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The Cavs have joined NBA's elite by demoralizing their opponents

The Cavs aren't just beating teams anymore. They're demoralizing them.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Cavaliers have vacillated between being a underwhelming, good or very good team since LeBron James' return to Cleveland.

The team obviously underwhelmed at the beginning of last season, made their midseason trades for J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov, and then took off. They were dominant, finishing 32-3 in the games that featured the trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love after the trades.

Then, as most of us know, the team was struck by the injury bug, and had to rebuild its identity around defense, grit and size, and they were good at that too.

Through this season, the team was marked by more of the same inconsistency while remaining mostly very, very good at basketball.

But, there was something missing. Even at their best, the team was good, but not truly exceptional, like we all expected them to be.

That has changed.

These Cavaliers have evolved into their final form. They're not just beating teams by playing good, fundamental basketball. They're demoralizing them.

This is the final step in a great team's growth.

This season's Warriors are a near-perfect example. It only takes one flurry of Steph Curry threes to make fans and opposing players question what they're even doing there in the first place. LeBron's best Heat teams had this quality too. They'd swarm opposing ballhandlers, jump passing lanes, and at times, not let you get the ball across half court all while having the best player in the world at the peak of his powers.

The Cavaliers, in these playoffs, have found that gear, and they're doing it in so many ways that are unique to them.

It's hard not to feel dispirited when LeBron James is steamrolling towards you in transition, and kicking to open shooters if you dare send extra help.

If you can get the ball out of LeBron's hands, he just becomes the best short-roll screener in the league. If the ball movement is stymied, a rejuvenated Irving can get an isolation bucket against anybody in the league. Love is shooting the cover off the ball, cleaning the glass, and hitting cutters like he's wearing a Minnesota jersey again.

J.R. Smith is the most unfair fourth option in the league, especially when he's feeling hot. Tristan Thompson ruins your pick and roll attack by switching onto the guard and not giving an inch of ground.

And, to top it all off, Tyronn Lue has discovered a lineup of Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, LeBron James and Channing Frye that has just decimated opposing second units.

What makes the attack so devastating is the versatility. This is what we had in mind when this team came together. A team that could play big or play small, that could lock down the boards and bomb away from three.

The Pistons and Hawks conceded the three point shot to the Cavs in the first two rounds. After seeing them get mercilessly shelled, the Raptors tried to stay home on the shooters, and the Cavs turned the games into a layup line.

I can't tell you how many games I watched the Cavs play in the regular season the last two seasons where the team would get up big, relax, and let the other team back in it. And the other teams, despite having the appropriate amount of respect, didn't seem to fear them.

Fear isn't a particularly easy topic to discuss because it's hilariously intangible and it's definitely speculative. That doesn't mean it's not real. Teams playing the Warriors this season that kept the game close made some of the dumbest basketball decisions I've ever seen.

We watched several Pacers melt down offensively against the Heat during their defensive peak a couple years ago. When a team begins to overwhelm its opponent, you can feel it happening.

The Raptors have come out and put up a good fight early in each of the first two games. The Hawks and Pistons put in good, strong efforts too. Over the course of each game and series, however, a sinking degree of inevitability set in for each team.

Now, the obvious caveat here is that the Cavaliers haven't yet played a title contender. It was a four-team league, and the other three teams happen to play out West, and, barring a very surprising comeback from Toronto, they'll be playing one of them soon.

The Cavaliers will have to maintain the gear they're playing at. They'll have to try to demoralize their Finals opponent, even though they'll have been joined in the schoolyard by another bully.

The Cavaliers took a long time to find their final gear. Let's see if they can stay there.