LeBron, Cavs climb in standings, back in title conversation
CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James sat in his corner cubicle with a towel wrapped around his waist and a look of satisfaction on his face that had been missing for weeks.
His body, recovered from a two-week break, has refreshed the way he hoped. So has his team after two trades improving Cleveland at both ends of the floor. And two weeks after being thought of as dysfunctional and in disarray, the Cavaliers have won six straight games and are climbing in the standings.
James wasn't ready to talk about the playoffs or NBA titles just yet after beating Oklahoma City 108-98 on Sunday. But he senses the Cavs are back on track.
''There's such a long road ahead of us, I'm not going to get too ahead of myself personally,'' said James, who scored 34 points including a personal 8-0 run early in the fourth to keep the Thunder at a distance. ''We've played some great basketball as of late.''
Not surprisingly, James is at the heart of Cleveland's turnaround.
The four-time league MVP recently missed eight games to rest a strained back and left knee. The time away clearly revived the 30-year-old, who may want to consider a January retreat in upcoming seasons. He's running, jumping, cutting, scoring - doing everything at his own towering standards. He's physically stronger, mentally recharged.
On Monday, he was named the Eastern Conference's player of the week after averaging 27.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.3 steals in leading the Cavs to a 4-0 record since Jan. 19.
James, recently named to his 11th straight All-Star team, has averaged 30.3 points in his past seven games and he's leading the Cavs' defensive resurgence. As the wins have piled up, questions about James' relationship with first-year coach David Blatt - who never misses a chance to compliment his star player - have silenced. The two appear to be connecting better. The winning certainly helps.
Blatt insists he hasn't changed as a coach.
''I've got all my players,'' he said. ''It makes it easier.''
So does a healthy James. The Cavs are 1-8 without him and 24-12 when James is on the floor, a contrast that perhaps underscores his value better than any statistic. Make no mistake, the Cavs have good pieces around James, but he's the centerpiece to everything.
Along with James being back on his game, the recent acquisitions of center Timofey Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert have made a huge difference.
The 7-foot-1 Mozgov has given the team an inside defensive presence and offset the loss of Anderson Varejao, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Mozgov, who played for Blatt on the Russian national team, has helped space the floor on offense, allowing forward Kevin Love to play more comfortably away from the basket.
Mozgov, too, has shown a nice shooting touch and a nasty streak when needed. He has brought the Cavs a needed toughness. Mozgov didn't much statistically Sunday - 2 points, 6 rebounds in 28 minutes - but he threw himself around down low and drew a technical foul after an exchange with Thunder enforcer Kendrick Perkins.
''We got his back,'' guard Kyrie Irving said of the big man nicknamed ''Mozzy.'' ''It's great to have a big guy like that who's not going to take any nonsense.''
Smith has also been a welcome addition, making a seamless transition since coming over with Shumpert from the New York Knicks. A prolific scorer, and prodigious outside shooter, Smith is relishing a chance to help a contender. He's been starting, but could have his role changed when Shumpert, who has played just two games after being out with a dislocated shoulder, gets better conditioned.
Smith said he won't mind coming off the bench.
''As long as we get that gold ball, it don't matter what I do,'' he said, referring to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. ''I could sit out for all I care, as long as we win.''
That gold ball is why James plays. He made four straight trips to the NBA finals with Miami and it's hard to imagine the league's ultimate showcase without him. The Cavs remain a work in progress, but because they're in the weaker Eastern Conference, they are title contenders when James is healthy.
For now, their confidence is growing. And with a soft schedule ahead - only three of their next 10 games are against teams with winning records - the Cavs may continue rolling.
''We've shown we can play with the best teams,'' Love said. ''Hopefully we're starting to put this thing together.''
The look on James' face said that's happening.