Better Than Ever, LeBron Leads Cavaliers Into NBA Finals

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James poses for a selfie with fans after the Cavaliers defeated the Atlanta Hawks 118-88 in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals for a sweep, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James poses for a selfie with fans after the Cavaliers defeated the Atlanta Hawks 118-88 in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals for a sweep, Tuesday, May 26, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) — Escorted by family members and friends, LeBron James walked out of Quicken Loans Arena cradling his sleepy youngest son with his left arm while clutching an expensive bottle of champagne in his right hand.

It was time for one James to go to bed, the other to have a late-night drink and get some much-needed rest.

The NBA Finals lie ahead.

Taking his magnificent game to a higher level, James sent the Cavaliers into the finals for the second time in franchise history on Tuesday night with a 118-88 romp over the Atlanta Hawks, who couldn’t stop the four-time league MVP and were swept in four straight.

Driven by the chance to end the city’s half-century-old championship drought, James was brilliant from start to finish. He averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists, the first player in postseason history to put up that statistical line. He’s never been better in the playoffs.

The Cavs don’t have a finals opponent yet as Golden State and Houston still have to settle things out West. But in the East, one team stands above all the others — the one with James, who will appear in his fifth consecutive finals after going four times in a row with Miami.

He came back to Ohio to win a title for his home region, where second place has been as good as it gets since the Browns ruled the NFL in 1964. There has been heartbreak in the years since as the Indians lost two World Series, the Browns were denied in three AFC championship games by Denver’s John Elway and the Cavs were swept by San Antonio in 2007.

With four wins, James can change that.

“We all know how long it’s been since a champion has been in this city,” he said. “We will give our best shot.”

In the delirious moments after Game 4, James stood at mid-court as adoring Cleveland fans chanted: “N-B-A Finals (clap, clap, clap, clap, clap).” He pulled a conference championship T-shirt over his head and put on a cap before turning to teammate J.R. Smith with a simple message.

“Four more,” he said.

LONG LAYOFF: The Finals don’t start until June 4, giving the Cavaliers nearly eight full days to get healthy — or as close to healthy as possible.

James has been battling an assortment of injuries and Kyrie Irving returned to the lineup after missing Games 2 and 3 with knee tendinitis. The break will also give the Cavs a chance to recharge mentally for their toughest challenge yet.

IRVING’S ISSUES: Irving has battled knee soreness and a sprained right foot throughout the playoffs. The All-Star scored 16 and had five assists in 22 minutes in Game 4. There’s a good chance Irving won’t be fully healed until after the season, so he might be more a role player in the finals.

Sitting again wasn’t an option.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna sit on the bench and watch our guys go through a close-out game,” he said. “I just wanted to be out there so bad. These last four days have been kind of hell for me. Just icing, icing, icing.”

Backup Matthew Dellavedova stepped up against Atlanta, pestering the Hawks with his belly-to-belly defense and knocking down big shots.

CAST OF CHARACTERS: The Cavs don’t rely on James to do everything. Besides Dellavedova, the Cavs have gotten major contributions from several role players. Tristan Thompson has grabbed 10 or more rebounds in seven of his nine starts; J.R. Smith made eight 3-pointers in Game 1 and four in Game 4 with 10 rebounds; Timofey Mozgov had 14 points; and Iman Shumpert is the team’s best perimeter defender.

The Cavs have become selfless.

“That’s what trying to accomplish a dream is all about,” James said.

DOMINATING DEFENSE: The Cavaliers are allowing just 92.6 points per game, tied with Chicago for best among any teams in this postseason, and limiting opponents to 41.2 percent shooting. Atlanta shot just 23.4 percent from 3-point range (5 of 32 in Game 4), lowering opponents’ shooting percentage against the Cavs behind the arc to 27.8 percent.

“Cleveland’s defense was good the entire series,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

HOT IN CLEVELAND: The Cavs will host Games 3 and 4, and if necessary Game 6, at Quicken Loans Arena, one of the league’s noisiest buildings. They have won 26 of their last 28 at the Q, including 18 by double digits.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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