TORONTO (AP) — LeBron James isn’t just going back to the NBA Finals. He’s returning with a team that’s healthy and whole, which makes this trip unlike last year.
Maybe it will lead to a different result.
James scored 33 points, Kevin Love had 20 points and 12 rebounds, and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors 113-87 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Friday night, winning the series 4-2.
Kyrie Irving had 30 points and J.R. Smith added 15 for the Cavaliers, who will face the winner of the Golden State-Oklahoma City series beginning Thursday.
Cleveland would open at home against the Thunder but would be on the road against the 73-win Warriors, who trail 3-2 against Oklahoma City heading into Saturday’s Game 6.
Last year, a depleted Cavs team lost in six games to the Warriors, left to wonder whether things would have worked out differently if Love (left shoulder) and Irving (left knee) had been at full strength.
That’s not a concern this time around.
“There’s definitely a different feeling,” said James, who was emotional during his postgame interview on the court.
“I didn’t appreciate last year, myself personally, getting to the finals. So much was going on in my mind, knowing that Kev was out for the rest of the season and knowing that Ky was dealing with injuries all the way from the first round. Having these guys right here at full strength, having our team at full strength and the way I feel personally, I appreciate this moment, to be able to be a part of it and be there once again.”
Irving, who had battled knee injuries during his first postseason before breaking his kneecap late in Game 1 of last year’s finals, said he’s thankful for the opportunity to be a contributor this time around.
“It just didn’t feel the same hobbling into the locker room, knowing that we were going to the finals but I wasn’t at full strength and Kev was out,” Irving said, recalling the Cavs’ East-clinching victory last year. “Thinking about the steps it took to get back to where we are now, I really have a true appreciation for these guys, my teammates and just a true appreciation of the journey.”
Love and Irving struggled as the Cavs stumbled in Games 3 and 4 against Toronto, their only losses in 14 games this postseason. Both were back in form for runaway wins in Games 5 and 6.
“We wouldn’t be at this point today, going to the finals, without those two,” James said. “Throughout the first three rounds, they’ve been the reason we’ve played at such a high level. They’ve accepted the challenge. They wanted to get back to this moment.”
James will be playing in his sixth consecutive finals, four of them with Miami. This time, however, he’s got perhaps his best shot to end Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought, the longest by any city with at least three professional teams. No Cleveland team has won it all since the Browns blanked Baltimore 27-0 to win the NFL championship in 1964.
“This city has been craving a championship,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We have the right team and we have the right talent.”
James, who grew up in nearby Akron, is well aware of what a championship would mean to Cleveland.
“I know our city deserves it, our fans deserve it,” James said. “But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We’ve still got to go out and get it. We’ve still got to go out and prove ourselves.”
James will be the eighth player in NBA history to appear in six consecutive finals and the first who didn’t play for the Boston Celtics.
It’s the third finals appearance in team history for the Cavaliers. Cleveland lost to Golden State in six games last year and got swept by San Antonio in 2007.
Toronto’s DeMarre Carroll, who played with Atlanta last season, said this Cleveland team is better than the one that swept aside his Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals.
“They’ve got a lot more weapons,” Carroll said. “They’ve got a lot better veterans from Channing Frye to (Richard) Jefferson. They’ve got a complete team.”
A shot at the NBA title is just what Cavs owner Dan Gilbert had in mind when he signed Love to a $113 million contract last summer and gave Tristan Thompson $82 million. Cleveland has a $175 million payroll this season.
“They didn’t go over the cap for no reason,” Carroll said. “They’re playing great basketball right now.”