Tuesday, January 15, 2019 Medina 17°

Cavs Notes

Cavaliers Playoff Preview: LeBron James the lone constant -- and the reason for hope -- in a season of upheaval

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    LeBron James looks down in the second half of a game this season. He again is expected to carry the Cavaliers through the postseason.



Twenty-two players saw regular-season action for the Cavaliers, who used 30 starting lineups in 82 games.

Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade — remember them? — were all dealt at the trade deadline, replaced by George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.

Thomas, Rose, Shumpert, Wade, Hood, Hill, Nance, Kevin Love, Jeff Green, Kyle Korver, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson, Jose Calderon, Cedi Osman and even coach Tyronn Lue all missed games due to injury or illness.

Heck, Thomas, Rose, Shumpert, Wade, Hill, Clarkson, Calderon and LeBron James all saw action at point guard alone.

And that was just this season.

Go back to 2014-15, the first of Cleveland’s three straight trips to the NBA Finals, and the Cavs had to deal with season-ending injuries to Kyrie Irving and Love.

In 2015-16, coach David Blatt was fired midway through the season despite the team being on pace to win 60 games, Lue took over and Cleveland rallied from 3-1 down to beat Golden State for its first — and to this point only — NBA championship.

In 2016-17, there was the Mike Dunleavy experiment, Mo Williams was still on the roster even though he couldn’t play anymore, Derrick Williams, Deron Williams and Larry Sanders were briefly seen as saviors and Andrew Bogut broke his leg minutes after stepping on the court for the first time with the Cavs.

Then, before this season even started, Irving asked to be traded and Koby Altman took over for David Griffin as general manager.

So when Lue was asked just minutes after the Cavs concluded the regular season Wednesday what it’s been like to coach in Cleveland, he at first simply sighed and shook his head before saying, “‘As The Land Turns’ is what I call it.”

It’s been a soap opera, all right, but despite going just 50-32 in the regular season and being the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Cavs are heavy favorites in Las Vegas to advance to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight year.

That’s a feat that has been accomplished only by the Boston Celtics (twice), Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat in NBA history, with the Warriors also having a chance to do it this year.

And Miami, which did it from 2011-14, had one very important thing in common with the current Cavs.

LeBron James

All the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James did in his 15th NBA season was play in all 82 regular-season games for the first time, average 27.5 points and post career highs in rebounds (8.6), assists (9.1) and triple-doubles (18).

Now also would be a good time to point out he’s appeared in seven straight NBA Finals, eight overall and never lost a first-round series (12-0).

“Cleveland has had some ups and downs, but they’re playing good basketball,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said recently. “They’re always going to be tough to beat anytime LeBron is on the court. He’s the best player in the league. You always have a chance to win every game when you have the best player in the league.”

James has closed the gap and could challenge Houston’s James Harden for league MVP honors, but what he craves most is a fourth NBA championship.

That doesn’t mean, however, that he hasn’t taken time to appreciate some of his recent milestones, which include becoming the youngest player to score 31,000 points, leading the Cavs to 50 wins for the fourth straight season and winning the Central Division for the fourth straight year (the Cavs have won it just three other times in their 48-year history).

“Listen, throughout a long season, if you’re able to accomplish feats no matter what’s going on, you should always try to appreciate it, try to take time,” he said. “I’ve kind of been a hypocrite (with) that because I’m always moving and trying to figure out how we can be better the next day or whatever the case. It’s always hard for me to be like, ‘OK, another division crown, even after all that’s gone on with our team,’ but it’s a pretty cool thing.”

More impressive is that James was the only Cleveland player to be in all 30 of the team’s starting lineups.

“It’s very easy for a guy to sit down when you’re going through the stuff we went through all season,” Lue said. “I think he did a great job of just leading by example, playing every game even though we were going through a tough stretch and tough stretches.

“I think he did a really good job of setting the tone for everyone. That’s what we need from him. ... Him stepping up and playing the way he’s played has been tremendous.”

Now it’s the playoffs, which means James will go into his Zero Dark-Thirty mode and stay off social media.

“A lot of the smiles are gone,” Lue said. “Coming into practice, he’s a lot more focused and in the right mindset. He’s real serious about what’s going on. During the season, 82 games is so long, you’ve got to enjoy it. But when it comes to the playoffs, this is our bread and butter. We want to try to win it and he becomes a lot more serious.”

All teams and players want to win. The difference is James, even at 33, still puts in all the necessary work and possesses the incredible talent to lift his team and make it happen.

That’s why Washington’s Brooks ticked off things like “talent, preparation, toughness and work ethic” when asked what makes the small forward so special.

“He displays it every single day of his life,” Brooks said. “What I see, what I read and the videos you guys put out, some of his workouts, it’s just phenomenal. It’s mindboggling that he can do that. You know that’s his focus. He’s focused on being a champion every day.

“That’s a testament to him and who he is. It’s something where every player in this league should look at him as the gold standard. You treat every day as a championship potential day and he does it.”

Brooks was just getting started.

“There’s a lot of players who work hard and prepare like that, but he has the talent, the physical abilities that not a lot of players have,” he said. “He’s one of two players that can play all five positions, that can be an All-Star at those positions. That’s him and Magic (Johnson). No other players can do that.

“There’s been a lot of great ones. Kobe Bryant is one of the best players ever to play. I’m sure he was just like that, maniacal in his workouts and training and preparation. A lot of the great ones, they have the talent plus the work ethic. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”

Second season

Everything James and the Cavs have done this season has been designed to get to this point.

Beginning Sunday at 3:30 p.m. against the Indiana Pacers at Quicken Loans Arena, they will begin their quest to win four games in four straight series.

They may not go 12-2 in the East like they did in 2015 and 2016 or 12-1 like they did last year, but they’re confident they can reach The Finals for a fourth straight time.

“What we have had to endure this entire season has not been easy,” said associate head coach Larry Drew, who led the team to an 8-1 record when Lue had to take a medical leave of absence. “And yet here we are with a chance to do something special.

“This is the next chapter. When that next chapter rolls around, you’ve got to be ready.”

The Cavs vow to be ready, even if guys like Clarkson and Nance will step on the floor for Game 1 versus the Pacers with no playoff experience.

“We can only tell them so much,” Drew said. “They’ve got to experience it. That playoff atmosphere is an entirely different animal.

“I’m excited for our new guys to really get a piece of it. Those guys that are going to experience it for the first time, I’m sure it’s going to be something they won’t forget.”

It helps greatly, of course, that the Cavs have James, who has played 9,127 minutes in 217 postseason games.

“LeBron is probably not only the best in the world, but also the best at making his teammates better,” Love said. “He’s going to bring those guys along fast, and we have a bunch of savvy veterans that know what to expect.”

There are no guarantees when or how it will end, but there’s also no doubt, what the Cavs have gone through this season — and the three previous seasons — has only made their leader more determined.

“I’m not much of a doubt guy,” James said. “Just the ins and outs, the revolving door of guys in and guys out, either from switching teams or from injuries, coaches being out, players being injured ...

“We had six guys leave before the trade deadline, which is something you don’t want to be a part of if you don’t have to, because you want to kind of build stuff. It’s just been a challenge, and we’re trying to figure it out the best way we can.”

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com. Follow him @RickNoland on Twitter.

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