Does Cavs’ playoff uprising foretell an NBA finals run?
CLEVELAND – The Cavaliers were on the verge of elimination in the first round of the playoffs. They were more vulnerable than ever, more likely to lose before the NBA Finals for the first time since 2014.
But they have started playing like a team destined for a fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and LeBron James’ eighth consecutive Finals appearance. James’ did-he-really-just-dothat buzzer-beating floater off the backboard in Game 3 May 5 gave Cleveland a 105-103 victory. Then Cleveland dominated Toronto 128-93 in Game 4 May 7, as James scored 29 and every starter scored in double figures.
Cleveland brought the offensive firepower in the clincher, shooting 59.5% from the field and 46.2% on three-pointers and outscoring Toronto 70-46 in the second and third quarters.
Playoff story lines change day-to-day but the narrative surrounding this Cavaliers team oscillated from one extreme (they’re washed up) to the other (with James, all things are possible) in a week.
“At the end of the day, you have to do whatever it takes to win ... it doesn’t matter how it happens. We’ve just got to be a little better,” James said.
No one foresaw a series sweep over the top-seeded Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals; yet here we are with James and friends improving on both ends of the floor with each series. The Raptors have lost 10 playoff games in a row to the Cavs.
“I’m gonna get a lot of rest,” James said after his team awaited the winner of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers for their Eastern Conference finals opponent.
James has been spectacular. Against Toronto, he had a tripledouble in Game 1, 43 points on 19-for-28 shooting in Game 2 and 38 points and the gamewinner in Game 3.
“Every time we come to the playoffs he has that edge,” Cavs coach Ty Lue said. “Starting in the second round, I could just see it. And he’s a special player, and we all know that. Just run out of things to say. What he does for us is big.”
“Listen, tie game, down one, whatever the case may be, I live for those moments,” James said.
It hasn’t just been James. Kevin Love rediscovered his offense after struggling against Indiana and in Game 1 against Toronto. Love balked at playing center instead of power forward. But Lue likes the mismatches the Cavs can create with Love at center.
Love had 31 points and 11 rebounds in Game 2 and 21 points and 16 rebounds in Game 3. In Game 4, he was the team’s second-leading scorer with 23 points.
“More than anything, just seeing the ball go through the hoop has been big for me,” Love said. “Whether it’s been the pick-and-roll, whether it’s been that (screen) action with Kyle (Korver), whether it’s been LeBron finding me or us playing in the pick-and-roll, just staying in attack mode, miss or make on the offensive end, making the right decision playing hard and then on both ends on the glass just trying to clean up as best I can.”
Korver, Cleveland’s thirdmost important player, is a knock-down three-point shooter who continually moves without the ball to get his shot. Taxing for opponents to defend, Korver was 14-for-25 on threepointers against Toronto, but he’s also an underrated screener, which has helped James and Love.
George Hill’s return after missing three games against Indiana with back spasms pro- vides Cleveland with a capable ballhandler who can relieve James of some offensive responsibility.
Jeff Green’s role as a defender and secondary scoring option and Tristan Thompson’s energy off the bench give Cleveland depth. J.R. Smith didn’t feel well in Game 3 and almost sat out. He wasn’t an offensive factor but helped force DeMar DeRozan into a miserable offensive night.
Smith scored 15 points and was 3-for-3 on three-point shooting in Game 4.
The Cavs shot 32.2% on three-pointers vs. Indiana in the first round. They found their three-point shooting against the Raptors, making 41.1%.
“So all different fashions of how we’ve won,” Love said, “I think that gives us just a great mind-set going into every game.”
LeBron James celebrates the game-winner May 5. Cleveland completed a four-game sweep two days later.