CLEVELAND — Almost two weeks before Monday night, when the Cavaliers finished off an unexpected sweep of the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, there was a moment that may have helped change the course of the franchise's postseason.
It was in the first round, moments after LeBron James set the NBA world ablaze with a buzzer-beating, game-winning, gut-punching three-pointer. Cleveland head coach Tyronn Lue and associate head coach Larry Drew were deep in the bowels of Quicken Loans Arena discussing the Pacers' physical, aggressive defense that could have easily tilted the series the other direction. Drew and Lue took turns acting out defensive stances, alternating between being surprised and impressed, all the while trying to formulate plans to get their struggling role players to find a comfort zone.
The Pacers big men were dynamic in flushing the Cavs 4s and 5s from the paint. Their wings had no problems switching and forcing the Cleveland role players to try to beat them. Little did the Pacers know, however, that they were preparing a Cavaliers team that had been largely assembled in mid-February for what awaited later in the postseason.
Cleveland's roller-coaster regular season transitioned to a seven-game first-round win in a series it actually was outscored in by 40 points. The Raptors, conversely, were trending upward. After years of having its seasons ended by James, Toronto, which ranked among the top five in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season, thought this spring would finally be its chance. Instead, the No. 4 Cavaliers punched their ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals with a 123-98 victory on Monday night, completing their sweep of the Raptors.
"We've talked throughout the course of this long season about getting better and hitting our stride when the playoffs start," Lue said following the win. "We're getting a lot of contributions from a lot of different guys. To talk about that Indiana series, I think it prepared us for this series. The physicality, the ball pressure really helped us going forward into this series."
Against the Pacers, it was the LeBron James show. As James was rattling off 40-point triple-doubles, no other member of Cavaliers broke the 20-point barrier, leading to plenty of criticism and even a Saturday Night Live sketch. James exuding a superhuman effort in the playoffs is an annual event, but having to do so in the first round raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the approach. Against the Raptors, however, the Cavaliers finally showed some signs of cohesion.
"At the end of the day, a series isn't won until you win four," James said. "Me personally, my confidence never wavered. I believe in what I can bring to the table and what I can provide to our team, and I believe in my teammates. As everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series, I just continued to tell them, 'Listen, we can't win without ... everyone doing their job and be as great as they can be.' I continue to preach that. It's impossible for me to lose confidence in our ball club, no matter what the stakes are or if we're down. If I do, where are we going to go as a team?"
While the series included its share of James heroics—a game-tying fall away in Game 1 and another buzzer-beating, game-winner in Game 3, the series saw much better production from those not named LeBron.
"Every game, we were able to prep more and more and really get down to try to execute and neutralize what they like to do to be successful." James said.
No player on the Cleveland roster saw a bigger turnaround than Kevin Love, who struggled mightily against the Pacers' flexible bigs. With point guard George Hill back after missing much of the first round with back problems, Lue called for a truckload of 1-5 pick-and-rolls. Love flourished, averaging 25.0 points and 11.0 rebounds over the final three games against the Raptors.
"It's been a learning experience for a number of players on this team," Love said. "They haven't had a lot of shared playoff experience, or even shared time on the floor together. The entire Indiana series was big for us. But Game 7—the fashion that we won, just getting that experience—and then Game 1 this series—fighting back from that deficit, forcing it into overtime, taking that first lead in overtime and never looking back—was very telling and was a learning experience for our entire team."
The changes haven't just come on the offensive end, either. Cleveland entered the postseason ranked 29th in defensive efficiency and have improved slightly in the postseason. More important. they have been able to make life difficult for the top offensive threats they have been facing.
After trapping and blitzing Victor Oladipo into a 41.7 percent shooting performance in Round 1, the Cavs turned their attention to Toronto's All-Star backcourt, working to take the ball out of the hands of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The results were startling. DeRozan was held to 21 total points over the last two games of the series and Lowry ended Game 4 with only five points.
It's fair to wonder if the Raptors presented more favorable matchups for the Cavaliers than the Pacers did, and more than they'll face in the Eastern Conference Finals. A quick poll of the Cleveland locker room, however, elicits a feeling that the sweep was more about an ascent as a team and less about the opponent.
"It's playoff basketball," George Hill said following Game 7. "You don't have time to think too much. You just have to play. That's the only thing we have to focus on. Don't worry about matchups, don't worry about who's guarding who. Just worry about making plays for your teammates and having fun."
Prod a bit further, and the Cavs feel there's more room to improve.
"It's still a learning experience for us," James said. "The good thing is, we have another round to continue to learn each other and try to get better."