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LeBron James hits a game winning shot against the Toronto Raptors last week. Can the Celtics stop him? Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
LeBron James hits a game winning shot against the Toronto Raptors last week. Can the Celtics stop him? Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
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LeBron continues to defy the odds as NBA playoffs come down to the final four

EVEN though he is the most famous and talented basketballer of the modern era, few in the States are backing LeBron James to collect the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month.

The NBA is down to its final four, with the Conference Finals starting on Sunday night at 8.30pm, Irish time, when James and the Cleveland Cavaliers take on the Boston Celtics in a first to four wins, best of seven, series for the Eastern crown.

The Celtics are without their two marquee signings this season Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward through injury but have an outstanding coach in Brad Stevens and momentum after knocking out an up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers unit.

It wouldn’t be a major surprise, given the form of Celtics’ mainstay Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and, especially, rookie Jayson Tatum, if LeBron failed to make it to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.

LeBron James saw off the Pacers last month. Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
LeBron James saw off the Pacers last month. Picture: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Whatever happens, LeBron has been a force of nature throughout a difficult stint for his side, following the departure of Irving to the Celtics last summer in the wake of a pretty time finals loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Though the Cavaliers were top dogs in the NBA just two seasons ago, they’ve been patchy in recent months and overhauled their squad midway through the campaign.

James’ longevity is remarkable and at 33-years-old, 15 years since he was drafted as the number one pick, he’s playing better than ever. He’s made critical blocks, hit buzzer-beaters and averaged 34 points as the Cavs survived against the Indiana Pacers and then humiliated the Toronto Raptors in the playoffs so far.

Michael Jordan in his pomp against Utah. Credit: John Biever
Michael Jordan in his pomp against Utah. Credit: John Biever

Despite the iconic status of Michael Jordan, there’s a case to be made for LeBron as the GOAT, the Greatest of All-Time. He hasn’t collected as many NBA rings but his highlight reel is every bit as impressive.

He’s emerged as an astute businessman, a political voice and an activist too. On a side note, LeBron owns a stake in Liverpool worth £25 million, which came about from a 2011 deal his marketing firm made with Fenway Sports Partners where he was paid with a 2% share.

The Western Finals pair Steph Curry’s Warriors, the champions and hot favourites to make it three NBA titles in four seasons, with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets won the most games in the gruelling 82-regular season and are spearheaded by the likely league MVP James Harden, aka The Beard, and Chris Paul.

Houston have excelled during the playoffs for the most part, thanks to Harden and Paul’s effortless skill and decent depth to their roster. It could be now or never for their coach Mike D’Antoni, who previously guided the Phoenix Suns to conference finals when Steve Nash was their point guard.

The Suns excited with their high-tempo brand of basketball that didn’t yield silverware and the expectation is the Warriors will have too much experience and class for D’Anoni’s team this time.

Steph Curry takes on Kevin Durant, who is now his team-mate, and Serge Ibaka. Picture: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Steph Curry takes on Kevin Durant, who is now his team-mate, and Serge Ibaka. Picture: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Back from an ankle injury, Curry will be at the forefront with his trademark long-range three-point shooting and silky play-making. Yet that the only thing they’ll have to stop when that series starts at 2am, Irish time, on Tuesday morning. Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are future Hall of Famers.

The Cavs and Warriors, LeBron and Steph, have faced off in the past three NBA finals. The Warriors have had the upper hand, with two championships to one, and six victories to two in the regular season games since 2015. Yet with James, anything seems possible.