Playing in their biggest game of the 2016-2017 NBA season, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers silenced the critics, at least for the moment.  The team took over sole possession of first place in the East with a win over the Boston Celtics, proving that they are still the conference’s only real championship contenders.

Wednesday night's 114-91 rout in Boston did more than just put Cleveland one step closer towards clinching home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. It was a statement that the defending champs are still the class of the East and a threat to the title hopes of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

Having reached the NBA Finals in six straight seasons, the most consecutive appearances by any player since Bill Russell’s Celtics, James has been facing more doubt about his title chances than perhaps any time since he signed with the Miami Heat in 2010. Boston’s odds of reaching the finals nearly doubled, and FiveThirtyEight’s projections on March 29 gave the Cavs just a two percent chance to win the championship. The site ranked them behind the Celtics (7 percent), Washington Wizards (5 percent ) and Toronto Raptors (4 percent), all of whom sit behind Cleveland in the standings.

There are certainly reasons for the Cavaliers to be concerned. The Cavs went 19-19 over a 38-game stretch, and they had a .500 record on the road before winning in Boston. Cleveland’s struggles have been highlighted by poor defense, and the team ranks 22nd in defensive efficiency. A year ago, the Cavs were 10th in that category.

Still, the team is 36-15 when James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are all in the lineup. Despite the concerns surrounding the defending champions, the idea that they shouldn’t be considered the overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Conference playoffs is almost laughable.

There are a few simple reasons why Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals this June with a chance to win a second straight title.

LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet

It’s been a while since an NBA MVP discussion has garnered this much debate, and little of it has involved James. Russell Westbrook or James Harden will win the award, and Kawhi Leonard is the favorite to finish in third. But no matter how the votes shake out, James is still the league’s best player, just like he’s been for the last decade.

Remember when Stephen Curry had seemingly surpassed James as the world’s No.1 player? James responded by putting together an NBA Finals performance for the ages and taking down the best regular-season team in league history. Curry remains a star, but he won’t even be an All-NBA first team selection, while James will make the team for an 11th straight year.

For all of the talk that the 2016-2017 MVP race should come down to Westbrook, Harden or even Leonard, a strong case can be made for James’ candidacy. He’s putting up some of the best numbers of his career, averaging career-highs with 8.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. James’ 26.2 points per game is his highest scoring average since returning to Cleveland, and he’s doing so while taking fewer shots and making a higher percentage of three-pointers than he did in the previous two seasons.

Much has been made about how many minutes James has played, but that isn’t likely to slow him down in the playoffs. With nearly the same amount of mileage on him a year ago, James averaged 26.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game in the postseason.

In every playoff series, the Cavaliers will have the best player on the court. It’s just one factor in determining the NBA champion, but it might also be the most important.

The Cavs have no real competition in the East

There’s no question that the Cavaliers will have a difficult time winning in the NBA Finals. The Warriors are the rightful favorites as they complete the best three-year run in the history of the league’s regular season, and the Spurs have had the NBA’s clear No.2 team in 2016-2017. Reaching the finals, however, shouldn’t be much of a problem for Cleveland.

The bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff teams have just about no chance to make the finals. Since the NBA expanded to 16 playoff teams in 1984, 64 of the 66 teams that have played in the Finals were seeded No.4 or higher. The only exceptions were the No.6 seed Houston Rockets in 1995, who won the title in the previous year, and the 1999 New York Knicks, who were the No.8 seed in a 50-game, lockout-shortened season.

That leaves the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards as the only legitimate threats to Cleveland. All three teams could give the Cavaliers trouble and take a series to six games, but none have the star power to win the conference. The East’s No.2, No.3 and No.4 seeds are all without one of the league’s top five players, and it’s very rare for a team to even make the finals when they don’t possess a player that falls into that category.

There are, of course, a few exceptions, but they all had something special that the 2017 Celtics, Raptors and Wizards lack. The early-2000s Detroit Pistons are the biggest outlier, but they had an all-time great defense during a time when the league was lacking in talent. The 2010 Celtics didn’t have a selection on either the All-NBA first or second team, but the core that won the title two years earlier was still intact. Even when the Spurs won the 2014 finals, they had arguably two top-10 players in Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, along with a rising star in Kawhi Leonard and maybe the best head coach of all time.

As evidenced by the fact that last year’s unanimous MVP isn’t even in the conversation for the award, the NBA probably has more overall talent than ever. That makes it even harder for teams to contend for a title without an elite player. The likes of Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and John Wall are All-Stars in their own right, but there’s a clear separation between them and the NBA’ s true superstars. The gap between those players and James is astronomical.

History continues to repeat itself

Ever since 2011, there has been one constant in the NBA. There are a few new playoff teams, and the All-Star rosters receive a shakeup each year. But through it all, James always finds himself in the NBA Finals.

For James and whatever team he’s on, the regular season has become essentially meaningless. He’s so good that it’s nearly impossible for his team not to get a top seed, though having the best record isn’t a requirement. James made it to the Finals in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 as the No.2 seed.

There’s no arguing that the Cavs have played poorly in recent months, and Cleveland’s 10 losses in March were the most ever suffered by one of James’ teams in a month since he was a rookie. Overall, however, it’s been a typical year. Cleveland is the East’s No.1 seed with four games remaining in the regular season, and they’ll win just about as many games as James’ teams won in 2014 and 2015.

Cleveland appears to be out of their late-season funk, having won four games in a row by an average of more than 16 points. James is averaging 32.3 points, 11 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game during that time. Kevin Love has posted a double-double in every game of the winning streak, and Cleveland went 7-7 in the 14 games he missed after suffering a knee injury.

Are the Cavs finally interested again because they are playing in meaningful games? Does Cleveland have an extra gear they go into during the playoffs? Whatever the case may be, the postseason will likely be business as usual for James and Co.