It’s no shocker that the Cleveland Cavaliers would end up playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. I mean, come on, look at their roster. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J. R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and did I mention LeBron James?
The thing that is mildly surprising is how easy it was for the Cavs to sweep the Atlanta Hawks. Their Game 4 victory was the closest the Hawks came to beating the Cavs. They almost had it, but lost 100-99. Even if they had won, however, winning three straight games against Cleveland would require an absolute miracle.
Here’s how it went down. The Hawks had a 97-96 lead with a little over a minute remaining in the 4th, when they (Paul Millsap) got called for goaltending one of LeBron James’ shots. There are very few games where a goaltending call happens at such a critical point of the game. LeBron would later hit a jumper to put the Cavs up 100-97. Dennis Schroder would then bring the Hawks to 99, but still short of saving the game. The final minutes of the game didn’t have the same kind of intensity the last win-or-go-home moments traditionally have, purely for the fact that if the Hawks weren’t going to lose tonight, they would most likely lose the next game (or the next one…or the next one).
This series was merely a warm-up for the Cavaliers to gather momentum to morph into their final form for the National Playoffs. The Cavs are in a much better position for the playoffs this year and are likely going to dethrone Golden State. Let’s turn the calendar back a year. The Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors. Well, it was a fraction of the Cavaliers.
The survival starting unit was LeBron James, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and Matthew Dellavedova.
This means the amazing, play-creating point guard Kyrie Irving and 3-point shooting big man Kevin Love were out for the series. Think about how quickly the Los Angeles Clippers crumbled after losing Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. LeBron was able to bring his team of reserves to a Game 6, but ultimately couldn’t beat the phenomenal Warriors offense. The Cavaliers are trying to build a franchise around these two with LeBron, but when it came time for the Finals, both were out with injuries.
This time around, things are different. In Game 4 against the Hawks, Kevin Love finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, Kyrie Irving had 21 points and 8 assists, and LeBron almost got a triple-double with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. Cleveland has had a full year to taste the bitter loss. A full year to watch Golden State beat records and bathe in Sportscenter highlight reels.
Granted, there still is one more series left before the Cavaliers can play in the finals. If they can make it through the next round injury-free, the Finals will be very exciting to watch. Cleveland will be facing either the Toronto Raptors or the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. Either of these teams might put up a fight, but Toronto is nowhere near the same caliber of a team as Cleveland, and Miami is missing one of its most valuable players, Chris Bosh.
To stay injury-free here is critical, because Steph Curry is too good a point guard to not have someone like Kyrie Irving on him constantly. Klay Thompson needs to have his hands full guarding and trying to out-rebound Kevin Love. All this has to happen so that LeBron James can get to work like LeBron James knows best. Cleveland doesn’t have the depth in their bench to handle a healthy Golden State, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see coach Tyronn Lue restrict the playing time of his stars to lower their risk of injury for their seemingly inevitable Finals dance with the Warriors.