CLEVELAND (AP)—There was no celebration, no champagne, nothing really to signify the win’s importance. The Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs and hardly cared.
“We got one goal,” LeBron James said. “That’s to win an NBA championship.”
James scored 23 points, Delonte West had 13 with a career-high eight steals and the Cavaliers became the first team to clinch a spot in the NBA playoffs by beating the Milwaukee Bucks 91-73 on Wednesday night in a potential first-round series preview.
At 48-12, the Cavaliers wrapped up their fourth straight postseason berth with more than one month left in the regular season. But Cleveland seems to be doing everything at an accelerated rate this season. The Cavs moved 36 games over. 500 for the first time, improved their league-best home record to 27-1 and stayed in step with the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the East and the crucial home-court advantage that goes with it.
For James, the postseason was a given.
“We knew we were going to make the playoffs,” he said. “If we didn’t make the playoffs, that would be a disaster for us.”
Richard Jefferson scored 29 for the Bucks, currently clinging to the No. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee was held to a season-low 73 points and 37 percent shooting by the Cavs, who are holding opponents to 88 points on their home floor.
“They played better than us in almost all areas,” Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles said. “It wasn’t that we didn’t play hard, but they played harder than us.”
Cleveland swept the four-game season series between the teams, who could meet again in April with more at stake.
“That’s a long ways away,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said.
Milwaukee was still within striking distance late in the third quarter, but Wally Szczerbiak hit a 3-pointer and James followed with one of his own as the Cavs, who seemed uninterested for long stretches, carried a 14-point lead into the fourth.
The Bucks fought back and closed within 10 when James, who scored 55 in the last meeting between the clubs, dropped a step-back 3-pointer over Luc Mbah a Moute in the deep corner near Milwaukee’s bench to make it 81-68 with 6:45 left. James paused to admire his make before heading down the floor.
The Cavs ripped off eight more points in a 13-0 spurt to push their lead to 21 before James was pulled for some rest in preparation of a Friday night visit to Boston.
Cleveland was back at home following a grueling, four-games-in-five-nights road trip during which the Cavs went 3-1 against Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami—all likely playoff teams. Cleveland had to rally to win the last two games, and overcame lengthy travel delays en route to South Florida.
The Cavs didn’t have to work nearly as hard against the Bucks.
“It shows the strength of this team and the maturity level that we have and the professional level that we have,” James said. “We know that it was a long road trip and these are some of the games that can trap you.”
As he was being stretched out by a trainer on the locker room floor before tipoff, James, Williams and teammate Tarence Kinsey watched the video of James’ 55-point performance against the Bucks on Feb. 20. James seemed to recall every dribble, pass and shot and was most impressed by his 24-point, third-quarter explosion.
“That’s the best quarter I’ve ever seen,” he said.
There would be no encore for James, who attempted just 11 shots in 33 minutes.
Ahead by just three points in the second quarter, the Cavaliers went on a 9-0 run capped by a 3-pointer from James and opened a 48-39 halftime lead.
Jefferson kept the Bucks close all by himself as he scored 17 points in the opening half.
West came within two steals of tying the franchise record held by Ron Harper (1987). … The Cavs are expected to officially sign F Joe Smith on Thursday. Smith, who played in 27 games for Cleveland last season, recently bought his contract from Oklahoma City for a chance to play with a title contender. He has agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the Cavs. … It’s been a record-setting season for Cleveland, which has won just one division title in its less-than-spectacular 39-year hoops history. James was asked if he was surprised there has been so few crowns in his lifetime. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s happened around here this year that’s hasn’t happened since I was born,” James said. “It’s always nice to make history.” …The Cavs will play 10 home games in March, including eight of their last nine. … Jefferson has made 31 straight free throws.