It was 90 minutes before tip-off last Thursday at Key Arena in Seattle, and LeBron James was shooting what could only loosely be called jump shots, his toes barely leaving the hardwood before each release. James, the NBA's leading scorer, had lost his celebrated ability to elevate the night before in Portland, when he sprained his right ankle late in the first half. Yet the Cleveland Cavaliers' wondrous small forward not only played through the discomfort against the Trail Blazers, but he also produced another of his heroic fourth quarters, knifing through the lane for a game-winning layup with 0.3 of a second left.
Still, finishing that game would cost him this one. After 30 minutes of testing the ankle, James walked into the visitors' locker room, unlaced his sneakers and called for a pair of tape cutters. King James then issued his decree: The ankle was not strong enough for him to suit up against the SuperSonics. "It's not too bad," he would say later, "but it's not quite right."
The same could be said of the Cavaliers this season. They haven't been too bad; in fact, lately they've been quite good. After a 12-16 start Cleveland won 13 of its next 16, beating the Dallas Mavericks, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers on the road and the Phoenix Suns at home, before losing 101-95 to Seattle last Thursday. But even the Cavs acknowledge that they still aren't quite right. Contract holdouts and injuries have forced coach Mike Brown to rethink his rotation nearly nightly, and sluggishness -- by the front office in failing to upgrade the roster over the summer and by the players on defense early in the season -- has also kept them from consistently playing at the level that carried them to the Finals last June.
Gradually, though, it appears that Cleveland is regaining its mojo. After sitting out in Seattle, James returned to score 28 points in a 98-84 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers last Saturday, lifting the Cavs to 26-20. Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (averaging 13.8 points and 9.7 rebounds), power forward Drew Gooden (11.5 points, 8.6 boards) and reserve guard Daniel Gibson (11.8 points) have been consistent if unspectacular sidekicks for James. And though they still are not whole -- 6' 10" sixth man Anderson Varejão is sidelined with a sprained left ankle, and starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic is out with a sprained left foot -- the Cavs are beginning to feel like themselves again. "We're handling our business," says Brown. "We've taken some setbacks, we haven't had our full roster intact, but we've always tried to be a no-excuses team, and lately we've been responding well."
It has been a quiet response, drowned out by all the noise the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons have been making in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers, who had a home game against league-leading Boston awaiting them on Tuesday, have played three times against the Celtics and the Pistons, but their meetings have been inconclusive. Cleveland beat visiting Boston 109-104 in overtime on Nov. 27 but lost James to a sprained finger the next night in a 109-74 defeat at Detroit. He was still sidelined with the injury when the Cavs dropped an 80-70 decision to the Celtics in Boston four nights later. Cleveland players insist they aren't irritated by the way the Celtics and the Pistons have dominated the Eastern buzz, but they do seem somewhat surprised by how quickly their status as defending conference champs has been brushed aside. "Everybody is crowning Boston because of the Big Three," says Cavs guard Damon Jones of the Celtics' Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. "And everybody loves Detroit because of all those veterans with playoff experience. We haven't gotten our team totally together yet, but people will have to deal with us when it counts. We didn't win the East last year by accident."
Or did they? After they were swept by the Spurs in the Finals, many attributed the Cavaliers' surprising run to a fortuitous draw and an otherworldly performance from James, who carried his team to an upset of the Pistons in the Eastern finals. General manager Danny Ferry came up empty in his off-season attempts to fill Cleveland's biggest need -- a playmaking point guard. As Ferry struggled to strike deals with restricted free agents Pavlovic (who re-signed on Oct. 30) and Varejão (on Dec. 5), the nonbelievers multiplied. TNT analyst Charles Barkley predicted that Cleveland wouldn't make the playoffs, and the way the Cavs started the season, it looked as if he might be right.
The low point came when they were booed at home in a 105-96 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 23, a game in which they trailed by 28 points. The fans' displeasure was mainly over Cleveland's listless D, which allowed the Warriors to make 17 of their first 21 shots. Although he wasn't one of the targets of the rancor, James nonetheless dressed in the training room afterward and for the first time in his five-year career ducked out of the arena without speaking to the media. Meanwhile, Jones had requested a trade after seeing his playing time dwindle to nearly nothing, starting guard Larry Hughes made no secret of his unhappiness over playing out of position at the point, and Pavlovic was having trouble both making shots and keeping the man he was guarding from doing so. "It was pretty bad for a while there," says Jones, who has since reentered the rotation, partly because of Pavlovic's injury. "But we've pulled it back together, and everybody's on the same page." And what was the turning point? "Simple," says Jones. "Got tired of losing."
