James scored 23 points, Kyrie Irving provided a boost after missing two games and Cleveland reserved a spot in the NBA Finals with a 118-88 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night to win the Eastern Conference title.
By sweeping the top-seeded Hawks, the Cavs, who overcame adversity from the season’s start, earned their second trip to the finals, where they will face either Golden State or Houston starting June 4.
It will be the fifth straight visit to the league’s showcase event for the inimitable James, who returned to Cleveland after four years in Miami to try and end this city’s championship drought dating to 1964. If he can, James will have a title that would put him in a class by himself. Other players have won more championships, but none has ever done it for his ring-starved home region.
When he announced his return last summer, James talked about ending a championship dry spell that has linked generations. He has a chance to turn Cleveland, a city that has taken its fair share of knocks over the years, into a title town.
“I understood what these people were going through, the people here,” he said. “Not only in Cleveland but Northeast Ohio and all over the world who love and bleed wine and gold. To be at this point tonight, it’s very emotional.”
Jeff Teague scored 17 and Paul Millsap 16 for Atlanta, which won a team-record 60 games during the regular season and made the conference finals for the first time since 1970. But the Hawks were no match for the Cavaliers and had no answer for James, who nearly averaged a triple-double in the four games.
J.R. Smith added 18 points and Tristan Thompson had 16 points and 11 rebounds for the Cavs, who were handed new caps and T-shirts following the win and were joined by family members on the floor to celebrate.
Sitting at the podium with James, Smith, who had been vanquished to the Knicks bench before being traded in January, adjusted the brim on his “Finals” cap and took a selfie.
It was a tough way for the Hawks to end a remarkable season. They survived a tumultuous offseason, and their young roster jelled in January when they became the first franchise to go 17-0 in a calendar month. They went on to win 19 straight, improved their record by 22 wins over last season and beat Brooklyn and Washington in the first two rounds.
But an injury to starting forward Thabo Sefolosha in April was followed by DeMarre Carroll injuring his knee in the series opener, before Kyle Korver’s season ended in Game 2 with an ankle injury.
Those all hurt, but it was James who inflicted the most pain.
James carried the Cavs to their first finals appearance eight years ago, when they were swept by San Antonio. It was assumed the Cavs would get back again, but James left in 2010 to join the Heat, a move that dropped the Cavaliers from relevance and into the draft lottery four straight years. But those days are over — Cleveland and King James reign supreme in the East.
The Cavs got through the last two rounds without forward Kevin Love, who sustained a season-ending shoulder injury. His arrival last summer, joining James and Irving to form a big three, made Cleveland the team to beat in the East.