CLEVELAND—LeBron James has the Cavaliers back in the Finals for just the second time in the franchise's 45-year history.
Cleveland, the East's No. 2 seed, swept top-ranked Atlanta out of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday, posting a dominant 118–88 victory in Game 4. That win set off extended celebrations in the locker room, as well it should for a new-look team guided by first-year coach David Blatt.
Last season, the Cavaliers won just 33 games and missed the playoffs for the fourth straight time. But James's decision to leave Miami after four straight Finals appearances to return to Cleveland started a chain of events that transformed the team. Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, the 2013 and 2014 No. 1 overall picks respectively, were shipped out to acquire Kevin Love over the summer. Veterans Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones signed on. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov were acquired in midseason deals. Dion Waiters was dumped. Kendrick Perkins was picked up after the trade deadline. After a slow start and two weeks of midseason rest for James, the additions started to gel, and the Cavaliers posted 53 wins before blowing through the Celtics, Bulls and Hawks in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a 12-2 record.
"At one point during the season [we were] 19‑20 and [I was] watching my team struggle and me sitting out two weeks," James said. "They wanted Coach Blatt fired, [they were] saying we needed another point guard, [and asking if] LeBron and Kyrie [will] be able to play together? So many storylines were happening at that point in time. For us to be sitting at this point today being able to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, this is special. It's very special."
James is headed to his fifth straight Finals appearance, a feat that was never accomplished by the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant. The first four trips occurred with perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, where the Heat won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013, the only championships of James's career.
"Could I foresee this? At the beginning of the season, I couldn't," James said. "I just knew that we just had to get better and I just saw how young we were and how 'young‑minded' we were at that point in time. But I knew I had to lead these guys, and if they just followed my leadership, I knew I could get them to a place where they haven't been before."
James, a four-time MVP, finished third in this year's voting for the award, averaging 25.3 points, 7.4 assists and 6 rebounds. During the playoffs, he took his game to another level, hitting a game-winner against the Bulls in Game 4 and a game-sealing three-pointer in Game 3 against the Hawks. In the postseason, James averaged 27.9 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.4 assists, as he picked up the slack for Love and Irving, who missed time with injuries. Now he prepares to guide the Cavaliers into the Finals for the first time since 2007, when he was swept out by the Spurs at the age of 22.
"I'm a guy who believes in unfinished business," James said, in reflecting on his return from Miami to Cleveland. "I understood what these people were going through, the people here not only in Cleveland but in Northeast Ohio and all over the world who love and bleed wine and gold."
For Blatt, hoisting the Eastern Conference championship trophy marked a high point in his first season in the NBA after coaching abroad for years. The 56-year-old Massachusetts native and Princeton graduate left his wife and children in Israel to coach the Cavaliers. He faced rumors about his job security as Cleveland played unevenly out of the gate, and he nearly called a crucial timeout he didn't have during the Cavaliers' second-round series with the Bulls. Nevertheless, he's headed to the Finals as an NBA rookie.
"LeBron came home, I left home to come here," Blatt said. "I left a lot of people that I love dearly and a lot of people that I'm close, so close to, in order to pursue a dream, in order to do something in my career that I hadn't had the opportunity to do. That's a big sacrifice on the part of my family and the place that I'm from. [Winning the East is] special because it's all worthwhile."
The championship-starved residents of Cleveland were elated at the Cavaliers' success, cheering wildly throughout Game 4, but they clearly want more. Owner Dan Gilbert promised his team's fans during the postgame trophy presentation that the Cavaliers "were not settling for this," and Blatt echoed that sentiment by declaring, "We're not done."
The last championship won in Cleveland came 50 years ago, when the Browns won the NFL title (in the pre-Super Bowl days). Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians last won the World Series in 1948, and the Cavaliers have never won the NBA title. The shadow of those shortcomings will hang over the upcoming Finals, which will pit the Cavaliers against either the Warriors or the Rockets.
"We all know how long it's been since a champion has been in this city," James said. "I mean, you can try and not focus on it. You can try to say, okay, well, it's not about that. But we all know it. The one thing that we can guarantee as a team ... is we will give our best shot. ... As a leader, I will have our guys ready for it. .... The coaching staff will give us the greatest game plan they can to win against Houston, to win against Golden State, but as far as guarantees, I cannot guarantee the championship. That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to lead. But I will guarantee that we will play our asses off."
[daily_cut.NBA]Entering the conference finals round, the Warriors were viewed by Bovada, an oddsmaking service, as the heavy title favorites: Golden State had 4/7 odds, besting Cleveland at 13/5. Golden State currently leads Houston 3-1 in the Western Conference finals, with Game 5 set for Oracle Arena on Wednesday.
"I don't know," Millsap said after Game 4. "They beat the No. 1 seed in the East. Maybe."
Teague added: "They have some great players. So anything is possible when you get in a series. Somebody can get hot. I don't know, maybe."
The big question entering the Finals is whether Cleveland's dominance of the weaker East will translate against a top West foe. In the playoffs, the Cavaliers rank No. 1 in offense and No. 3 in defense, while the Warriors rank No. 2 on offense and No. 4 on defense. That said, Golden State has played a tougher slate of opponents in New Orleans, Memphis and Houston.
Blatt believes the Cavaliers' championship chances can be boiled down to the combination of toughness, James's presence, and the fact that his team consistently plays with maximum effort.
"We've got a group of players that have a lot of grit and a lot of character," Blatt said. "We have a champion [in James] who leads them in the right way, a guy that is not only a fabulous basketball player, but he is an experienced winner who's about the right things and who leads his guys in a way that empowers them and does not belittle them, in a way that lifts them. I just think we really play hard. Even when we're not great, we're still playing hard, and we have been. Since January, I don't know that there's a harder playing team than us, and that takes you a long way."