TORONTO: Thirty thoughts for 30 points from Kyrie Irving in Friday’s 113-87 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, sending the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals for the second time in as many seasons…



1.      J.R. Smith sat at his locker cradling the silver ball Eastern Conference championship trophy on his lap. When he finally stood to shower, he kissed the ball and set it high atop his locker as onlookers warned him to be careful with it.



2.      “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I’m going to get your sister next.”



3.      For the second time in as many seasons, the Cavs are back in the Finals, back to slay 52 years of misery and one painful memory from last season that prevented LeBron James from even being able to celebrate his fifth consecutive trip. Now he’s at six, the league's longest streak since Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics went to 10 straight during the 1950s and '60s.



4.      “I didn’t appreciate last year, myself personally, getting to the Finals,” James said. “Just 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. I just didn’t appreciate it. It’s definitely a different feeling. 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 part of it and to be there once again.”



5.      The numbers, as usual with James, are staggering. He played 41 minutes – including 35 of the first 36 – and scored 33 points, his first 30-point game of this postseason. He won a road game in the playoffs for the 25th consecutive series, breaking Michael Jordan’s record of 24, according to ESPN. And while he was more aggressive early, James stuck with his formula of playing through Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, just as he has done throughout this postseason.



6.      The three stars combined for 83 points, 27 rebounds and 19 assists. For two years now, James has insisted the Cavs will go as far as their Big Three takes them. This year they’re taking them back to the Finals, becoming the first Cleveland team since the 1964-65 Browns to play for a championship in consecutive years. The Browns came out with a split. The Cavs would be thrilled to have the same result.



7.      “This is the most talented team I’ve ever been on, and just really built for what you need,” Richard Jefferson said. “I’m the one guy that probably didn’t have the biggest smile on my face. I’ve been here before. It’s been 13 years since I’ve been here and I’m enjoying this, I’m definitely having fun, I’m relaxed. But you want to see a smile on my face and tears in my eyes? Talk to me after four more wins.”



8.      The floor in the Cavaliers’ locker room Friday night was drenched with a victory celebration. But it was water – not the customary champagne. The Cavs have celebrated significant moments all season by dousing players and coaches with water bottles and they did so again Friday after winning the East.



9.      But this wasn’t a major statement about saving the champagne for a real championship. The explanation was a lot simpler, actually.



10.  “We didn’t have champagne,” James said. “So we took waters. That’s it.”



11.  Love, looking down and uninterested for most of the podium process while again being ignored on stage, broke his silence with the one-liner of the night. “I had chocolate milk,” he said, poking fun at his own brand and his own product endorsement.



12.  Last year, however, the Cavs celebrated with champagne after winning the East. James strolled across the locker room at one point and threw an arm around both Mike Miller and James Jones, whispering, “The Big Three,” before taking a swig from the bottle.



13.  Miller and Jones played key roles last year in reshaping the culture in the locker room. Major changes were made to both personnel and attitudes. James took the ball from Irving early in the season and ran the offense himself, trying to teach Irving the right way to play. He called out Love late one night through social media.



14.  This year, however, has been drastically different from the start. He declared early in the season the Cavs were going to use Love as the focal point of the offense and stuck by that line even when, at times, it was clearly not accurate. When Irving was working his way back from knee surgery, James joined him on the court for post-practice shooting sessions that seemed to drag on forever. Even as agitated teammates tired of standing around waiting grew more aggravated, James and Irving kept shooting and shooting and shooting.



15.  “I will never leave the court without him,” James told me in January shortly after one of those shooting sessions in Dallas. “If he’s the only person in there shooting, I’m not going to leave. I’m not. And he knows that.”



16.  James trusted both Love and Irving far more this season than last. He stuck with Love during two difficult shooting games in this series, insisting the best path to a championship is when they all play together – even if that means James takes a complementary role at times for really the first time in his career.



17.  Irving and Love can cherish this one more, too. Love was already in a sling by the time the Cavs swept the Hawks in the conference finals last year and Irving was hobbling badly on his injured knee. The Cavs were going back to the Finals, yes, but they were badly wounded before the opening tip.This time Irving went down the line hugging his coaches and teammates when he was pulled with three minutes left. His embrace with James was far sweeter than last year.



18.  “Last year I remember embracing Bron, and he hugs me, and he said, ‘Get your hobbling ass over here.’ I just remember having that knee brace on, and it just didn’t feel the same hobbling into the locker room knowing that we were going to the Finals but wasn’t at full strength. Thinking about just the steps it took to get back to where we are now, I really have a true appreciation for these guys and my teammates and just a true appreciation of the journey.”



19.  For the second time in as many seasons, the Cavs will be led to the Finals by a rookie head coach. If the Oklahoma City Thunder win the Western Conference, it will mark the second time in as many seasons that two rookie coaches squared off for a title. The only time it happened before last season was in 1946-47 – when all the coaches were rookies because it was the inaugural year of the NBA.



20.  The decision to fire Blatt was bold – and perhaps necessary. Up and down the organization, the consensus was that the Cavs now had a shot. No title is ever guaranteed, but no one had much faith in Blatt leading them there. At least now, with Lue, they had a chance.



21.  Lue has made mistakes during this postseason run, he barely rested James at all in Games 4 and 6, but for the most part his postseason has sparkled. He has discovered dazzling rotations and lineups that befuddle opponents, he has drawn up key inbounds plays at critical times and perhaps most importantly, he has empowered Love to play like an All-Star again.



22.  “It was tough at first because taking over midway through the season, you really don’t have a chance to have a lot of practices and no time to really put your stamp on this team,” Lue said Friday. “But I thought every day my coaching staff really did a great job of just keep honing in on, ‘Let’s be a team and playing the right way and playing together and moving the basketball and trust.’”



23.  Lue’s future was never guaranteed beyond this season. The Cavs have the second-highest payroll in NBA history. Anything short of a Finals appearance could’ve brought significant changes throughout the organization. Now at least a little bit of that pressure has been relieved. But there is still plenty of work to do. After last year’s Finals loss, no one is happy with just being back.



24.  “We’re locked in on four more,” Jefferson said. “We’re not popping champagne, we’re not kissing babies, we’re just enjoying this process.”



25.  By the time James, Love and Irving concluded their time on the podium, Tristan Thompson and Smith were off in the corner of the interview room. And yes, Smith was still holding the trophy. As James put the microphone down and all three stars stood, Smith shouted, “Can we go? This thing is kinda heavy.”



26.  So is the pressure of the NBA Finals, of 52 years of failure from one city. Sure, Cleveland has The Drive, The Shot and The Fumble, but now they have The King. James declared earlier in this postseason this team is destined for greatness and now they’re healthy, playing their best basketball of the season and they’re four wins away.



27.  The players posed for pictures with the silver trophy and walked together down the long corridor of Air Canada Centre and out into the Toronto night. The Cavaliers flew home early Saturday morning as champions, sort of. Eastern Conference champions, at least. But trophies are heavy to carry, as are the burdens and expectations of a city.



28.  James is ready. He is healthier at this point in a season than he has been in years and he has plenty of help around him. His 2-4 Finals record is lingering with the chance to grow worse. But he has often quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech that Roosevelt delivered in 1910. It still holds true today.



29.  It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … if he fails, at least (he) fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.



30.  The dust and blood is on James’ face again. The idea of a championship is nearly within his grasp. But the ball is heavy, as is the burden of the city. Glory awaits. Talk to you Thursday following Game 1 of the NBA Finals.