CHICAGO (AP) _ Everything changed for the Cleveland Cavaliers when they found out LeBron James was bringing his talents home from South Beach.
Just like that, they were contenders again. And now, they’re headed to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Cavaliers knocked out the Chicago Bulls 94-73 on Thursday night to clinch their Eastern Conference semifinal series in six games even though James struggled to score 15 points and Kyrie Irving limped off the court.
“What a year,” Tristan Thompson said. “Fourth year with the Cavaliers. The previous three years we were thinking about the lottery and who we were gonna draft. Now I am playing with this father (LeBron) here. What a ride. I will enjoy this for a day and just get ready for the next opponent.”
The Cavaliers went from 33 wins to 53 with “King James” back and trying to do what he couldn’t the first time _ lead them to a championship.
He decided to give it another try after winning two in four years with Miami, and with Kevin Love and Irving alongside him, Cleveland looked like a good bet to emerge from the East. They still might. But with Love suffering a season-ending injury in the first round and Irving hobbled by two bad legs, the Cavaliers are banged up heading into their series against Atlanta.
They got all they could handle from the Bulls, right up until this game. A series that saw the two teams trade buzzer-beating victories in Chicago and Cleveland withstand a furious rally at home in Game 5, ended with a relative whimper.
Matthew Dellavedova scored 19 points and Tristan Thompson added 13 points and 17 rebounds to help the Cavaliers advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2009 even though their superstar played like a mere mortal and their All-Star point guard hobbled to the locker room in the first half.
“These guys work their tails off every single day when you guys are not around,” James said. “Yes, I’m a little bit surprised because of how we’ve handled the postseason so far. These are first-timers right here (Dellavedova and Thompson) as well as Kyrie and Kev before the injury. They want to be good, they want to be great, and every single day they prepare the right way.”
Irving scored six points in 12 minutes before twisting his left knee when he came down on Thompson’s foot early in the second quarter. The score was 35-all and he did not return.
James had 11 assists and nine rebounds but hardly looked like the superhuman that carried Cleveland in Game 5 with 38 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three steals and three blocks. He shot 7 of 23 from the field and missed all four 3-point attempts. But the Cavaliers had more than enough to get by.
It is James’ fifth straight conference finals, the previous four with Miami. Getting there sure hasn’t been easy with all the injuries.
“I do everything for my team, do everything for my teammates,” James said. “I want these guys to be able to feel this moment. That’s what I came back here for. I’ve got four guys that never made the postseason that played a huge role on this team.”
Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 20 points and Derrick Rose finished with 14. Pau Gasol scored all of his eight points in the first quarter after missing the previous two games with a strained left hamstring, and the Bulls simply got overmatched in what could be their final game under coach Tom Thibodeau.
Iman Shumpert scored 13 points for Cleveland. Dellavedova, James Jones and J.R. Smith (12 points) all hit three 3-pointers and combined for 40 points.
And when it was over, James had high praise for his teammates. He loves their attitude, their effort.
“You can’t coach that,” he said. “When you put those guys on the floor, they’re gonna make something happen. When you have guys that play as hard as they do, in tune to what they need to do to make the team win, the mistakes or shots making or things of that nature I don’t care about. … These guys play so hard you’re able to brush (their mistakes) to the side because their intentions are so with the team; they have nothing to do with themselves.”