Few players in today’s NBA know how difficult it is to win a championship more than LeBron James. He’s 2-3 in his Finals appearances and gets another chance next week winner the Cavaliers play the Western Conference champion in the Finals.
“I hope everyone here understands that it’s not easy. It’s not easy to even get to this point,” James said after the Cavs beat the Atlanta Hawks 118-88 Tuesday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. “It’s so hard just to win an NBA game, and the fact that we’ve won three playoff series so far, it is very, very difficult, and if you’ve never been in this situation, you don’t know how difficult it is.”
What once looked like on paper a lopsided Finals in favor of the team from the West, the Cavaliers might be playing their best basketball of the season, even without Kevin Love (shoulder injury) and a hobbled Kyrie Irving (tendinitis left knee, strained right foot).
This is not to say they will win the Finals – nobody knows for sure – but they can win the Finals and here are three reasons why:
With James, many things are possible, including an NBA title. In each round, James has had strong performances, especially against the Bulls in the conference semifinals and the Hawks in the conference finals. He has carried the team without Love, rebounding and scoring more to make up for what Love brought. James basketball IQ also gives Cleveland an advantage and makes it difficult for teams on both ends of the court.
James has not been as efficient offensively in the playoffs as he would like but that’s because the situation calls for him to be a shot-taker with Love out and Irving less than 100%. Against the Hawks, he almost averaged a triple-double at 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists, becoming the first player in NBA history to average at least 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in a series, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Golden State plays tremendous defense, but even the Warriors will need to put special attention on James, and he is fond of passing to the open man. His postseason performance is an unsubtle reminder that he is still the best player in the world.
No one is going to mistake the Cavaliers with a defensive juggernaut, but they have improved. Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson have provided interior defense at the rim and good pick-and-roll coverage. Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova have helped limit opponents’ three-point shooting, and James is capable of guarding multiple positions. If Kyrie Irving is closer to a 100% healthy, he will give Cleveland a bit more defensive versatility.
Defending Golden State isn’t easy for any team, and the Cavaliers will need to be even better defensively in the Finals. But the effort and results are apparent, which wasn’t always the case this season.
James and Shumpert can guard Golden State’s or Houston’s best perimeter player. Smith, Shumpert, Irving and Dellavedova can rotate on other guards, and James, Thompson, Mozgov can defend inside. Thompson’s defense has lifted the Cavs during the playoffs.
The Cavs are not deep, playing no more than eight guys on a regular basis. But they can play different styles – big or small – depending on the situation.
Irving, Shumpert, Smith, James and Thompson is a pretty good small-ball lineup and the Cavs can always use Dellavedova, James Jones and even Shawn Marion in that mix at times, too.
If the Cavs want to go big, they can play with Mozgov at center.
Again, this doesn’t mean Cleveland will beat the team from the West. It means they can and they also have a better chance of doing so than they did three weeks ago at the start of the Bulls series. The Cavs have gained confidence through their play and believe they belong.