CLEVELAND — There are two seasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers: drama and playoffs. They’re equally adept, it seems, in both.
Yet another season was riddled with potholes and puddles, some particularly deep ones this time. But it’ll be yet another Eastern Conference finals for LeBron James and the “other” Cavaliers, as “Saturday Night Live” dubbed them, after they completed a bludgeoning sweep of the Toronto Raptors with a 128-93 victory on Monday.
First, three stats that are worthy of their own moment:
Next week, James will take part in his 10th conference finals in the past 12 years.
He has been part of a series sweep in six consecutive seasons, which is an NBA record.
The Raptors take an uncomfortable footnote in that book after again being swept by James’ team on the same day on the calendar: May 7.
The last item is going to be jagged for Raptors fans. The Cavs have beaten the Raptors in 10 consecutive playoff games dating to 2016. That’s the longest streak of its kind in league history. It might be enough for the Toronto front office to execute a coaching change with Dwane Casey, who finished the regular season as a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate.
That’s what being unlucky enough to be in the same conference as James this decade will do to you. James has broken up many teams, and there might be another notch in his belt coming.
“You’re looking at probably one of the guys that’s going to go down as one of the greatest ever, and it’s a matchup nightmare for anybody,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We’ve seen it with Michael [Jordan], we’ve seen it with Kobe [Bryant], we’ve seen it with a lot of great players … for whatever reason, we got the unlucky draw every year, going against him.”
Looking broadly, the Cavs essentially strengthened as a group as the series went on. Shaking off the grip that the more physical Indiana Pacers put on them in a brutal seven-gamer, the Cavs were much more comfortable with the matchups against the Raptors. That manifested itself offensively, as the Cavs rediscovered the potency they showed during the season and got more comfortable with each game.
By Monday, the Cavs starters were moving around like it was an open gym, getting wherever they wanted on the floor and picking at Toronto’s weaknesses. JR Smith got hot, Kevin Love and Kyle Korver stayed hot, and George Hill, well, he had two dunks in the first quarter after having five the entire regular season.
By the end of the third quarter, Cleveland’s starters were a combined 25-of-40 shooting, and all of them were in double figures to combine for 91 points. For a team that was wheezing offensively and on the precipice of falling behind the Pacers 3-1 as James’ supporting cast wilted, it was a stunning turnaround — even by Cavs standards.
No one’s pivot was stronger than that of Kevin Love, who scored 23 points in Game 4 to finish a strong 3-game stretch in which he averaged 25 points and 11 rebounds. In the previous five games, he averaged 8.8 points and shot 26 percent.
“As everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series, I was just telling them, ‘Listen, we can’t win without each and every one doing their job and being as great as they can be,'” James said. “I continue to preach that. It’s impossible for me to lose confidence in our ballclub, no matter what the stakes are or what we’re down.”
The Cavaliers start to pull away in the first half as they take a 12-0 run into halftime.
James ended Game 4 with 29 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists. By his standards this postseason, that checked in as a pedestrian performance.
Unlike earlier in these playoffs, the Cavs didn’t need more from James, and he was able to finish this series on the bench. It’s a sign of things to come, as the Cavs will get at least five days’ rest before facing the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. After playing seven playoff games in a span of 13 days, that is a welcome development.
For the Raptors, it was a horrific end to a season in which they won 59 games and earned the No. 1 seed. The swagger from their bench and cohesion of stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan eroded by the game. The Cavs stole Game 1, they crushed the Raptors in Game 2, James broke their spirits in Game 3, and it was an embarrassment in Game 4.
“After [Games 1 and 3], I thought we were emotionally drunk,” Casey said. “It just took the wind out of our sails.”
In a sadly fitting twist, DeRozan didn’t finish another game. He was benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3. He spent the fourth of Game 4 in the locker room after being ejected for a flagrant 2 foul on Jordan Clarkson in the third quarter. He scored 13 points before departing.
Jordan Clarkson breaks away to the basket, sinks a layup and gets hit by DeMar DeRozan. The refs rule it a flagrant 2 foul, and DeRozan is ejected.
Lowry also went meekly, scoring just five points. It was one last whimper in what has been a three-year headache.
“The last three years have been rough for us, competing against this team,” DeRozan said. “Maybe they just got our number. Things just don’t go right for us.”
LeBron James’ clutch fadeaway jumpers and soul-crushing buzzer-beaters continue his domination of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Cavs, meanwhile, move on. They’re thinking only about who’s next.
“We look forward to the challenge, whoever we may face, whether it’s through Boston or through Philly,” James said. “We will enjoy this moment and, like I said, be excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish so far in the postseason.”