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Eight years later, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are back in the NBA Finals. The Cavs decimated the Atlanta Hawks118-88 in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena, finishing off a comfortable sweep and clinching the franchise's second Eastern Conference title and first since the 22-year-old James led them to the same achievement in 2007.
LeBron has now matched that finish in his first season since returning to Cleveland as a free agent last summer and will now look to capture the franchise's first championship. As noted by Howard Beck of Bleacher Report via the Elias Sports Bureau, James is the first player to make five straight NBA Finals since Bill Russell, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, and Sam Jones did so as members of the Boston Celtics' 1960s dynasty. Cleveland will face the winner of the Western Conference Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, which the former currently leads 3-1.
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The Cavs captured the conference title without much deterrence from the Hawks, the East's No. 1 seed. After taking Game 3 in a ragged overtime victory on Sunday, Cleveland got out to a huge lead early in Game 4 and dominated the proceedings. Star point guard Kyrie Irving returned from a two-game absence due to left knee tendinitis to make four of his first five shot attempts on his way to 16 points (6-of-11 FG) and five assists in just 22 minutes.
But it was LeBron who unsurprisingly made the biggest impact with 23 points (10-of-20 FG), nine rebounds, and seven assists. Three more assists would have given the four-time MVP a triple-double average over the series, a feat accomplished only 10 times and not since Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets did so against the Toronto Raptors in the 2007 first round. LeBron very well could have reached the milestone if there were any reason for him to play in the fourth quarter, but the Cavs entered the quarter up 25 and built the advantage to as many as 31 points. Instead, James stayed on the bench and received a hearty congratulatoins from oft-criticized rookie head coach David Blatt:
A few minutes later, James took a celebratory selfie with his family on the court at The Q (via his wife Savannah Brinson's Instagram):
Frankly, the Cavs appeared to have locked down the result well before the final period. They got off to a great start buoyed by Irving's nine first-quarter points and 14-of-24 shooting from the field. With James having taken on unprecedented offensive responsibility in the series (even for him), any additional scoring and/or shot creation stood out. The Cavs grabbed hold of the game with 32-20 lead after one, propped up in part by a Tristan Thompson shot at the end-of-quarter buzzer.
LeBron helped snuff out any chance at a comeback by scoring 10 points in the first 6:40 of the second quarter, getting the lead up to 53-33 on a lay-in at the 5:24 mark. The Hawks struggled to defend the Cavs throughout the night and did not appear to have any major advantages. While Jeff Teague (13 points on 6-of-9 FG) and Paul Millsap (14 points on 6-of-8 FT) scored with efficiency, Al Horford returned after his controversial Game 3 ejection to miss all four of his first-half field goals on the way to zero points. He eventually made 1-of-6 attempts for just two points in 29 minutes.
It was a rough finish to a terrific season for the Hawks. A team that won 60 wins with terrific balance did not impress in the postseason despite two series wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards (both in six games). The Hawks' much-celebrated balance failed them in the playoffs as few players contributed with consistency and all-time-great outside shooter Kyle Korver struggled to get open before leaving Game 2 vs. the Cavaliers with a season-ending ankle sprain. They vastly exceeded preseason expectations in 2014-15 but will need to address several issues this offseason.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers enter the finals having won seven straight games. While in-conference rivals did not provide much of a test, Cleveland deserves credit for making it this far after a season-ending shoulder injury to power forward Kevin Love and several injuries that have robbed Irving of his burst over the past two rounds. For that matter, it's notable that the Cavs won the conference in comfortable fashion after looking downright mediocre over the first few months of the regular season. General manager David Griffin made several moves to add center Timofey Mozgov and wings J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who have provided necessary depth and balance to the roster, and LeBron appears to have settled into a much better relationship with Blatt. The Cavs will not have homecourt advantage vs. the eventual West champion and would figure to be underdogs against the Warriors, but they enter the next round in fine form.
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