LOS ANGELES (AFP) – LeBron James led the way as the Cleveland Cavaliers wrapped up a series sweep with a ruthless demolition of the Toronto Raptors on Monday to book their place in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
James, the buzzer-beating hero of Cleveland’s epic victory in game three on Saturday, scored 29 points as Toronto’s bid to avoid the ignominy of a 4-0 series loss ended in a 128-93 pounding.
Toronto had entered the playoffs as the number one seed from the Eastern Conference, and were desperate to avoid a third straight series defeat to James and the Cavs after losses in 2016 and 2017.
But their fragility was underscored by a rampant Cleveland on Monday, with James leading a blowout win that ensures the Cavs will be well rested for the Eastern Conference finals, where they will play either Boston or Philadelphia.
“It was a great series for us,” James said afterwards. “We had a lot of challenges, considering the dominance (Toronto) had in the regular season. But we had a great gameplan and we executed it.
“We want to continue to improve. I think we’ve done that from the seven-game series against Indiana to these four games.”
James was once more the tormentor in chief for Toronto, contributing eight rebounds and 11 assists in addition to his 29 points.
Four other Cavaliers starters cracked double digits, with Kevin Love scoring 23 points and Kyle Korver 16 points.
J.R. Smith added 15 points while George Hill added 12.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said the Cavs’ defense and all-round offensive display had been crucial factors in the sweep.
“I think defensively we’re playing pretty good,” Lue said. “And I think in this series, we made shots, a lot of different guys stepped up.
“Four or five different guys getting double figures for us every night – that was big for us. We’ve got to continue getting better but I like where we’re at right now.”
Toronto’s miserable night saw DeMar DeRozan ejected in the fourth quarter while Kyle Lowry was restricted to just five points.
Jonas Valanciunas was a notable beacon of resistance, providing 18 points off the bench. But it was too little, too late for Toronto, who were comprehensively outplayed in every department.
Raptors coach Dwane Casey said his team had paid the price for not being able to recover from shattering losses in games one and three.
“We were emotionally drunk after game one and game three,” Casey said. “I thought we could bounce back, but we didnt.”
DeRozan meanwhile was at a loss to explain yet another defeat to the Cavs.
“They’ve just got our number. Things just don’t seem to go right for us,” DeRozan said, adding that the James-inspired Cavs were anything but a one-man band.
“It’s not just him going out there and scoring 128 points,” DeRozan said. “The things he does for his team-mates gets them going. It’s been a challenge for us over the years.”
In Monday’s other playoff game, T.J McConnell and Dario Saric combined to give the Philadelphia 76ers a lifeline with their 103-92 win over the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics could have clinched a 4-0 sweep but instead the Sixers’ win ensured there will be a game five in Boston today.
McConnell’s introduction into the starting line-up proved crucial for the Sixers, with the point guard scoring a career-high 19 points.
Croatian power forward Saric added 25 points while Ben Simmons finished with 19 points and Joel Embiid 15.
Sixers coach Brett Brown said McConnell had been brought in for his positive mindset as the Sixers attempted to stave off a clean sweep.
“We wanted to remind the team of how good a season they have had to this point,” Brown said afterwards.
“There’s no better player to help catapult that kind of mindset than T.J. He’s like a throwback kind of player. A tremendous team-mate, an incredible competitor.”
McConnell meanwhile saluted the Sixers’ mental resilience.“We showed a lot of maturity today and came up with a win,” said McConnell, adding that the team was unfazed by the statistical improbability of overturning a 0-3 series deficit.
“We had nothing to lose. Our coach told us that the team that is down 0-3 is 0-129. So we’re just trying our hardest to be that one team that comes back,” he said.