Brown had already grown tired of watching his team give up uncontested jumpers and allow easy penetration, shortcomings for which he was partly responsible. Long known as a defensive-minded coach who runs a plain vanilla attack, Brown went to Italy during the off-season to study the offensive philosophy of European coaches. When he returned, he spent most of the preseason putting a greater emphasis on offense than he ever had before. "My first two years here, we probably spent 70 to 75 percent of our training camp practice time working on defensive principles," Brown says. "This year that ratio changed to spending probably 60 to 65 percent of our time on offense. That was my fault. We got away from our defensive mind-set, and it showed for a while."
The recommitment to defense has been evident during the Cavs' resurgence. They allowed their opponents to score 100 points or more 17 times in their first 28 games, but in their next 18 they gave up 100 or more only four times. Even without the hyperactive Varejão, a human jolt of Red Bull, Cleveland has picked up its intensity. "Guys are working hard, getting on the floor for loose balls and encouraging each other a lot more," says Gooden. "It took a while, but we're starting to get the same feel we had last year."
The one constant for the Cavs, in good times and bad, has been James's excellence. His numbers (30.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.03 steals per game through Sunday) speak to the fact that he's having the best season of his career, but beyond that, he seems utterly at ease -- with his teammates, with his ability and with his status as Cleveland's unquestioned leader. The 23-year-old James stays loose yet is focused enough that he can keep up a running dialogue with a heckler
It would be tempting to say that James is at the height of his powers -- except that he is so young that he'll almost certainly get better. He has been particularly lethal in the clutch, so much so that it's hard to remember that one of the criticisms of his game in his first couple of years in the league was that he lacked a killer instinct down the stretch. James is the top fourth-quarter scorer in the NBA, with a 9.3-point average at week's end, well ahead of second-place Dwyane Wade's 7.3. It's no coincidence that the Cavs have won 18 times when trailing in the final period, the most in the league. "We're Number 1 in fourth-quarter comebacks for a reason," says James, who didn't need to add the reason.
But after a practice at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., the day before the Blazers game, the questions James fielded from the local media had more to do with Portland guard Brandon Roy's fourth-quarter prowess than with his own. Asked later if he found that line of questioning amusing, James chuckled and said, "Well, yeah." The next evening he showed fans at the Rose Garden that Roy -- not to mention almost everyone else in the league -- is far from being his equal with the game on the line. James outscored the Blazers by himself in the final period, 17-15, and slashed through four defenders to finish off the 84-83 victory. "LeBron showed why he is who he is," said Blazers forward Martell Webster. "He did what superstars do."
The rarest of superstars doesn't need the ball in his hands to take over a game down the stretch. James proved he's in that category three nights earlier against the Lakers, when his fourth-quarter harassment of Kobe Bryant allowed Cleveland to get an impressive road win. It wasn't the first time James had successfully taken on the challenge of guarding Bryant late in a game; in a 94-90 win over L.A. on Dec. 20 Pavlovic was assigned to Bryant until James gave his teammate a fourth-quarter order: "Go defend someone else." Last week the Cavs were leading 98-95 on the Lakers' final possession when James made sure Bryant never shook free, and L.A. didn't even attempt a potential game-tying three.
The display was all part of James's rapidly improving ability to determine what the Cavs need on a given night, and to provide it. Sometimes that doesn't involve points or rebounds but an understanding of the bigger picture. Varejão's first game back, at home against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 11, happened to coincide with James's return after missing five games with that finger injury. James asked Brown to keep him out of the starting lineup and to bring him off the bench at the same time as Varejão, realizing that if they entered together the cheers for James's return would keep Varejão from being booed for holding out. "Just protecting a teammate," James said.
We know he can protect his teammates, but can James carry them as far as he did last season in a conference that is tougher at the top? His talent is so all-encompassing that it would be foolish to bet against him. "It doesn't matter if people aren't talking about us in January, in February," says Jones. "We'll see what they're saying in May and June." As long as they have James to lean on, the Cavaliers will be in the conversation.