NBA

NBA playoffs: Cavaliers will bring the James heat in the East

Cleveland Cavaliers will bring the heat this time in the East, thanks to LeBron James

For the last four years, the Eastern Conference basketball universe orbited around LeBron James and his Miami Heat team that reached the NBA Finals all four seasons.

This season, the East still revolves around James, because he has the opportunity to direct the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA championship. James returned last summer to the team that drafted him and joined with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to form a new super team.

James is also carrying the weight of a city starved for its first professional sports championship since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL championship in 1964.

The Cavaliers got off to a slow start this season, though, and was a .500 team in mid-January. But the Cavaliers won 33 of their last 42 games to wind up as the No. 2 seed and the betting favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals.

Meanwhile, the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks are the most underappreciated team in the league.

All the Hawks did this season was produce the best record in the East (60-22) and the second best in the NBA. The Hawks had a 19-game winning streak, the longest in the league this season, and were 22-8 against the West, the so-called superior conference.

By the way, the Hawks defeated James' Cavaliers three out of four times this season.

One knock on the Hawks is they don't have a superstar, but they do have four All-Stars in Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap.

The Hawks were second in the league in assists per game (25.9) and sixth in offensive efficiency, earning them the nickname "Spurs of the East" because their style of play is similar to San Antonio's and because Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer was an assistant under Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich.

For the Chicago Bulls, everything hinges on the health of point guard Derrick Rose.

Rose missed 31 games with knee injuries, and his hard-driving style of play has many wondering how effective he will be in the playoffs.

Chicago, the third seed, faces the No. 6 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the first-round.

If Rose and the Bulls get to the second round, they could run into the Cavaliers and James.

The No. 4-seeded Toronto Raptors have a good team, led by their backcourt of Kyle Lowry, who made his first All-Star team this season, and DeMar DeRozan.

The Washington Wizards, who play the Raptors, had high expectations this season after reaching the second round of the playoffs last season. But after an impressive 31-15 start to the season, the Wizards lost 11 of 13 games and never seemed to recapture their magic.

Few expected Milwaukee to make the postseason and a lot of credit goes to Coach Jason Kidd.

He took over a Bucks team that had the worst record in the NBA last season at 15-67 and has guided Milwaukee to the playoffs.

Another surprise is a young Boston Celtics team, led by their talented 38-year-old coach Brad Stevens.

But for all that effort, the Celtics will face James and the Cavaliers in the first round.

broderick.turner@latimes.com

Twitter:@BA_Turner

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