Washington Post – Tim Bontemps As the Cleveland Cavaliers have run roughshod through the Eastern Conference for a second straight season, sweeping both the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, their swift advance has mostly been met with indifference.
That’s not to say the Cavaliers haven’t been impressive. Instead, it’s been a reflection on two things. One is the focus placed on the Western Conference, where Stephen Curry’s health status and the ongoing drama between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have dominated the league’s attention. The other is the fact that Cleveland seems extremely likely to roll their opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals – either the Toronto Raptors or Miami Heat – and advance to the NBA Finals for a second straight season.
“If you’re fortunate enough to win any playoff series, I think it’s sweet,” James told reporters after sweeping the Hawks. “No matter if it happens in seven or if it happens in four, five or six. You’re fortunate.”
Fortunate or not, the Cavaliers were always expected to reach this point in the playoffs. That said, their impressive start to the postseason seems to have reversed concerns Cleveland wouldn’t measure up in the Finals. A poll of several NBA executives by The Washington Post revealed universal agreement: The Cavaliers that have swept through two opponents the last few weeks will be a tougher out in those Finals than people expected when the playoffs began.
It was understandable for people to be unsure of the Cavaliers’ standing among the league’s elite entering the postseason. Despite playing in the Eastern Conference – which was deeper than years’ past, but still lacks the high-end powers the top of the West possesses – Cleveland finished the season with 57 wins, only one more than the Raptors for the East’s top seed.
For as much success as they’ve enjoyed in recent seasons, the Cavaliers endured plenty of drama this season. From the various flare-ups surrounding LeBron James’s use of social media to the mid-season firing of David Blatt as head coach to the acquisition of Channing Frye at the trade deadline, the Cavaliers had plenty of issues to iron out over the course of those 82 games.
Since the playoffs arrived, though, they’ve looked like a different team, and the executives pointed to two specific reasons, beginning with the newfound synergy between the team’s trio of stars: James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Last year, the Cavaliers were without Love for the final three rounds after he suffered a shoulder injury, and without Irving after he injured his knee in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. And throughout their two seasons together in Cleveland, the three of them have often struggled to coexist and find a harmonic existence together within the Cavaliers’ offensive system.
That has changed, however, in these playoffs. In the first-round sweep over the Pistons, Irving became the first player on a James-led team since Dwyane Wade in the 2011 NBA Finals to lead that team in scoring for a playoff series. Through eight games in these playoffs, Irving is averaging 24.4 points to James’s 23.5. James even compared him favorably to his former teammate to reporters in Cleveland.
“Obviously Wade is a little older and has experienced a little bit more, but as far as the fourth quarter, they both thrive on that in their life,” James said. “They love the pressure situation and are not afraid to take the shot or if they miss a shot they’re not afraid to take the blame either. So I’ve been fortunate to play with two great guys.”
Then there is Love, who has become a dominant force in these playoffs. Averaging 18.9 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range, Love once again looks like the kind of big man that can both gobble up rebounds and space the floor. That’s the kind of big man Cleveland thought it was getting when it acquired him from Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins two years ago.
That floor-spacing is the other aspect to which the executives pointed when explaining the impressive play of the Cavaliers. Cleveland’s three-point shooting – both by volume and success-rate – has been extraordinary during these playoffs.