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The Cavs Are Fully Operational Again

After a brutal regular season and a seven-game grind in the first round, it finally looks like LeBron James has the support to win the East yet again

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Four Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In the future, we’ll only remember this series for what LeBron James did. The buzzer-beating game-winner on the run off the glass in Game 3. The 43-point, 14-assist performance in Game 2. And the ability to wipe away the no. 1 seed in the East in four games like a raindrop on a windshield. We’ll remember this trouncing for how easy it looked, and we’ll remember it for how simple LeBron James made shots like this appear:

But this sweep, which culminated in the Cavs’ 128-93 blowout of the Raptors in Game 4, was not just a product of LeBron tapping into his superhuman mode in every contest—that’s what the seven-game first-round series was. Against the Pacers, LeBron had to carry his supporting cast twice over and watch disappointedly as the shooters around him missed open shot after open shot.

Against the Raptors, LeBron’s teammates transformed from a motley crew of expendables to supporting actors in a Quentin Tarantino movie. That’s the difference between embarrassing a team in four games as opposed to grinding it out to seven. The no-names that Saturday Night Live roasted this weekend are as much a part of LeBron earning his 10th appearance in the conference finals over the past 12 seasons as he is.

The most notable progress has come from Kevin Love, the oft-derided sidekick who can never seem to do enough. Love looked lifeless in Round 1, hurting his hand and getting outplayed by Thad Young. He shot just 33.3 percent from the floor in the series; at that point, you almost had to wonder if he’d get benched. But on Monday, he finished with 23 points on 13 shots, marking his third straight game with 20 points or more (including 31 in Game 2). In seven games against Indiana, he didn’t score 20 or more a single time.

Kyle Korver has turned into a deadly shooter again, shooting 40 percent from deep against the Pacers; against Toronto, he somehow bettered that to a scorching 56 percent. His field goal shooting jumped from 38 percent to 58 percent as well. J.R. Smith was a perfect 6-for-6 Monday and scored 20 points in Game 1; the last time Smith scored 20 in a game was the first week of February. Even Jeff Green was more treat than trick in this series, scoring in double digits in three of the four games after reaching 10 or more points only once in the first round.

Overall, the Cavs bench finally decided to give a helping hand. Cleveland was next-to-last in bench offensive efficiency in the first round. But in the second round, the unit jumped to third-best. Ty Lue’s decision to keep Tristan Thompson as a reserve also paid off. Thompson was a factor in Game 1, grabbing 12 rebounds and 14 points in a one-point victory. Lue could have overreacted and inserted Thompson into the starting lineup. Instead, he kept Love in and it worked. The Cavs ran the Raptors off the floor with such an overwhelming offense that it didn’t matter how bad they were defensively.

For the Raptors, the resurgence of LeBron’s supporting cast was a backbreaker; on the rare occasion that LeBron would miss or be on the bench, his teammates did just enough to pick him up and make his rest worth it. Toronto was never going to stop LeBron with its limited options, but the fifth-best defense in the regular season could have contained his supporting cast. (Spoiler: They didn’t.) This is the version of their team the Cavs have been looking for all season. After months of tinkering with the formula and overhauling it in dramatic fashion at the trade deadline, they seem to have stumbled onto something that works at the perfect time.

Toronto’s top seed feels undeserved in retrospect. These Cavaliers never had a chance to challenge the Raptors in the regular season because of the tumult they encountered, even if most of it was their own doing. But the Cavs have always only cared about the playoffs. Even in the darkest days of the Isaiah Thomas “era,” the hope was that they had the ultimate trump card when it counted. Now, they head to the conference finals emboldened, with LeBron playing some of the best basketball of his career, but also with his teammates thriving in their own right. The Raptors, Sixers, and Celtics have all seemed to be in good position to break out of the East at various points of the season. But the status quo may still hold yet again.