CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers are set to make their third straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
By winning the Eastern Conference Championship with a 135-102 Game 5 victory over the Boston Celtics at TD Garden last Thursday night, the Cavaliers earned the right to face the Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors for the NBA title for the third straight season.
The rubber match between the Cavaliers and Warriors marks the first time in NBA history that the same two teams will play each other in The Finals in three consecutive seasons.
While most experts are predicting the Warriors’ avenging last year’s loss over a repeat from the reigning champion Cavaliers, here are five reasons how Cleveland can top Golden State for the second consecutive postseason.
KYRIE IRVING EMERGING AS VIABLE OFFENSIVE LEADER
From hitting the championship-winning shot against the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals to stepping up at a time when small forward LeBron James was struggling through foul trouble against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, Irving has never shied away from the big stage.
Against the Celtics, Irving averaged 25.8 points over the five-game series. Although Irving had just 11 points in Game 1, he scored 23, 29, 42 and 24 points. The 42 points in the Game 4 victory at Quicken Loans Arena marked a single-game career playoff high for Irving.
Down by 12 in the early part of the third quarter in Game 4, the Cavaliers got a standout effort from Irving.
Late in the period, Irving made two straight driving layups in the lane to put the Cavaliers up by five points, 77-72, but on the second shot, he fell to the floor and reached for his lower left leg. However, after retying his left shoe, Irving jogged down to the defensive end, and hit a driving jump shot on the next possession.
Following the near heart-stopping moment for the 20,562 fans that packed inside Quicken Loans Arena, Irving completed a three-point play with 1:02 left in the third quarter, and then, beat the buzzer with a deep three-pointer.
KEVIN LOVE FINDS HIS RHYTHM
At times during the postseason, Love has gone into offensive lulls, but after the first two rounds, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue made it a point to feature his starting power forward more against the Celtics. And that decision played into Cleveland’s favor.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, Love averaged 22.6 points, shot 48.6 percent from the field (69 of 151) and 53.5 percent from three-point range (38 of 80). Additionally, Love tallied five double-doubles of points and rebounds, and averaged 2.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.4 steals per game in the Eastern Conference Finals.
For four straight quarters in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers were plagued by turnovers, and that led to a second-half collapse against the Celtics in Game 3 and a sluggish start to Game 4.
However, the Cavaliers limited the turnovers in the second half of Game 4, and by taking better care of the basketball, they were able to rally from 16 points down to pull out the victory.
After nine first-half turnovers led to 13 points for the Celtics, who had just three turnovers over the first 24 minutes, the Cavaliers committed just six miscues in the third and fourth quarters. Conversely, they forced nine Celtics turnovers and converted them into 13 points.
In the close-out win, the Cavaliers committed just 11 turnovers against the 18 they forced and turned into 12 points.
ROAD WARRIOR MENTALITY
To win a second-straight NBA Championship, the Cavaliers must win at least one game at Oracle Arena, where they won twice over a three-game stretch in last year’s NBA Finals after the Warriors experienced just three losses combined during the 2015-2016 regular season and first three rounds of the 2016 playoffs.
Fortunately, road victories have not been a problem for the Cavaliers this postseason, as they are 7-0 away from Quicken Loans Arena, and their margins of victory in opposing cities increased over the first three rounds.
The Cavaliers beat the Indiana Pacers by an average of 4.5 points at Bankers Life Fieldhouse during the first round, but in that Game 3 win in Indianapolis, they overcame a 25-point halftime deficit by outscoring the home team by 30 in the second half.
At Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, a notoriously difficult place to play because of the raucous atmosphere created by their passionate fans, the Cavaliers’ average margin of victory was 14 points. They worked their way to a 21-point Game 3 victory.
Then, in three games at Boston, the Cavaliers won by an average of 30 points, including an Eastern Conference Finals and franchise record 44 points, 130-86, in Game 2 at TD Garden. Then, in Game 5 in Boston, the Cavaliers set franchise records for the most points in a quarter (43), half (75) and game (135) in a postseason contest on the way to a 135-102 closeout win.
THE LEBRON FACTOR
For the seventh straight season, and fourth time with the Cavaliers, James has led a team to the NBA Finals.
Over an average of 40.9 minutes in 13 postseason games, James averaged 32.5 points on 56.6 percent shooting, including a 42.1 percent efficiency from three-point range along with a 71.2 percent showing from the free-throw line.
James converted 151 of his 267 field goal attempts and 32 of his 76 three-point tries, and got to the free-throw line for 125 shots, of which he knocked down 89.
As a leader on both ends of the floor, James averaged 8.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.4 blocks and 2.2 steals over the first three rounds of the 2017 NBA Playoffs.
In the closeout win over the Celtics, James scored a game-high 35 points on 13-of-18 shooting, including a four-for-seven showing from three-point range, and that performance moved him past Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and into first place on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list.