Healthy and refocused, Cavaliers look primed for deep playoff run

Far healthier than they were a year ago, the Cavaliers look primed for a deep NBA playoff run after sweeping the Pistons in the first round on Sunday.
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Someday, when LeBron James retires and we discuss his contributions to the NBA, far down the list will be the three-man postgame press conference. But that’s largely a LeBron creation, first in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, now in Cleveland with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. He seems to like the public show of unity to a media crew that is constantly looking for fissures between James and his teammates—and to remind people that in Cleveland and Miami, he was not just the star of the show, but the casting director. And maybe the best thing that happened when James, Love and Irving sat on a podium together at 12:18 Monday morning was that they all looked bored out of their minds.

Nothing interesting had happened, and what a relief that was. The Detroit Pistons did not win a game. Love had landed on his right shoulder earlier in the evening but was not injured. Irving scored 31 points on shots long (from midcourt at the end of the third quarter) and short (nobody in the NBA can seem to keep him out of the lane), reminders of what the Cavs missed when he fractured his kneecap in Game 1 of last year’s Finals.

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And James was free to be himself, affecting the game in more ways than anybody else in the league can. The Cavaliers swept the Pistons with a 100–98 win and served notice: If you write that their Big Three is dysfunctional or that they are not legitimate title contenders, you may yet look like a fool.

Hours earlier, the words “Steph Curry,” “knee” and “MRI” shook the NBA playoffs. Curry has now been injured twice already in this postseason, and if his knee is seriously injured, who knows what happens? Golden State may be the NBA’s all-time regular season champ but not its 2016 postseason champ.

That’s life in the NBA. The Cavs know it well. And it’s why the Cavs could well break Cleveland’s championship drought in two months. One year ago, the Cavs finished a first-round sweep of the Celtics but lost Love. Now they are healthy, and if they stay that way, they have a real chance to beat anybody, even a healthy Warriors team.

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“At this point last year, it wasn’t a good feeling, leaving out of there even though we had swept Boston, knowing that Kev was pretty much done for the season,” James said. “It was a big blow for our team. A huge blow. Knowing that Kyrie was (battling an injury) as well … it just wasn’t a good feeling in our locker room.”

James looks more explosive than he did last spring. When he and Irving are on the floor together, the Cavs have the best pair of finishers in the NBA—and more importantly, one of them can pretty much always be on the floor. That allows coach Tyronn Lue to run the offense through an elite playmaker at all times. In Game 4 on Sunday, the Cavaliers had either James or Irving on the floor for all but 29 seconds. If Lue sticks to this substitution pattern, the Cavs may miss a few shots in a row, but they should never stall.

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Nobody gets a ring for sweeping the Pistons, who won 44 games to earn the No. 8 seed in the East. It is worth noting, though, that 44 wins were good enough for the No. 5 seed in the West, and the Pistons are a feisty young team that was desperate to take something from the Cavs, and still could not.

If the Cavs are healthy, they’re coming out of the East. And the West champ will have its hands full.

A serious Curry injury would be a basketball tragedy; terrible for him and bad for the sport. Nobody wants to see that, just as nobody wants to see Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant go down again. But students of NBA history remember all the teams that could have, and perhaps would have, won a championship if they had been healthy, like the 2005 Heat (Dwyane Wade was hurt) and the 2006 Pistons (Rip Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace) and most relevant to this discussion: the 2015 Cavaliers.

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Last year, this team made the NBA Finals without Love, then took Golden State to six games without Irving. The circumstances of that Finals matchup are easily dismissed now because of what followed: The Warriors went a preposterous 73–9 in the regular season, and the Cavs occasionally struggled and fired their coach halfway through this season. It’s easy to assume the Warriors would have won last year’s title no matter who was on the floor, but that really isn’t clear. We just don’t know.

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This year’s Cavs team won 57 games, even though Irving missed 35% of the season, then had to re-integrate himself into the lineup. Irving said Sunday: “I knew that during the regular season there was going to be peaks and valleys, and I just had to come to grips with it.”

If there really was dysfunction (and there must have been at least some, or why else was David Blatt fired?), it appears to be gone now. James is talking about “the rehab that Kev and Ky has put together,” and it doesn’t just seem like empty talk. Lue may or may not be a better coach than Blatt, but his presence eliminates an excuse: You can blame one coach, but it’s hard to blame two.

Mostly, though, the Cavs are healthy. Sometimes, it really is that simple. James said, “We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done, but we’re happy where we are today.” The Big Three walked off the podium, onto the second round—all of them. The rest of the NBA can consider itself warned.