When we look back on the first three rounds of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2017 playoff run years from now, we'll note that they rolled over their competition on the path to a third straight NBA Finals trip.
And for the most part, that was true.
We won't remember how a six-quarter blip against Boston in the Eastern Conference finals brought pause or how it exposed the Cavaliers' biggest weakness — one the team expertly hid for more than a month — we'll only see the 12-1 record.
That pause, as unimportant as it will be in a week, month, year, and decade, though, looms large in the moment. Tthe lessons that were learned from it will be dissected for the next six days, as we await the start of Cavs-Warriors III. And how the Cavaliers responded to that pause should have Cleveland fans elated.
The Cavs are not a perfect team, but they're an exceptional one, and in the second half of Game 4 and the entirety of Game 5, they showed just how exceptional they can be.
We won't know if the Cavaliers match up with the Warriors until we see the two teams on the court June 1, but heading into this rubber match of an NBA Finals, the Cavaliers are playing their best basketball of the year.
They're as ready as they could ever be for the Warriors.
Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
The Cavs start and stop with LeBron James — he is the best player on the planet and, in many ways, the franchise itself — and he's heading into the NBA Finals in rare form.
On Thursday, in Game 5, LeBron broke Michael Jordan's NBA playoff scoring record, with yet another all-time performance.
Who else on the planet can score 35 points on 18 shots while grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out eight assists, and stealing three balls?
Who else can score 35 on 55 percent shooting — as James did in Game 4 — and have it considered a bad outing?
LeBron was in the midst of the greatest postseason in NBA history until Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. That dud of a performance stunted his momentum and breathed life into a Celtics team that probably didn't deserve to see a fifth game in the series.
Two iffy quarters at the start of Game 4 only increased the questions and amplified the murmurs. LeBron is so great that any downturn — even a short one from unsustainable levels — requires a nationwide examination.
But those questions have been answered — those murmurs quieted.
LeBron's Game 5 was an all-time great playoff performance in a postseason that has been chock full of them. When you zoom out and look at the big picture of the last 13 games, LeBron might be playing the best basketball of his career.
And he's going to carry that momentum into the NBA Finals.
Kevin Love is perhaps playing the best basketball of his Cleveland career as well.
While Love's defensive deficiencies haven't magically been rectified — excuse the tautology, but he is who he is on that end of the court — his offensive game has been tremendous this postseason, particularly in the Eastern Conference finals.
In five games against Boston, Love looked like "Kevin from Minnesota" — the 20-20 machine — only a bit more dynamic: Love averaged 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 4.5 3-pointers per game in the Eastern Conference Finals. And while Boston made it a point to attack him defensively, he responded to the pressure with toughness and tenacity — he worked harder on the boards and ran the court faster.
Love's performance in the Eastern Conference finals was convincing — his role against the Warriors has always been difficult to define, but he's playing so well that Cavs coach Ty Lue has no choice but to give Love minutes with Tristan Thompson and at center.
Even if he gives up baskets on defense by being put in the pick-and-roll, the Cavs can enter the series with faith that he'll get more than he gives up.
David RichardDavid Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Kyrie Irving is locked in.
He's like an entirely new person. In post-game interviews, the charming and open Irving has been replaced by a man with fire in his eyes and cliches in his mouth. This is a player who is focused.
That focus manifested itself in Game 4, when Irving went off for 21 points in the third quarter on 10 shooting possessions, almost singlehandedly flipping the contest in the Cavs' favor.
Irving, one of the most gifted isolation scorers the league has ever seen (a new Iverson, if you will), is doing things with the ball that no one else in the league can do. The English he puts on shots off the glass wouldn't draw rim for 99 percent of players, but he's able to find the bottom of the net. His handles are diabolically tight and his jumper exceptionally wet. He shot 62.2 percent from the floor in the Eastern Conference Finals and looks poised to prove a point — whatever that might be — against the Warriors.
This is the Kyrie Irving the Cavaliers need heading into the NBA Finals.
Ken BlazeKen Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Deron Williams joined the Cavs in March after two-and-a-half weeks off following his buy-out from Dallas.
Over the next six weeks, Williams worked his way back into game shape and integrated himself into a Cavs' offense that played a much faster pace than he was used to playing.
It took a while. There was a 19-point game against Denver in late March, but there were far more forgettable performances on the ledger.
But in a game when the Big Three rested, Williams found his groove in a Cavs' uniform — his 35-point performance in the second-to-last game of the season hinted at the influence Williams could have on the Cavs' second unit. It was an influence the Cavs' desperately needed.
A few games followed in the postseason, but just as Williams started to get on a roll, a bug rolled through the Cavs.
That bug clearly passed, though, because Williams was fantastic in Game 5, scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
Williams' big game Thursday is a tremendous omen for the Cavs. Cleveland knows they need their starting lineup to live up to potential, but even they don't know what they'll get from their bench. And if there's any area where the Warriors' have a clear advantage this season, it's with bench scoring.
Having Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson (to a degree), and Williams playing well heading into the Finals alleviates some of that worry. Cleveland rolls nine deep now, and all nine are rolling into the Finals with confidence.
David RichardDavid Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland will have six days of rest between Thursday's Game 5 and next Thursday's Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
For a player like James, who has played 8,915 career postseason minutes (and more than 50,000 total), that rest is huge.
Not only does it eliminate Golden State's rest advantage, it also gives the team plenty of time to game plan for a Warriors team that, itself, is clicking at the right time too.
Cleveland hasn't faced off against a Golden State team that has Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant simultaneously clicking — that's a tall task for any team defense, but having time to devise a scheme and rest bodies is critical.
The Warriors are entering the NBA Finals healthy and peaking.
The Cavs are entering the NBA Finals healthy and peaking.