The city of Cleveland closed in on its first professional sports championship since the Browns won an NFL title in the pre-Super Bowl era of 1964. On Tuesday night, the Cavaliers concluded an Eastern Conference finals sweep of the Hawks with a 118-88 win.
Conventional reporting of this series is saying it boiled down to Cleveland having LeBron James and Atlanta being a mix of injured and a fraud. The first two are clearly correct, the latter a little harsh, and as always there is more to the story.
Rebounding is what defined these Eastern Conference Finals. The Cavs held a massive 52-39 advantage on the glass as a per-game average. Atlanta’s strength in this series was the presence of Paul Millsap and Al Horford down low, and neither were able to impose their will at any point in the series. Millsap’s 7.8 rebounds per game led Atlanta, while four different Cleveland players had per-game averages of 7.5 or higher.
Atlanta played respectable defense in the series, with Cleveland shooting a hair under 45 percent from the floor and LeBron being at 44 percent. That’s not a dominating defensive display, but it’s good enough to win if you rebound the basketball and play with some efficiency yourselves on the offensive end. But the Hawks didn’t get those misses they were forcing and the Cavs defense was even better, holding Atlanta to 42 percent.
Now we come to LeBron and those Atlanta injuries. James averaged 30 points/11 rebounds/9 assists throughout the series, lifting a team that had Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled for two games, and missing two others. LeBron got his help from Tristan Thompson, who also got 11 boards a night, and J.R. Smith, who averaged 18 ppg and hit 16 of the 34 three-point attempts he took in this series.
The question it’s fair to ask is whether Cleveland is actually better without Love. It means additional minutes for Thompson, who attacks the glass and it’s not like the Cavs don’t have three-point shooters. This is an argument I’m open to hearing, but I’d also like to see how Cleveland fares against an opponent of true championship quality.
Atlanta wasn’t that opponent. DeMarre Carroll, their best player and the man they needed to guard LeBron was physically compromised after falling hard on his knee in Game 1. Kyle Korver later went out. Horford was unfairly ejected in Game 3. This wounded version of Atlanta wouldn’t have finished in the top six of the Western Conference.
And for that matter, neither would have the troubled Chicago Bulls and obviously the 40-42 Boston Celtics, which made up the rest of Cleveland’s playoff run. In no way does this diminish the Cavs’ achievement in making it to the NBA Finals—it’s hardly unusual for a team to have a relatively easy run. Ask the 2008 Boston Celtics or most of the Magic Johnson-era Lakers teams back in the day when the West was the thinner conference.
What it does do is heighten the drama for the NBA Finals, as we wait to see how Cleveland matches up with presumably Golden State. The Finals won’t start until June 4, so right now it’s time for the sports-embattled city of Cleveland to sit back and enjoy the moment. They’re back on the national stage.