Sweep, sleep: Cavs oust Rap­tors, wait for East fi­nals foe

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By TOM WITHERS To­day

CLEVE­LAND (AP) — Their doubters are drop­ping off as quickly as the com­pe­ti­tion.

Only one team has ad­vanced to the con­fer­ence fi­nals in these NBA play­offs, and it’s the same squad that looked vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing a chaotic reg­u­lar sea­son, beat­able in the post­sea­son and was one loss from a pos­si­ble fran­chise col­lapse.

The end­ing’s been post­poned. The Cleve­land Cava­liers aren’t nearly finished.

On Mon­day night, the Cavs com­pleted their sec­ond straight four-game sweep of the Toronto Rap­tors, the East’s top team and the one that was sup­pos­edly built to de­throne them, with a 128-93 win in Game 4 that has per­haps changed Cleve­land’s out­look.

LeBron James, whose fu­ture hangs over this city like a loom­ing thun­der­storm, scored 29 points with 11 as­sists and eight re­bounds on 12 of 19 shoot­ing — an or­di­nary per­for­mance by his stan­dards — as the Cavs won their 10th straight over the Rap­tors with one of their most com­plete games in months.

Af­ter all the in­juries, the failed Isa­iah Thomas ex­per­i­ment, the ros­ter over­haul at the trad­ing dead­line and other dis­trac­tions, the Cavs, who can get some rest while wait­ing for the Philadelphia-Bos­ton win­ner, are peak­ing at the right time. Their path to the East fi­nals wasn’t straight. But they ar­rived.

“We’ve had four or five sea­sons wrapped in one, we know what the nar­ra­tive has been about our team,” said James, who av­er­aged 34 points, 8.3 re­bounds and 11.3 as­sists in the se­ries. “But I can only speak in the mo­ment. To be able to put our­selves in po­si­tion where we can rep­re­sent the East­ern Con­fer­ence in the Fi­nals, that’s all you can ask for. So we’re ex­cited about be­ing part of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals once again and hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete for a cham­pi­onship.

“That is what our goal is.” James has been re­luc­tant to dis­cuss the Cavs’ chances to win a ti­tle or get back to the Fi­nals for the fourth straight year, but his con­fi­dence has grown with each victory.

Kevin Love, who strug­gled in a seven-game scrap with In­di­ana in the first round, had another solid game with 23 points. Kyle Korver added 16, J.R. Smith scored 15 on 6-for-6 shoot­ing and point guard Ge­orge Hill, who was side­lined for three games in the Pac­ers se­ries, added 12.

The Cavs were bal­anced and were fi­nally able to take some of the pres­sure off James, who had seem­ingly been aban­doned by his team­mates through much of the post­sea­son.

In fact, things had got­ten so bad that “Satur­day Night Live” did a skit last week­end that went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia called “The Other Cava­liers,” a par­ody that poked fun at Cleve­land’s sup­port­ing cast.

James, though, said his faith never wa­vered.

“I believe in my team­mates so as ev­ery­one was bury­ing my team­mates alive through­out that firstround se­ries, I just con­tin­ued to tell them, ’Lis­ten, we can’t win with­out each and ev­ery one do­ing their jobs and be­ing as great as they can be,” James said. “I con­tin­ued to preach that so it’s im­pos­si­ble for me to lose con­fi­dence in our ball­club no matter what the stakes are or where we’re down because if I do that — then where are we go­ing to go from a team as­pect?”

Af­ter win­ning 59 games in the reg­u­lar sea­son, the Rap­tors had the East’s top seed and fig­ured that this was their year. James had other plans.

Toronto came into the se­ries feel­ing great. By the end, the Rap­tors were de­feated and de­flated. Ex­actly one year since they were last swept by James, he did it to them again.

“Ev­ery­one had counted Cleve­land out,” said coach Dwane Casey, whose job could be in jeop­ardy. “They strug­gled a lit­tle bit. They had the big trade and all that. Ev­ery­one thought they were vul­ner­a­ble but as long as they have him, they have a chance and that’s what we were look­ing at. But 10 days ago we had all the con­fi­dence in the world.”

As the Cavs look ahead to a matchup with ei­ther the Six­ers or Celtics, who lead that se­ries 3-1 and host Game 5 on Wed­nes­day, Love’s re­nais­sance gives Cleve­land the most com­fort.

The All-Star was ren­dered in­ef­fec­tive in Round 1 by the Pac­ers, whose big men bat­tered him and took Love out of his game.

But de­spite cries to bench Love or move him back from cen­ter to power for­ward, Cavs coach Ty­ronn Lue stuck with him, and in do­ing so may have pro­longed Cleve­land’s sea­son.

Love said there was noth­ing mag­i­cal about his turn­around.

“It just came from me be­ing me,” he said. “I didn’t for­get how to play bas­ket­ball, I was just ul­tra­ag­gres­sive. I found my­self in spots, I found my­self just miss­ing lit­tle chip­pies, miss­ing shots that were un­char­ac­ter­is­tic of me to miss. But I con­tin­ued to be ag­gres­sive, con­tin­ued to put in the work ev­ery sin­gle day. So for me it was just more than any­thing it was just me be­ing my­self.” And now the Cavs ap­pear to be them­selves.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF KING JAMES GOSPEL

LeBron James

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