Always-prepared reserve forward says Cleveland must push itself beyond expectations to erase 3-1 deficit and make NBA history
POSTED: Jun 13, 2016 8:08 AM ET
Like his teammate and close friend LeBron James, Cavaliers forward James Jones has participated in six straight NBA Finals.
OAKLAND, Calif. — When you've advanced to the NBA Finals for six straight years, the idea of winning three games in a row does not seem overwhelming.
"What people forget is we still play this thing one game at a time," said 35-year-old James Jones, who has joined his teammate LeBron James in every NBA Finals since 2011. "If you take the view that we have to go in and win every moment, you realize three games is just a long string of moments. Focus on moment to moment, keep your head down, and you will find yourself doing something historic."
No team has ever recovered from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers will be seeking to overcome that trend by utilizing the same point of view that has allowed James to become the first team leader since Bill Russell to dominate his conference for so extended a string of time. Reaching The Finals year after year was not a dream so much as it was a byproduct of his daily goals. It happened because James was obsessed with details that seem mundane in comparison to their ultimate result.
So must James apply the same perspective now, as his Cavaliers take on this mountain that no one else in NBA history has been able to climb as Game 5 looms (9 p.m. ET, ABC). If they focus on the overwhelming improbability of winning three straight against the record-breaking Golden State Warriors -- including two here at Oracle Arena, where Golden State has gone 98-9 over the last two years (20-3 in the postseasons) -- then they'll be doomed from the start.
"We're facing the reality that in order to win you have to push yourself beyond your expectations," said Jones. "What you think is your limit is never your limit. Even if you think you're playing well, you have to find a way to play better. You think you're giving effort? You've got to find a way to give more effort. When you think you're preparing, you've got to find a way to prepare even greater. It's seeking that continuous improvement knowing that you'll never be perfect -- but you're going to try to chase it as much as possible."
In explaining what the Cavaliers must do, Jones was, in effect, describing what James has accomplished already.
They were thrown together in 2010 in Miami. James had just then been declared America's new villain, based on his performances in "The Decision" and in the Heat's infamous pep rally the next day. Jones, 30 years old then, was among the several experienced teammates who had signed on at low-market salaries for the opportunity to contend for championships.
"We hit it off quick, just because I'm a straight shooter," said Jones, who wasn't only referring to his career 39.8 percent accuracy from the 3-point line. "I told him, "I'm only here to win, and I'm only interested in doing what it takes to win."
Jones averaged 19.1 minutes and even started eight games in what was James' most difficult year, which culminated in a stunning NBA Finals loss to Dirk Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks. As the years wore on and James' successes mounted, Jones' minutes waned -- to 5.8 while sitting out more than half of the games in 2012-13 with Miami, and 9.6 in only 48 games this season.
And yet there has been no questioning his impact. James has referred to Jones as "the greatest teammate I've ever had." When James moved back to Cleveland in 2014, he asked James to come with him.
Can I play 40 minutes a night? No way. Can I play 20 minutes a night at a high level? Absolutely.
– Cavs reserve forward James Jones
In the same way that every high-end coach relies on a top assistant, so does Jones appear to serve as a right-hand aide to James. The hard work that James preaches is practiced every day by his favored teammate, and vice versa. Jones recognizes that he is unlikely to play -- and even then that his few minutes may be garbage time -- and yet he prepares as if expecting to contribute every game.
"Can I play 40 minutes a night? No way," said Jones, a 6-foot-8 small forward. "Can I play 20 minutes a night at a high level? Absolutely."
Whether he will be asked to do so is, in terms of his preparation, irrelevant. The focus and discipline necessary to feed his self-confidence -- the hard work that he invests when it would be so easy to accept the unlikelihood of playing -- has served as an example to the rest of James' teammates. If Jones is willing to devote himself to the slight chance of contributing, then everyone in the Cavaliers' rotation should be willing to work at least as hard.
"Without a doubt, without a doubt, without a doubt," said Jones of his confidence in coming through if asked. "I prepare for these moments as if I'm playing. Even if I don't."
Count Richard Jefferson among the believers. "One hundred percent," said Jefferson when asked if Jones could provide meaningful minutes. "That man you cannot leave on the 3-point line."
And yet, when Jones was sent into the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers' demoralizing Game 2 blowout here last week, his main contribution came at the defensive end. Jones had been on the court for 71 seconds when he was called for a blocking foul away from the ball that knocked Stephen Curry hard to the ground. Jones had been watching his team play passively and was intent on changing the mood.
"That's something we talked about -- and will continue to talk about -- is bodies on bodies, physicality," said Jones. "Their bigs do a great job of setting screens, of sliding on screens, and more importantly of making contact to free their guys up. And so likewise for us. When they're making contact to free their guys up, we have to make contact to slow their guys down.
