CLEVE­LAND CRUSH

Does Cavs’ play­off up­ris­ing fore­tell an NBA fi­nals run?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - Jeff Zill­gitt

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

KEN BLAZE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

LeBron James cel­e­brates the game-win­ner May 5. Cleve­land com­pleted a four-game sweep two days later.

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