It’s long been assumed that the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs would meet in the Western Conference finals, with the winner expected to capture the NBA title by making quick work of any team that emerges from the East. But the surging Cleveland Cavaliers are proving they deserve more recognition considering the ease in which they have dispatched their playoff opponents.
Cleveland had arguably the most impressive performance of the postseason on Wednesday night. The Cavs set a playoff record by hitting 25 three-pointers in Game 2 of their second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, taking a 106-70 lead into the fourth quarter before winning by 25 points. The victory gave Cleveland a 6-0 record in the postseason in what has at times looked like a casual stroll into the conference finals. Tyronn Lue's squad has won by an average of 11.7 points.
The winner of the series between the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat gets a shot at stopping LeBron James from making a sixth consecutive NBA Finals appearance. Toronto finished just one game behind Cleveland in the regular season, but they barely escaped out of the first round and lost Game 1 to Miami. The Heat have defeated the Cavs twice in three tries, but they’d be hard-pressed to upset Cleveland in a seven-game series with Chris Bosh sidelined and without home-court advantage.
The Cavaliers went 11-16 from the corners to break the NBA record for 3s made in a single game. pic.twitter.com/9gkk40SAr4
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) May 5, 2016
Golden State and San Antonio are both expected to be heavy favorites against Cleveland in the Finals, but things are starting to look better for the Cavs.
Stephen Curry, who remains sidelined with a knee injury, is coming off such a dominant regular season that James’ greatness seems to be overlooked. James had another MVP-caliber regular season (25.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.8 apg, 52 percent shooting), and has shown no noticeable change from the jaw-dropping form that has defined his 13-year career. The 31-year-old is just a postseason removed from nearly averaging a triple-double over 20 playoff games, and almost carrying the Cavs to a title over the Warriors without much of a supporting cast.
Having won a record-setting 73 games with Curry performing at an all-time level, Golden State is certainly better than they were a year ago. But it can’t be discounted that James helped Cleveland take a 2-1 series lead without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Both players are healthy now, and barring an unforeseen injury, the Cavs will coast into the NBA Finals with their "Big 3" operating at 100 percent.
James did what he could, but he didn’t have the supporting cast to win a title in his first year back with the Cavs. While Wednesday’s performance was an aberration, it underscored just why Cleveland can threaten any team that comes out of the West.
The Cavs aren’t facing legitimate title contenders, though their competition hasn’t exactly been easy. The Detroit Pistons' 44-win season would have tied for the fifth-best record in the West, while the Hawks finished as the league’s second-best defensive team.
Cleveland won’t hit 25 three-pointers in another playoff game, especially not on 45 attempts, but their ability to drain shots from behind the arc bolsters their title hopes. Only the Warriors made more three-pointers than the Cavs this season, and Cleveland’s 36.2 percent shooting ranked seventh. In six playoff games, Cleveland has shot 45.3 percent from three-point range.
Love remains a consistent threat to convert three-pointers, and Irving and J.R. Smith are two of the streakiest shooters in the NBA. Irving shot 30.9 percent from three-point range, but he made 45 percent of his threes in April. Smith has heated up in the playoffs, converting 4.7 three-pointers per game on 52.8 percent shooting, and he’s an x-factor for Cleveland when he takes smart shots.
Yr b4 he was dealt to CLE, JR ranked 4th in NBA at 46.6% on catch & shoot 3s. Only Korver, Steph, LeBron were better https://t.co/ZNxgtIfHYR
— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) May 5, 2016
While the Cavs may sleepwalk toward the finals, that won’t be the case for either the Warriors or Spurs. Golden State is up 2-0 in their second-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, but they are still waiting for Curry to get healthy. The point guard is recovering from a sprained MCL, and two different injuries have forced him to miss almost the entire playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Spurs are far from a guarantee to reach the Western Conference finals. They relinquished home-court advantage when they dropped Game 2 to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday. Oklahoma City, an underdog contender with plenty of upside, went 0-2 against Cleveland in the regular season.
But James won't let the Cavs get ahead of themselves, particularly with a young roster that includes Irving (24 years old), Tristan Thompson (25) and last-year's surprise contributor Matthew Dellavedova (25).
"Tomorrow's not promised," James said, according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "For our team, we're still a young group. Let's not get this mistaken. We're still a young group that was just put together last year and then put together again towards the All-Star break. We don't have much experience. We don't have enough games played in pressure situations for us to ever get lax and to ever lose focus on what the main thing is and that's to play that next game. Can't afford it.
"We don't have the experience like the San Antonio and the Golden State and the OKC and even the team that we're playing now. We don't have that, so we have to understand and be in the moment every time we go out on the floor."
Before the start of the second round, both Golden State and San Antonio had better than 2/1 title odds. Cleveland’s odds were worse than 3/1 after they swept the Pistons in the first round, even though they are nearly 1/5 favorites to win the East.
The Hawks, Raptors and Heat have shown little evidence they will pose much of a roadblock to the Cavs' reaching the title series. Should Cleveland avoid an upset in the East, having a fitness edge over the West could be crucial. The Cavs won't have home-court advantage against the Warriors or Spurs, but they will at least have good health on their side.
In a postseason so plagued by injuries, a relatively clear path to the finals might be just what Cleveland needs to overcome the West powers.