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."
GALLERY: LeBron James's best career playoff performances
LeBron James' Best Playoff Performances
May 24, 2015 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 3
LeBron James missed his first 10 shots but finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in Cleveland's overtime victory over Atlanta. James, who favored his right leg for most of the fourth quarter and OT, hit a three-pointer with 36.4 seconds left to put the Cavs ahead by one, and the superstar dropped a runner with 12.8 left to make it 114-111.
May 12, 2014 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
LeBron James matched his career playoff high and set a Miami franchise record with 49 points as the Heat held off the Nets 102-96 to take a 3-1 series lead. LeBron made 16-of-24 from the field and 14-of-19 from the free throw line in 43 minutes. He previously scored 49 points for Cleveland in a 2009 postseason game against Orlando.
June 18, 2013 — NBA Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James shook off a slow first half to score 16 fourth-quarter points, including a key three-pointer with 20 seconds remaining in regulation. He finished with his second triple-double of the 2013 Finals, tallying 32 points (on 11-for-26 shooting), 11 assists and 10 rebounds in the Heat's 103-100 OT victory over the Spurs.
May 22, 2013 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
LeBron James capped off a triple-double (30 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds) with a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup in overtime of Miami's 103-102 win over Indiana. James was the first player in NBA playoff history to record a triple-double and buzzer-beating game-winner in the same game.
June 19, 2012 — NBA Finals, Game 4
LeBron James was heavily criticized for his play in Miami's Finals loss to Dallas in 2011, but it was hard to quibble with his performance a year later against Oklahoma City. Exhibit A was Game 4. Just minutes after leaving the game with leg cramps, James returned to nail a go-ahead three-pointer with 2:50 left as the Heat defeated the Thunder 104-98. LeBron finished with 26 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists for the Heat, who took a 3-1 series lead en route to winning James' first championship two nights later.
June 7, 2012 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 6
With the Heat facing elimination, LeBron James erupted for 45 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a 98-79 victory. James joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to post a 45-15-5 line in a playoff game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Even more impressive, he made 19-of-26 shots from the field, including 12 in a row after missing his first attempt.
May 20, 2012 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 4
Miami trailed 2-1 in the series and got off to an awful start in Game 4. But LeBron James responded with an all-around gem that included 40 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists as he teamed up with Dwyane Wade to spark a 101-93 victory, with the two stars scoring 38 consecutive Miami points at one stage. The Heat won the next two games, too, to close out the upstart Pacers.
April 25, 2010 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 4
Fresh off 40- and 39-point performances against Chicago, LeBron James kept up his torrid pace by going for 37 points while adding 12 rebounds and 11 assists for his fifth career triple-double. Perhaps most notable: LeBron, not known for his deep shooting, nailed six three-pointers in Cleveland's 121-98 rout.
May 28, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James had a series of spectacular performances in this series, the last being a 37-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist outing that kept Cleveland alive (the Cavaliers, though, would be eliminated in Game 6 at Orlando as LeBron struggled). LeBron scored 17 points in the fourth quarter, which started with the Cavs trailing by a point and ended with their pulling away for a 112-102 victory.
May 22, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2
This game will be remembered for having the signature shot of LeBron James' career: a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer to punctuate his 35-point effort and even the series at 1-1 as the Cavs defeated the Magic 96-95.
May 20, 2009 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1
Before his Game 2 buzzer-beater, LeBron James opened the series by setting a franchise record with 49 points (on 20-of-30 shooting from the field). But Orlando rallied from a 15-point halftime deficit to win 107-106.
May 9, 2009 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 3
Hawks forward Josh Smith described LeBron James as being "out of his mind." That was a fitting summation of LeBron's performance: 47 points and 15-of-25 shooting from the field, along with 12 rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover in Cleveland's 97-92 win enroute to sweeping Atlanta.
May 18, 2008 — Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7
LeBron James scored 45 points and Paul Pierce countered with 41 in a memorable Game 7 duel. Pierce's Celtics edged James' Cavaliers 97-82.
May 31, 2007 — Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5
LeBron James famously scored Cleveland's last 25 points (and 48 overall) in a 109-107 double-overtime victory over Detroit. The Cavaliers also won Game 6 to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and become the third team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the conference finals.
May 3, 2006 — Eastern Conference First Round, Game 5
LeBron James' game-winning, last-second layup lifted the Cavaliers to a 121-120 overtime victory over the Wizards, gave them a 3-2 series lead and capped a performance in which he finished with 45 points, seven rebounds and six assists.