BOSTON (AP) — LeBron James scored 35 points and passed Michael Jordan to become the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring leader as the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics 135-102 on Thursday night to claim their third straight Eastern Conference title and a return trip to the NBA Finals.
Kyrie Irving added 24 points and Kevin Love finished with 15 for the Cavs, who never trailed and led by as many as 39 points in one of their most dominating wins of the series. The Cavs set an NBA record by winning their 13th consecutive series closeout opportunity.
Cleveland’s 4-1 series’ win gives it a 12-1 record this postseason and sets up a third consecutive matchup with Western Conference champion Golden State, the team it beat in the Finals last season to claim the franchise’s first championship.
It will mark the seventh straight trip to the Finals for James.
“This team is a crazy team. They just stayed resilient all year, got to the playoffs, and we really stepped our game up,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Now we can start focusing on Golden State to get ready. As of tonight, I’ll get started.”
Avery Bradley led Boston with 23 points.
The Cavaliers basically conceded the East’s top seed to the Celtics at the end of the regular season by opting to rest its starters in advance of the playoffs. But they displayed their superiority over the final two games to wrap up the series.
After allowing the Celtics to seize the early momentum in Game 4, the Cavs barely gave them the chance in Game 5.
Led by its Big Three, Cleveland quickly built a 21-point lead in the first quarter, while getting lots of contributions from their teammates.
Love continued to knock down shots from the outside, Irving sliced his way into the lane to the rim and James got free for several of his one-handed, tomahawk dunks.
It was a very welcomed sight in Irving’s case, after he rolled his left ankle in the third quarter of Cleveland’s Game 4 win. He showed no signs of lingering issues, though, beating several defenders off the dribble and handing out seven assists.
Meanwhile, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver all helped spread out Boston’s defenders by connecting on several wide-open scoring opportunities.
Deron Williams, who had been quiet for most of the series, also got in on the act with a series-best 14 points for Cleveland.
The Celtics did their best to keep up, but the consistent outside shooting, bench scoring and defense they relied on to stun Cleveland in Game 3 wasn’t there Thursday night.
“I thought we played a little too haphazard tonight,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Our offensive mistakes led to bad defense, and it just kind of snowballed on us.”
He said though he’s disappointed with how the season ended, he’s encouraged that no one in Boston’s locker room is satisfied just making it to the conference finals.
“I told our guys: ‘We made a lot of great strides, but this pain is part of the path to what we ultimately want to be,'” he said.
Cavaliers: James has scored 30 or more points in 11 of Cleveland’s 13 games this postseason. … Improved to 36-5 against Eastern Conference opponents in the playoffs since 2015. … The 43 points Cleveland scored in the first quarter set a team postseason record for points in a quarter.
Celtics: Injured point guard Isaiah Thomas led his teammates in a pregame huddle before they took the court for warmups. Thomas sat out the rest of the series after aggravating a hip injury in Game 2. … Held a pregame moment of silence for the victims of the Manchester bombing. … Were whistled for 16 fouls in the first half.
More AP NBA: www.apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball