James wills Cavaliers to higher place

LeBron James preached it last summer. Coaches, general managers and the so-called media experts urged it in the fall as the NBA preseason turned into the regular season. Then, predictably, the basketball world — from the casual fans to many of the alleged insiders — promptly ignored it.

It was called patience.

Forget the old “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” ethos. Professional sports, like so much these days, is a matter of “what are you doing for us right this minute?” The idea that a team, newly assembled around James, the NBA's greatest player, might actually require several months and half its schedule to find itself — spotting and mending flaws, seeking bigger fixes where needed and carving out an identity and the confidence necessary to legitimately chase a championship — seems, well, who the heck has time for that?

Without the darkest times, though, the Cleveland Cavaliers would not be where they are today, hungry underdogs against the Warriors in the NBA finals, four victories away from a championship that was meant for 2016 or 2017.

Remember what James said last summer? “I'm not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We're not ready right now. No way.”

The Cavaliers were not ready. They hadn't been tested. They hadn't built trust. They didn't even have the right pieces.

But look at them now.

When James finally exhaled late Tuesday night, the long season and its most urgent work of pushing through three Eastern Conference playoff rounds behind him, he admitted that — never mind all the outside gawkers — he wasn't sure he had the perseverance and poise to see the job through.

“I've had to step up my leadership,” James said after his team swept the No. 1-seeded Atlanta Hawks, adding them to the victims' pile with the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. “I'm not a very patient guy, but I knew I had to work on that.

“To be able to sit at one point during the season and see us at 19-20 and watching my team struggle and me sitting out two weeks … They wanted coach [David] Blatt fired. Saying we needed another point guard. 'Will LeBron and Kyrie [Irving] be able to play together?' So many storylines [were] just happening at that point in time. For us to be sitting at this point [going to the Finals], this is special.”

If the ideal approach of an NBA contender is to draw up and lock into a blueprint in October, the Cavaliers might as well have scribbled out their long-term vision on the back of a cocktail napkin for all the initial plan's lasting power. The lineup Cleveland started on opening night bears virtually no resemblance to the five who will take the floor in Game 1 against the Warriors on Thursday night.

Kevin Love, Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters? Gone, the first two to injuries, the third in a spate of transformative January trades. Now the Cavaliers come with James, Irving, Tristan Thompson, Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, with J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and another player or two in cameos.

It's a rotation built out of necessity by Blatt, the first-year coach hired after years in international basketball to work with, at the time, a young and developing team. Then James decided four years, four Finals and two rings in Miami was enough and announced his return to the franchise that drafted him way back in 2003.

Just like that, opportunity and challenge plopped into Blatt's and the Cavaliers' laps. They knew better than to expect overnight success. No one quite figured, though, that the answers might take nearly four months to reveal themselves, expedited by general manager David Griffin's trades for Mozgov, Shumpert and Smith as well as James' mental and physical recommitment to the cause.

In some ways, what the early-season Cavaliers went through mirrored James' experience in Miami in 2010-11. That was the first season of the Heat's Big Three, with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and James sorting out their roles and their egos, while permitting — in the NBA, this is the reality of it — relatively untested coach Erik Spoelstra to oversee them.

This was like that, only more so. Blatt, unlike Spoelstra, didn't have a benefactor with the cloud of Heat president Pat Riley in the executive suite. The learning curve for James, Irving and Kevin Love took longer than for the Heatles, and Varejao's exit with an Achilles injury left Cleveland's defense darn near naked in the middle.

With James as a consultant of sorts, Griffin plugged multiple lineup holes by acquiring Mozgov, a towering 7-foot-1 rim protector, from the Denver Nuggets, then adding Shumpert's perimeter defense and J.R. Smith's instant-offense capabilities from New York. Moving Waiters, a headstrong star wannabe, was addition through subtraction.

Then came the final piece: James taking a two-week “spa shutdown” just before New Year's to soothe some aches and pains, while committing in full to what this group offered. Cleveland lost seven of the eight games James missed, but starting on Jan. 15 in Los Angeles against the Lakers, it strung together 12 victories and 18 in 20 games. From that 19-20 low point through their first 39 games, the Cavaliers won 32 of their next 39. They outscored opponents 107.1 to 96.5, on average, coalesced defensively and followed their leader.

“That's what he does,” veteran Mike Miller, who played in Miami with James, recently said of him. “It's the LeBron James factor. He demands people do things the right way. It's not an accident he's been to five straight Finals.”

Much of the work has come in the last month, scrambling to adjust to Love's loss to a dislocated shoulder surgery late in the first round against Boston, while navigating around a gimpy Irving (foot and knee injuries). The breakthrough came in Game 4 against Chicago, when Thompson and Dellavedova filled in sufficiently for Love and Irving, respectively, and James' buzzer-beater from the left corner evened that series at 2-2.

Before that moment, even James seemed willing to chalk up this postseason as a learning experience. Once the Cavaliers tied and then beat the Bulls, he saw how much the roles players had locked down defensively and, more so, had grown in their confidence.

At which point, the James in them grew, too. The poor, battered Hawks wound up as victims of a team that, however late, however patch-worked, was on to something.

James' performances have been heavy on initiating the offense, shooting more in Love's and occasionally Irving's absences than he would like. James has made only 42.6 percent of his field-goal attempts in the postseason, including an abysmal 12-of-68 on 3-pointers. But he's averaging 27.6 points, 10.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists, while lending some of his playoff experiences — hard-earned across 172 spring games — to fellows like Thompson and Dellavedova who have played only 14.

“Throughout the playoffs, I have never seen a shadow of doubt, fear or [loss of] focus on anyone's face,” Blatt said during this run. “I have to give LeBron a lot of credit. He is a true leader here. He is vocal, willful and committed to helping this team succeed. He is really leading these guys to believe in what they can do.”

After the Cavaliers ousted the Bulls, Thompson referred to James as “this great father here.” It's not chronologically possible, but in every figurative sense, that's what the four-time Most Valuable Player and now five-time Finals-ist has been. A father to Cleveland's young players, and the same to the city's desperate, half century-old championship dreams.

“I'm a guy who believes in unfinished business, and I understood what these people were going through,” James said after the Cavs advanced to face the Warriors. “Could I foresee this? At the beginning of the season, I couldn't. … But I knew I had to lead these guys, and if they just followed my leadership, I knew I could get them to a place where they haven't been before.”

To Oakland in June, just four victories away from an NBA championship.

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By Al Saracevic