OAKLAND: When LeBron James left behind the Miami Heat last July after four consecutive NBA Finals trips to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers, he never dreamed to be so close to a title so soon.
But when the NBA Finals opens Thursday, James will be there for the fifth year in a row as his revamped Cavaliers face the Golden State Warriors in the best-of-seven championship series.
“Could I foresee this? At the beginning of the season I couldn’t,” James said. “But I knew I had to lead these guys and if they followed my leadership, I knew I could get them to a place where they hadn’t been before.”
So how does James like Cleveland’s chances now?
“We have heart. We have determination. We have everything we need to win,” James said.
Cleveland has suffered the longest major sport title drought of any US city, having last tasted a crown when the 1964 Cleveland Browns won the NFL throne.
“To be at this point, it’s very emotional,” James said. “We all know how long it has been. You can try and not focus on it. You can try to say, OK, it’s not about that. But we all know it. The one thing we can guarantee… is that we will give it our best shot.”
This was James’ dream last July when he wrote an essay in Sports Illustrated announcing his decision.
“What’s most important for me is to bring one trophy back to Northeast Ohio,” James wrote. “I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010 (with Miami).”
Together with Australian-born guard Kyrie Irving and big man Kevin Love, Cleveland’s new “Big Three” could only muster a 19-20 start before James took a two-week rest break. The Cavaliers swung trade deals for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who proved to be key role players that help bind talent into teamwork, and Russian center Timofey Mozgov, a replacement for Brazilian big man Anderson Varejao after he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in December.
James missed Cleveland’s first game of the season against Golden State, a 112-94 road loss, but in February scored 42 points to give the Cavaliers a 110-99 home victory in the rematch.
With a revamped roster and James adapting his game as injuries hampered the lineup, the Cavaliers closed the season 34-9 and went 12-2 in the Eastern Conference playoffs, matching the 2003 New Jersey Nets and 2013 San Antonio Spurs for the best runs to the finals under the current format.
James has the Cavaliers on the brink as he did in 2007 when Cleveland was swept by San Antonio in the finals.
But this time, James has the success of his Miami days to draw upon. He’s a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player. Twice he brought the Heat NBA crowns. Twice more he lost in the final.
The only players before James to play in five consecutive NBA Finals were on the Boston Celtics dynasty roster of the 1950s and 1960s.
Miami stay aided James
James broke Cleveland hearts in 2010, his jerseys burned and his name reviled. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert even ripped James on the team website in a scathing critique that was not taken down until days before James returned.
In the four years that James was reaching the NBA Finals with Miami, the Cavaliers were struggling and rebuilding and missing the playoffs. They slowly but steadily improved, going from 19 wins in 2010-11 to win 21, 24 and 33 games last season.
In this year’s playoffs, Love suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the opening round, but Tristan Thompson stepped up to fill in. When Irving was slowed by knee and foot injuries, there was Aussie Matthew Dellavedova to provide a spark, especially on defense.
“We haven’t gotten caught up in feeling sorry for ourselves,” James said. “That’s what teamwork and trying to accomplish a dream is all about, being able to sacrifice yourself and what you can do for the better of the team.”