The Cleveland Cavaliers, fueled by another milestone night for LeBron James, powered into a third straight NBA Finals meeting with the Golden State Warriors with a dominant 135-102 win over the Celtics in Boston on Thursday.
“King” James surpassed NBA icon Michael Jordan as the league’s all-time leading playoff scorer.
He finished the game with 35 points, booking his seventh straight finals appearance as the reigning champion Cavs wrapped up a 4-1 victory over the Celtics in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
For the third straight year they’ll face the Warriors for the crown.
“We all need to soak this up. This is a great moment, and this is not promised,” James said.
The Warriors, who beat Cleveland for the title in 2015, swept the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals and host game one of the championship series in Oakland next Thursday.
Cleveland jumped to a quick 14-5 lead and were up by 43-27 after the first quarter — posting a franchise record for points in a quarter of a playoff game.
Cleveland’s 75 first half points were the most in an NBA playoff game half since 2003 and gave them an 18-point cushion.
James had come into the contest needing 28 points to pass Jordan — winner of six titles with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s — for first on the post-season scoring list.
He did it with a three-pointer late in the third quarter — the first of a string of three straight from beyond the arc.
In addition to leading all scorers he had eight assists and eight rebounds. He had taken his post-season career points total to 5,995 by the time he took a seat for the entire fourth quarter — along with the rest of Cleveland’s starters.
Kyrie Irving — who scored 42 points in Cleveland’s game-four victory — added 24 points and Kevin Love contributed 15.
The Cavs’ ‘Big Three’ were strongly backed by their reserves. Deron Williams added 14 off the bench for Cleveland, who led by as many as 39.
“(We) went through some tough times in the regular season, but we knew we had confidence to be great,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said.
As Cleveland faltered in the regular season, the Celtics had seized the top seed in the East. But it meant little as Boston never led in any of their home games in the series.
James, Irving and Love took command from the opening tip-off on Thursday.
Love scored Cleveland’s first eight points and finished the opening frame with 10 points and five rebounds. James scored 11 points with six assists in the period and Irving, showing no sign of the twisted left ankle he suffered in the third quarter of game four, scored nine as Cleveland shot 64 percent from the field in the first quarter.
Boston’s Avery Bradley tried to fight back with 14 points in the second quarter. He finished the game with 23, but the Celtics never came close to mounting a rally.
“We’re definitely disappointed. I felt like if we weren’t, it would be a problem,” Bradley said. “We feel like we should be here, and we feel like we should be a championship-contending team.”
The Cavaliers, who rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Warriors in last year’s finals, set an NBA record in winning their 13th straight playoff series potential closeout game.
The Los Angeles Lakers had set the previous record of 12 straight wins in potential elimination games from 2000-2004.
San Antonio Spurs legend Manu Ginobili said Monday he would take his time before deciding on his future after an emotion-filled defeat to the Golden State Warriors.
The 39-year-old Argentine star, a veteran of four NBA championship-winning Spurs teams, left the court to a resounding ovation as San Antonio’s season ended with a 129-115 loss in Texas.
But the veteran guard, who turns 40 in July, said he planned to let the dust settle on his latest season before deciding on his future in the NBA.
Ginobili said he felt as if the San Antonio crowd were bidding him farewell, but was adamant he could still continue to play at the highest level.
“I felt more energetic, more needed, more useful to the team, so I ended up feeling better than the way I started,” Ginobili said.
“I do feel like I can still play. But that’s not what is going to make me retire or not. It’s about how I feel. If I want to go through all of that again. It felt like they wanted me to retire. Like they were giving me sort of a celebration night.
If this is it for Manu Ginobili, it's been a pleasure watching you euro-step, throw one-handed dimes, swat bats out of mid-air, & win titles— Shane Young (@YoungNBA) May 23, 2017
“And of course, I’m getting closer and closer. There is no secret, for sure. It’s getting harder and harder. But I always said that I wanted to let it sink in for three weeks, four weeks, whatever, and then I will sit with my wife and see how it feels.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he would not rush Ginobili into making a decision.
“If he decides he’s going to play again that’s up to him,” said Popovich. “Manu is a grown man. He’ll figure out what is best for him and his family.”
Ginobili meanwhile said whatever his choice — playing on or retiring — he would be happy.
“I have to choose between two truly wonderful options,” Ginobili said.
“One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day, playing the sport I still love.
“The other one is to stay at home, be a dad, travel more, enjoy my whole family. I have a wonderful family and spend time with them.
“Whatever it is, it’s two unbelievable options. So there is no way I can be sad, because whatever I decide, it’s going to be great.”
Manu Ginobili gets a standing ovation after possibly playing his final NBA game 😢 pic.twitter.com/68gp7ELxVc— PinPoint Sports (@SportsPinPoint) May 23, 2017
Regardless of what happens in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Boston Celtics have validated their season and accomplished all that could have reasonably been expected of them.
Advancing two rounds in the playoffs, only to potentially get slaughtered by the defending champions, isn’t exactly the end-goal of a franchise hanging an NBA-best 17 title banners in the rafters. The Celtics have much grander dreams and goals, but their journey to reach this point from where they were four years ago is a major accomplishment in itself.
In the summer of 2013, Boston parted ways with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and pushed the button on a full rebuild that led to a 25-57 record in the first season under Brad Stevens. Isaiah Thomas showed up the year after and ever since, they have ascended to becoming one of the top teams in the league, culminating in a 53-29 record and top seed in the East.
Despite the success, Boston remain one rung below LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers and with little hope to challenge for the crown.
And that’s okay for now. With even the rosiest of preseason expectations reached, from here, the rest of these playoffs are gravy.
The Boston Celtics are busy this week... pic.twitter.com/FixCt22Zi1— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 16, 2017
Boston have a long-term plan, of sustained contention, which still has a way to go to be completed.
This was never going to be the year where they had to capitalise on a championship window. That’s further down the line; maybe even next season, depending on summer activity.
And yet here we are, imagining the heights the Celtics could achieve in the future, while in the present watching them win Game 7 of the second round, land a draft pick and host the opener of the Eastern Conference Finals across three consecutive days.
Danny Ainge was criticised in the wake of standing pat at the trade deadline, failing to pull the trigger to upgrade the supporting cast or add a star. As unstoppable as Cleveland look, would any trade have moved the needle for Boston? Ask Toronto how much the short-term acquisitions for PJ Tucker and Serge Ibaka helped them against the Cavs. And that’s not even mentioning the Golden State Death Star.
It’s odd to say about a team preparing for their most important games of the season, but Boston truly have no worries.