CLEVELAND — LeBron James said he felt like critics were “burying my teammates alive” in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but after the Cleveland Cavaliers swept the Toronto Raptors with a 128-93 Game 4 win Monday to reach the Eastern Conference finals, he and the so-called “Other Cavaliers” got the last laugh.
The criticism of James’ teammates was so pervasive that “Saturday Night Live” even made a skit about it this past weekend, showing fictional Cavs players saying things such as, “We run an offense called ‘hot potato;’ LeBron throws us the ball, and we throw it right back,” and “Every time LeBron makes a free throw, I’m right there with that high-five.”
James, however, said he never felt the need to address the criticism with his team.
“It’s all action to me,” James told ESPN after putting up 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. “I don’t get caught up in that. But I knew mentally, maybe, what was going on in their head. But for me, it’s about, I’m going to show them how much I trust them and how much I believe in them. But it’s nothing that I had to say verbally.”
In the Cavs’ seven-game series win over the Indiana Pacers in the first round, James averaged 34.4 points per game and Cleveland’s next-highest scorer was Kevin Love at just 11.4 points per game. Love was the only other Cavs player besides James to average double digits against Indiana.
In the Cavs’ four-game sweep over the Raptors, the East’s No. 1 seed, James was just as impressive, averaging 34 points in the four games, but his teammates’ contributions skyrocketed. Love averaged 20.5 points against Toronto, and four more Cavs joined him in averaging double digits: Kyle Korver (14.5 points), JR Smith (12.5 points), Jeff Green (12.3) and George Hill (10.3).
“We talk about through the whole course of this long season just getting better, getting better,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Hitting our stride when the playoffs start. And the guys, we’re getting a lot of different contributions from a lot of guys. We got a lot of guys playing well, good team effort.”
Lue and James said they never saw the SNL skit, but clearly, confidence in Cavs camp is mighty high these days after things seemed pretty shaky less than two weeks ago when Cleveland trailed Indiana 2-1.
Yet James said that doubt and negativity never crept into his mind.
“At the end of the day, I understand a series isn’t won until you win four, so me, personally, my confidence never wavered,” James said. “It’s just who I am. I believe in what I bring to the table and what I can provide to the team, and I believe in my teammates. So as everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series, I just continued to tell them, ‘Listen, we can’t win without each and every one doing their job and being as great as they can be,’ and I continued to preach that. So it’s impossible for me to lose confidence in our ballclub, no matter what the stakes are or where we’re down, because if I do that, then where are we going to go from a team aspect?”
Korver acknowledged the tension that the Pacers series caused.
“Just felt really dramatic didn’t it?” he said. “Every quarter felt like really important and it was, but I think we learned a lot about ourselves in the series, and I think the Pacers made us better. I don’t know if we win this series like this if we didn’t go through that in that first series, so hopefully we keep learning our lessons and continue to get better.”
In Monday’s closeout game, James had only two points in the first quarter, and Cleveland was still able to build a 30-26 lead heading into the second.
“It was good ball movement tonight,” said Hill, who scored 12 points against Toronto to put all five Cavs starters in double digits. “I think it set the tone early that we were pushing. I think LeBron only had a couple points in the first few minutes of the game. It kind of gave him a break.”
Hill said that team-centric approach has affected the mood in the locker room and on the bench for the better.
“You see everybody smiling tonight,” Hill said. “Kind of set that tone that that’s how it should be.”
And James couldn’t help but smile when asked about how much help he had in Game 4 when he got off to a slow start.
“Yeah, I only had two points [in the first quarter],” James told ESPN. “Listen, that’s what team basketball is all about. That’s what we put our team together for, to be successful together. So it’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling that I’m able to just kind of rebound and dish to guys, and they can be great.”