CLEVELAND (AP) For LeBron James, his homecoming season with the Cavaliers went up, down and sometimes sideways, like three seasons rolled into one.
The fourth is about to begin. The only one that matters.
James has his sights set on another NBA title, and if he can capture it over the next two months, he’ll not only crown his brilliant career but end Cleveland’s title drought dating to 1964.
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The pursuit begins Sunday when the Cavs open the Eastern Conference playoffs at home against Boston, a familiar opponent – and a fitting one – for James, who has played the Celtics 25 times in the postseason. James’ first stint in Cleveland ended with a loss to the Celtics in the second round, and as he stomped off the floor in Boston’s TD Garden after Game 6, he memorably yanked off his Cavaliers jersey, a final act before his exit to Miami.
”They beat us that series and it stuck with me a lot,” James said following Friday’s practice. ”I’m looking forward to this series coming up.”
Five years later, James is a two-time champion. He’s more mature and still the game’s best all-around player. James has come full circle.
His first regular season back in Cleveland was an 82-game thrill ride from the start.
The Cavs entered the year with humongous expectations as the arrivals last summer of James and Kevin Love, teamed with All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, gave Cleveland a ”Big 3” to rival any trio in the league. But things didn’t go as planned as James fought nagging back and knee injuries and the Cavs staggered to a 19-20 start, raising eyebrows and bringing scrutiny on first-year coach David Blatt.
But bolstered by the additions of J.R. Smith, Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith in trades, the Cavs went 34-9 after Jan. 15 and secured the East’s No. 2 seed.
Not the assumed journey, but James, who took two weeks off in January to heal physically and mentally, is pleased where it brought the Cavs.
”It’s been like three different seasons for us,” James said. ”We had that when-I-first-came-back season to when we started the season as a totally different team than when I first came back. The Kevin Love trade, that began another season. And then we had another trade in January. That’s like three different seasons.
”So, for everything that we’ve went through as far as personnel changes, I think it’s been a pretty good regular season. I wouldn’t say great. I’m not satisfied. I’m never satisfied.”
James’ drive and desire define him, and now that the playoffs are here, the 30-year-old transforms into a different player: more focused, more committed, more urgent. When April arrives, James flips an internal switch he won’t turn off until his season ends – whenever that happens.
Is he different person, too?
”Ask my teammates come Sunday,” he said with a slight smile.
Postseason LeBron James is indeed a sight to behold.
In 158 career playoff games, he’s averaged 28 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists. He’s had memorable performances, including the 48-point masterpiece in 2007 against Detroit, scoring Cleveland’s last 25 points and 29 of the final 30.
This is his time of year.
”Mentally and emotionally he’ll lead the way,” Blatt said. ”But this all can’t be on LeBron. This is a team and a team effort and everyone here has to do his part. The good news is he’s a guy that’s done it, been there and led teams to the ultimate.”
Cavs forward Mike Miller has seen James change when the season gets serious.
”He’s a little more focused, you’ve got a little more time between games to get focused, so it gives him the ability to lock into what the other team is doing and who he’s playing against,” said Miller, James’ teammate for three seasons in Miami.
There were growing pains as James learned to play alongside Love and Irving, both playoff first-timers. It may have taken longer than expected, but the stars have seemingly aligned though there remains uncertainty about the future for Love, who can opt out of his contract this summer.
For now, they’re united to make a run at a title.
Blatt, who seemed disconnected with James during stretches of the season, can’t wait to see what No. 23 looks like in playoff mode.
”We will probably see another level because that’s what he does,” Blatt said. ”It’s why he’s the superstar that he is and why he’s the champion that he is.”