Cleveland has raised its game over the past three weeks
POSTED: Apr 9, 2016 11:58 AM ET
The Cavaliers are entering postseason play much healtier than they were in 2015.
CHICAGO — Practice had been over for a while, with Matthew Dellavedova's knees already iced and their owner answering a few questions for a couple of reporters off to the side on the Cleveland Cavaliers' road practice court Friday at the University of Illinois-Chicago's campus gym.
"We know some of the challenges ahead and how hard it is to win in the playoffs," the Cavaliers' backup point guard was saying. "Last year, a lot of us didn't know and we're just looking forward ... "
That's when LeBron James crashed the li'l party, slamming into a Cavs PR person after dunking on a side basket. It was if James had smashed through and descended from a skylight, superhero style, Delly's words pushed abruptly aside by the statement of LeBron's deed.
"That could have been bad...," Dellavedova said, chuckling when it was clear no PR person or reporter had been damaged.
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Instead, things are looking good for the Cavaliers. James was bouncing around the floor for quite a while Friday, fresh and energized on his third day between games. For the record, they are games No. 1,163 and No. 1, 164 of his NBA career, regular season and playoffs, not counting All-Star, preseason, summer league, Team USA or any other games in which the Cavaliers' star might have played over the past 13 years.
He last played at Milwaukee on Tuesday, when he had 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting with nine assists in just 28 minutes in a 109-80 blowout of the Bucks. He'll next play Saturday night at United Center (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), where James can send the Chicago Bulls home for the fifth time in the past seven springs. It would be single-elimination style this time, not best-of-seven; if Cleveland wins, thereby clinching the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls will be eliminated mathematically from their long shot of chasing down Indiana for the eighth in the East bracket.
It would end Chicago's seven-year run of playoff appearances -- none of which has ever taken them further than James' teams. He personally has blocked the Bulls both in Cleveland (2010, 2015) and in Miami (2011, 2013), and in a more cosmic way in standing between his Windy City rivals and the return to The Finals they and their fans so have craved for 18 seasons.
Seeing each other now, in April, headed down such divergent paths, wasn't lost on James.
"It's very different, just knowing the success they've had the last [eight] years," he said Friday. "They've been playing such good basketball around this time, to see them fighting for a chance to get to the posteason, it's different. But that's sometimes the way of the league. The league sometimes changes and some teams get in, some teams get out."
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Cleveland mostly has wanted to get it right and, judging by its recent play, has done precisely that. It has won seven of its past eight games with James involved, dropping in the last two weeks only the games he sat against Houston March 29 and Indiana Wednesday. The dismantling of the Bucks Tuesday was a tour de force at both ends, noted as such by coach Tyronn Lue, and a flare gun of sorts in reminding folks there are more than just two Western Conference behemoths eyeballing the NBA championship this year.
"We've had some ups and downs, but for the most part, we've had way more ups," James said that night. "For our team, we're in a good place right now. ... It's a perfect time to be clicking, and we're clicking right now, so it's perfect for our team, and everyone feels in a good rhythm offensively and defensively. We know what we want to do, and we can go out and execute that."
Already one of five teams to rank in the league's top 10 offensively and defensively, Cleveland has upped its ratings to 111.5 (second) and 102.3 (eighth) over the past 10 games. That just happens to coincide with an upshift in James' performance, dating to the postgame talk he and Lue had in Miami March 19.
That was the night James, his team down by 21 points, chatted casually with pal Dwyane Wade at halftime rather than warming up with Cleveland teammates. Since then, his game has been anything but casual: 27.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 9.5 apg while shooting 58 percent overall and 39 percent on 3-pointers. Prior to that, James averaged 24.8, 7.3, 6.5 while shooting 51 percent and 29 percent.
He's been, essentially, the tide lifting all boats for the Cavs, with Kevin Love averaging 19.4 points and 9.3 rebounds in the same time frame and J.R. Smith, Channing Frye and Tristan Thompson all perking up offensively as well. Point guard Kyrie Irving's stats have been a little off (17.4 ppg, 37 percent shooting) but at least he's healthy and committed, too, to a strong finish.
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This figured to be a challenging regular season for Cleveland from the start, with success or failure narrowly measured by its ability to a) get back to the Finals, and b) win two more games than it did against Golden State last June. That's a tough way to navigate the 82 games that come first, made even trickier by Irving's return from offseason knee surgery, the firing of coach David Blatt, Lue's midseason ascension and the incessant pulse-taking of James' moods and Twitter timeline.
And yet, the only time to fret would have been now, if the Cavaliers still were searching for traction and focus. They are not. They look ready for the challenge to come, winning 16 times in a maximum of 28 games.
"It's a long season, especially when you're playing for something bigger," said Love. "I think the last 15 games or so, our focus is just, 'How can we tighten up the ship and get better?' And clean things up, because in the playoffs, every possession matters. That one loose ball or one defensive rebound we don't get can cost us a game. Sometimes we've played down to the competition. We're trying to play for something bigger."
Said James: "I've been pretty much like this the last few weeks, just getting my mind set, getting my mind ready for spring ball -- I understand how important that is. Just trying to make sure our guys stay in tune, understand how important every game is for our success, to get better with our progress. Then when the postseason begins, we'll be ready to go."
With the exception and addition of Frye, the Cavaliers' core has been together for an extra year now and will hit the playoffs heathier (and ideally stay that way) than they were in 2015. Most people still rank Golden State and San Antonio 1-2 as the NBA's best, but only one of them can reach the Finals, where the opponent they're most likely to face is Cleveland. And James, who hasn't missed a championship round since 2010.
"Our group has been tested," James said. "Not a lot, but we've been tested enough for a series starting next weekend."
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