"He was running wide open on the baseline," said Jones of Curry, "and I tried to step in his way to make him go around me, rather than me going around him or avoiding him. So there was some contact. But that is part of this game. And that is a part of the game that we will have to ratchet up. And we will ratchet up, because they are allowing us to play."
James must love seeing that kind of play, Jones was told.
"Of course he does," Jones said. "We are out here battling. We are out here putting bodies on bodies, and if you're not willing to put your body in harm's way, then get out of the way."
"I had Reggie as a rookie," said Jones, who was the No. 49 pick overall when he joined Indiana in the 2003 Draft. Reggie Miller, 38, would average 10.0 points while playing all but two games in the penultimate season of his Hall of Fame career.
"He had so much pride in his preparation and his reputation," said Jones, who would play only 26 minutes in six games as a Pacers rookie. "Whether or not he was scoring, when he was out there they respected who he was by his work and how he approached his craft. He was the prototypical shooter in my eyes. He was the type of guy I grew up watching, who I modeled my game after, who I felt I could become."
Jones has never averaged double-figure scoring in his 13 career seasons spent between the Pacers, the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Heat or Cavs. But, he did win the 3-point contest at All-Star weekend in 2011. He would play in 20 playoff games in each of the 2012 and 2015 postseason runs of LeBron. All the while, for perspective, he would refer back to the example of Miller, whose preparation was not diminished by his receding production.
"Having him my first two years, I was able to set the basic foundation of how to be a pro," Jones said of Miller. "It made it easier for me to be able to navigate the ups and downs of my performance on the court and my role for all of the rest of those teams. I didn't identify myself with numbers and statistics. Regardless of the outcome I always knew that in any situation I would be prepared -- and more important that my teammates would trust that I put in the work."
That's living in the past. For me it's about winning every moment. When I'm through playing, I'm sure I'll look back on it and talk with my kids and my family, my friends. But until I'm done, it will be just the next business day for me.
– James Jones, on playing in six straight NBA Finals
Jones has remained healthy for most of his career, and yet he refers back to two injuries -- a 2008 bone bruise in his knee and wrist surgery in 2010 -- as reminders of how quickly things can change. "The turn of an ankle or bad conditioning can just take it all away from you," he said. "So I didn't take it for granted anymore just five years into the NBA. My thought process was I've defied the odds already, and every year I'm defying the odds to a greater extent. So every year I'm going to savor it more and more, knowing that the longer I'm in this game, the greater the chance that I'll be out of it sooner than later."
His obsession with preparation and staying in the league has prevented him from dwelling on these last six years of Finals appearances alongside James -- a run matched only by Russell and a half-dozen of his Celtics teammates a half-century ago. "I tell people it's an amazing accomplishment," Jones said. "But three years ago, after winning our second title, for me all of the numbers fell by the wayside."
He realized that he couldn't afford to think about the memories. "That's living in the past," he said. "For me it's about winning every moment. When I'm through playing, I'm sure I'll look back on it and talk with my kids and my family, my friends. But until I'm done, it will be just the next business day for me."
Like Miller, he is hoping to continue until he's 38 at least. "I want to play as long as my teammates feel challenged by my presence," said Jones. "The moment I can no longer challenge my teammates, that's the moment I'll leave this game. And -- I'm being honest -- that's not something that happens over a period of time. That's something that happens when you wake up one day and you give it everything you have and you just can't compete. When that time comes I will know. Hopefully it comes in the summer, and not during the season."
While Jones was standing on the edge of the court Sunday before practice, talking about what the Cavaliers must do in Game 5, James was seated in a makeshift interview room on the other side of a curtain answering similar questions.
"It's not hard," James said of the pressure facing his team. "I mean, you go out and you give everything that you have to your team and to your teammates, and you live with the results. I put a lot of hard work into my career and into this year, so I know what I'm capable of doing. I know what our team is capable of doing. But it's not hard. You just go out and do your job."
It was the same tone that his favorite teammate was expressing a few strides away. "I haven't found a person yet that has never taken a step back -- never failed, never been slowed," Jones was saying. "The way we look at it is we've taken some shots; now we have to get back in there and be the one delivering the blows."
The role that James fills at the top of the Cavaliers' rotation is occupied at the back end by Jones. During those four years in Miami they were playing in Jones' hometown; in Cleveland the turf belongs to James. After a half-dozen winning years together, the playmaker and the shooter who share the same name have learned to essentially mirror one another's point of view.
"I'm always on edge," Jones said. "I just continue to work knowing that when my opportunity comes, that I'll be prepared and I'll be able to make an impact -- and watch people's amazement when I'm able to do it, knowing all the while that this is what I've trained for every day."
How important are dreams? For the greatest player of his generation, there can be nothing more valuable than to be paired with a teammate whose faith is based in the reality of hard work. In this relationship, LeBron is the one being inspired.
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