The Cavaliers have won 12-of-13 games on their way to a third consecutive Finals appearance, a continuation of the three-year march through the Eastern Conference playoffs that, record wise, has surpassed LeBron James’ runs to the Finals as a member of the Heat.
But are his Cleveland teams more dominant than his Miami teams or have the Cavaliers taken advantage of weak competition?
Cleveland has steamrolled through the East in the postseason since James returned home, going 36-5 in three years. Included have been six sweeps, just two series that stretched to six games (none taken to a Game 7) and the five-game demolition of the Celtics in this year’s Eastern Conference finals in which Cleveland outscored them by 100 points.
Miami’s teams anchored by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were 48-16 against the East in the postseason during its four-year run to the Finals with just two sweeps, both in the first round; Milwaukee in 2013 and Charlotte in 2014. Miami was pushed to a Game 7 twice in the conference finals, by Boston in 2012 and Indiana in 2013.
The argument is valid that the conference was much more competitive from 2010-2013 than the last three seasons. The Chicago team the Heat defeated in five games in the 2011 finals won 62 games and had league MVP Derrick Rose. The Heat had to go through the Celtics of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the 2011 conference semis and in an epic 2012 finals that went the distance with the Heat needing to win Game 6 (the ‘LeBron Game’) in Boston to force a seventh game. And the 2013 Pacers were a well-balanced team with Paul George that led the league in defensive rating.
To further illustrate the East’s lack of recent firepower: James is the only player to make the All-NBA first team from the East in each of the last three seasons. Every other player has been from the West, giving that conference 12 first team all-pros compared to three from the East.
In James’ four years with the Heat 12 players from the West were first team All-NBA and eight from the East, including James all four years.
All of which partly explains why the Cavaliers of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have not been challenged in the East during the postseason.
In the 2015 conference finals the Cavaliers swept a highly-flawed 60-win Hawks team. The next year they defeated Toronto after it needed seven games to get past a Heat team without Bosh and, for the final four games, Hassan Whiteside. This year they crushed the Celtics, the No. 1 seed that fell behind No. 8 seed Chicago, 2-0, in the first round before winning four games after Rajon Rondo went down.
And Cleveland has swept 5-of-6 six first- and second-round series during this period.
Now, Cleveland is preparing for its third consecutive trip to the Finals (starting Thursday) with James in peak form. He is averaging 32.5 points and shooting 56.6 percent in the postseason this year and with the exception of the Cavs’ only loss, Game 3 against the Celtics, James is controlling his opponents like a puppeteer controls a puppet. He seems to have each of them on a string at all times and everything just appears to be easier this postseason that it ever has.
Cleveland’s opponent, Golden State, enters this postseason with a similar story having one-upped the Cavs by becoming the first team to go 12-0 in its conference playoffs. The Warriors are 36-7 against the West in the postseason the last three years.
James’ first two seasons in his return to Cleveland ended just as his first two in Miami did, losing in the Finals in Year 1 and winning the title in Year 2.
James and the Heat followed that up with a second title in Year 3. Now, whether or not you believe James’ Cavs teams or Heat teams have been more dominant in the conference playoffs, for Cleveland to keep pace with Miami it must find a way to defeat the stacked Warriors in the upcoming Finals.