter how much Golden State led on Sunday, reactions around the country were about what incredible things Curry was doing. The game prior, it was Harden, who had 27, and even Durant, who had 38 in a lopsided loss.

Yes, the scoreboard keeps getting out of hand, but part of that is because the style of play is so offensive-minded, and these guys are so good, they can pile up the points. Teams on the wrong end of an onslaught are helpless to stop it.

“I think the threes have a lot to do with it,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “These days the game can get away from you quickly if you’re giving up a lot of threes.”

The uptempo style of play is so good to watch, and these familiar stars are so gifted and playing (except for Cleveland) for big-market teams that the league can’t lose.

“I just think that it’s the style of play the NBA is in right now,” Durant said. “There are a lot of 3-point shots and a lot of space. In the Western Conference, because we have a lot of teams that play small and play fast, might be a 10-, 15-point game, but throughout the meat of the game it’s always pretty tight. … So, I wouldn’t say the games aren’t good. It’s just the fact that the style of play causes teams to pull away a little faster.”

It is possible things tighten up as the series go on. Houston is facing a virtual must-win Tuesday night. And Game 5 on Wednesday in Boston has the markings of an epic clash in the East.

“It’s the best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “Doesn’t get better than that.”

It would still be nice to see some fourth-quarter tension, some late-game strategy, and, of course, a buzzer-beater to win it — sort of like LeBron did against Toronto (Game 3) and Indiana (Game 5) earlier in these playoffs in two of the rare close games.

“[When] I was a kid, I watched the playoffs so much, and I was like, ‘I would love to be a part of that, that moment, that atmosphere,’ ” James said.

Now it’s his own kid watching, and it appears America is a lot like Zhuri James. The games of the conference finals have never really been in doubt — at least not yet — but she isn’t changing the channel.

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