LOS ANGELES: LeBron James believes the return to form and fitness of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is responsible for powering the Cleveland Cavaliers into their second consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.
A year ago, the Cavaliers stumbled into the championship series to face the Golden State Warriors with Irving hobbling on one leg and Love already ruled out of the finals following a serious shoulder injury.
But fast forward 12 months and the picture couldn’t be more different, with Cleveland’s “Big Three” all in rude health as they look towards next week’s opening Game One against either Golden State or Oklahoma City.
James, Irving and Love combined to score 83 of Cleveland’s points in a 113-87 win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday, which clinched a 4-2 series victory.
James, who has often had to shoulder the Cavaliers offensive burden alone, is in no doubt that the contribution of Love and Irving has been pivotal.
“We wouldn’t be at this point going to the finals without those two,” said James, who led his team’s scoring on Friday with 33 points.
“Throughout the first three rounds, they’ve been the reason why we’ve played at such a high level. They’ve accepted the challenge. They wanted to get back to this moment,” added James, who will be making his sixth consecutive appearance in the NBA finals next week.
Lifting a curse?
James, 31, believes the lengthy layoffs suffered by Irving and Love had served to motivate his team-mates when they finally returned.
“They just had so much built up — anxiety or rage or excitement or whatever the case may be throughout the whole process, just to be back on the floor and to show why we were all put together,” the four-time NBA MVP added.
A year ago when the Cavaliers booked their place in the finals, Irving had been suffering from knee problems for several weeks and was not at full fitness. In Game One against Golden State he suffered a kneecap fracture, which sidelined him for the remainder of the series.
Love had already suffered his season-ending injury against the Boston Celtics.
“I just remember having that knee brace on, and it just didn’t feel the same hobbling into the locker room knowing that we were going to The Finals but wasn’t at full strength, and Kev was out,” Irving recalled.
“Thinking about just the steps it took to get back to where we are now, I really have a true appreciation for these guys and my teammates and just a true appreciation of the journey.”
James, who returned to the Cavs in 2014 after four successful seasons with Miami which saw him win two NBA championships, meanwhile says he is not getting distracted by the prospect of ending the “Cleveland Curse”.
No sports team from the city has won a major championship since the Cleveland Browns won the National Football League Championship game in 1964 in the pre-Super Bowl era.
“I don’t really get caught up in all of that,” said James when asked about ending Cleveland’s long wait for a championship.
“We’re going to prepare ourselves. Our coaching staff will prepare us, and we’re going to go out and give it our all, and we’re going to live with the results. I know our city deserves it. Our fans deserve it. But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We’ve still got to go out and do it.”