LeBron staring at possible sixth straight trip to NBA Finals

CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James understands what it takes to reach the NBA Finals.

The route, strewn with obstacles and doubts, has become a personal path. He knows the way as well as anyone.

James has been to the league's showcase event five straight years and six times in the past nine. On his most recent visit, the four-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist and global icon, reminded everyone he remains the game's biggest, brightest star.

And now, as he embarks on his 13th pro season, James, just two months shy of turning 31, understands getting back to the Finals will not come easy for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

''We've got a long way to go,'' he said.

When he and the Cavs tip off Tuesday night in Chicago, the ending that Cleveland fans can only dream of - celebrating the city's first pro sports title since 1964 - is nearly eight months away.

Right now, however, it's still just a dream.

James nearly carried the Cavs to the top in his first season back in Ohio. But they came up two wins shy of the championship. Last season's journey, loaded with injuries, trades and whispers, seems to have made him more confident a title will happen.

If not this season, then soon.

''I know what we're capable of,'' James said following a recent practice. ''I didn't know what we're capable of going into the first game of the season last year. I knew it was going to be a long process. I still think it's going to be a process. It doesn't matter what we did last year, that's over and done with. We were happy how we progressed last year and how we played all the way to the end, but this is a new year.''

Like last season, when they struggled trying to integrate Kevin Love into their offense and didn't mesh for months under first-year NBA coach David Blatt, the Cavs may need some time to jell. James recently received an anti-inflammatory injection in his back - his second in 10 months - and his minutes will be closely monitored all season.

Though he does a better job now of pampering his body, but the odometer is showing heavy mileage and the Cavs intend to rest him whenever possible.

He missed a career-high 13 games last season and averaged 36.1 minutes, his fewest in 12 seasons. There's a good chance he'll lighten his workload more this season, especially on back-to-back games or when the Cavs are playing three times in four nights.

The goal is not just self-preservation, but for James to be healthy when the games matter most. The Cavs' sights are on wins in June, not January.

The last time James was on the floor during the playoffs, he played at a postseason level never seen before. During the Finals, James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists - the greatest stat line in history - and nearly carried the Cavs to a crown before they were overpowered by the Warriors.

Of course, James had to step up his game since he was playing without Love and All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who was injured in Game 1 and who will start this season on the sideline following surgery. But the sublime performance was a reminder of James' past - and his potential.

''He's playing his best complete basketball now,'' said Cavs guard James Jones, who has played with James in each of the last five Finals. ''This team poses a challenge for him because we have so many good players and now he's playing with a stacked deck. He's the type of guy that relishes that opportunity.

''What he does this year will be unlike anything he's ever done in the past because this team is definitely one of the more loaded teams he's ever played with.''

In the end, the Finals will define him and shape his legacy. He can't get there alone and James said his five most recent visits were with teams who gave of themselves.

''Everyone has to sacrifice,'' he said. ''Sacrifice your own agenda. Things are not always going to go well for yourself, but if everyone has the same common goal and that's working hard every single day, having those type of habits every single day. ... You have to have talent as well. But having guys going out there and just sacrificing for one another for the better of the team.''

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