TORONTO — Game 4 didn’t have to be that close, that dramatic. A maddeningly characteristic third-quarter lapse after the Cavaliers built a 16-point lead Sunday gave the Toronto Raptors a glimpse of hope.
But dominance doesn’t come with an asterisk.
The Cavs completed a sweep of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 109-102 victory at Air Canada Centre, and with the triumph staked their place in history.
They became the first team to start the playoffs 8-0 in consecutive seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
They’re the only team to record six sweeps in seven-game series over a three-year span, according to ESPN Stats and Information. The Los Angeles Lakers from 1987-89 had six, but three of those were in five-game series.
Such numbers are testaments to the greatness of LeBron James, greatness that is threatening Michael Jordan status, greatness that should have earned him more consideration for 2017’s Most Valuable Player award, although the voting deadline is long past.
Greatness not only in his individual performance, but to inspire in his teammates the same sacrifice, the same team-first mentality, the same competitiveness and resilience that he’s displayed through 14 seasons.
James extended to eight his streak of Game 4 victories when his team holds a 3-0 lead. He improved to 31-9 in potential career closeout games, a better percentage than Jordan, who was 30-13, according to ESPN.
While he won’t process such numbers until he’s retired, James brought up another statistic that he cares about.
“Once I’m done I can have a long conversation about how satisfied I was with this series or that guy or whatever the case may be, but as I’m in the midst of it, it’s not satisfying,” James said. “But it is rewarding when you can advance. It’s not just given to you. You have to go out and earn it.”
James cited his ninth trip to the conference finals in 14 years, saying, “I’ll take those numbers.”
More numbers he’ll take: James averaged 36 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists against the Raptors. He shot 57 percent from the field, 48 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the free throw line. He hit 13 3-pointers; no Raptor had more than six.
And James had more than enough help, from Kyle Korver in Games 3 and 4, from Channing Frye, from Kyrie Irving, who scored 11 consecutive points in the fourth quarter to save his team from a Game 5 Tuesday. The Cavs made 61 3-pointers, the Raptors 27.
No one expected such a start to the 2017 playoffs, not when the Cavs went 7-10 in March and finished the regular season with four consecutive losses. No one outside the Cavs locker room, that is.
A questioner who suggested that it was inconceivable that the Cavs could start the playoffs 8-0 stuck with Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. After he left the podium Sunday, Lue admitted that he couldn’t get it out of his mind. He obsessed over it Saturday night. He said he’d had that skeptical voice in his back pocket ever since.
Lue jokingly said he wanted to speak with the beat writer in the hallway when the session was through.
“Gonna bring up how you said there’s no way you can go 8-0?” was the immediate follow-up from another.
“You’re smarter than you look. You’re starting to impress me,” Lue joked.
No one thought the Cavs could flip the switch. But Lue and the Cavs knew what they needed — a healthy roster, time to practice, time to jell.
They will have more time. If the Boston Celtics-Washington Wizards series, tied at 2, goes six games, the conference finals will start Monday. If the Celtics and Wizards go seven games, the next round won’t begin until May 17.
The latter may push the rest vs. rust theory. Even the Cavs’ J.R. Smith said he’d prefer the former scenario. But there’s no question that it took the Cavs just two series to get back to the dominant level they displayed in winning the championship last season.
After the regular season ended, it didn’t seem like the Cavs had time to flip the switch, but they have.
“Anytime you have No. 23 (James) you can flip every switch you want to,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “He is the difference. They did flip a switch. They are a totally different team defensively and definitely offensively (since the end of the regular season). Anybody that thinks anything differently doesn’t know anything about basketball.”
Casey could have been making a case to save his job, but he also issued a warning to the remaining teams in the playoffs.
“That team presents so many problems offensively it’s going to take a Herculean effort to beat them,” Casey said. “You are going to have to have very flexible defenders and you are going to have to score 117 or 118 points a night to beat them.”
The Cavs averaged 116.3 points against the Raptors, 112.8 in the first round against the Indiana Pacers. And yet Kevin Love said Sunday that he still believes the Cavs can reach another level.
There surely will be more close calls, more leads squandered. But it won’t diminish what most thought they would not witness from the Cavs in the 2017 playoffs.
If they reach another level, if the dominance continues, no asterisks will be needed.
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