ATLANTA (AP) — The Big Three yucked it up after their latest playoff sweep, a far cry from the uneasiness that prevailed at the beginning of their relationship.
It may have taken a while to find their groove, but the Cavaliers are sure enjoying how it all worked out.
Cleveland moved on to the Eastern Conference finals after its second straight playoff sweep, displaying all its star power Sunday in a 100-99 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
Kevin Love led the way with 27 points, 13 rebounds and eight 3-pointers. LeBron James did his usual part with 21 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and a defensive stop that preserved the win. Kyrie Irving chipped in with 21 points and eight assists while playing more than 42 minutes.
“It’s something that we all envisioned,” James said. “We’re in a great rhythm right now, as far as us three. We know exactly where we want to be on the floor.”
Their camaraderie was evident when Love was asked if he felt more comfortable in Year 2 with the Cavaliers.
“I don’t know. What do you guys think?” he said, smiling as he turned to James and Irving.
They tried to hold back, but neither could keep from laughing. Irving pounded his right hand on the podium, while James briefly covered his face.
“‘Game of Thrones’ — I’m trying to get them to watch that,” Love suddenly blurted out, drawing even more chuckles from his teammates.
After spending four years in Miami, and winning two championships, James returned to the Cavaliers before last season intent on bringing home the franchise’s first championship. Irving was already on board, and Love was acquired from Minnesota to complete a revised version of Miami’s Big Three — James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But Love struggled to find his niche in Cleveland, not used to sharing the spotlight with two other superstars. They finally got rolling toward the end of last season, only to have Love go down with a season-ending injury in the opening round of the playoffs and Irving get knocked out in the NBA Finals against Golden State.
With James left on his own, the Cavaliers fell to Golden State in six games.
The Warriors remain the title favorite after setting an NBA record with 73 wins, but the Cavaliers appear poised to put up an even stiffer challenge should the two teams meet again in June.
“This is our second time around,” Irving said. “There’s a sense of calmness within our locker room, but also reality sets in that there’s a bigger task we’re trying to get to.”
Cleveland opened the playoffs with four straight wins over Detroit, then did the same against the Hawks in a rematch of last year’s conference final. The Hawks had fourth-quarter leads in three of the four games but were no match for the Cavaliers in the closing minutes.
Atlanta tried mightily to extend the series, grabbing a 97-96 lead on Dennis Schroder’s drive to the hoop with 1:31 remaining. That’s when James went to work.
His hustle under the basket after missing a shot led to three tips before the ball finally went out of bounds off the Hawks. On the ensuing inbounds pass, James got it streaking down the lane for a shot that was stuffed by Paul Millsap but counted because of a goaltending call.
After a block by Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers called a timeout to set up a play for James. Matched on the wing against Millsap, he dribbled a few times before stepping back and swishing a 21-foot fadeaway for a 100-97 lead.
Schroder, who led the Hawks with 21 points and was running the team at end in place of Jeff Teague, darted into the lane for a quick basket with 34.4 seconds left. James went for the knockout blow, a 3-pointer from the top of the key, but missed. That gave the Hawks one final chance to extend the series.
The King had other ideas.
As Schroder drove into the lane, James switched off his man. Schroder slipped and was tied up for a jump ball with 2.8 seconds remaining. There wasn’t much doubt about who would win the tip; James has a 7-inch height advantage. He swatted the ball toward the sideline, where it somehow wound up in Miillsap’s hands. His desperation heave failed to beat the horn and missed anyway.
The Cavaliers celebrated, not just the series-clinching win but at least a week off before facing either Toronto or Miami in the conference finals.
The Raptors lead that series 2-1.
“This is more than I dreamed of,” Irving said. “I’m just living the moment, never taking a day for granted, making sure we’re constantly staying on each other to be great every single day.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .