Cavs starting to resemble a power fit to take on the West

Michael Lee of The Vertical
Yahoo Sports

CLEVELAND – Had his Cleveland Cavaliers been playing a more threatening opponent, LeBron James might have been more cautious or effusive with his response on Wednesday morning when the topic was broached of a potential Eastern Conference finals matchup against good buddy and former teammate Dwyane Wade. Though his team was one game into a second-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, James didn’t hesitate to admit that his thoughts have drifted to the same place as many fans’ have – and that’s well beyond a Hawks team that he has owned for some time and that will be preparing for the offseason some time in the next week or so.

James wants to face Wade in a postseason series that has somehow never occurred before or after they decided to pal around with the Miami Heat for four years. “It’s not been heavy on my mind, but it’s crossed my mind my whole career,” James said, refusing to dance around a direct question.

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The first James-Wade matchup still requires the Cavaliers and Miami Heat to advance, but James is already looking through a translucent opponent in Atlanta after a 123-98 trouncing Wednesday night at Quicken Loans Arena that included an NBA record 25 3-pointers. The Hawks, losers of nine straight to the Cavaliers dating to last postseason, are of little concern for James. (When the team's own Twitter account hilariously makes light of its troubles with the crying Jordan meme, that's pretty much established).

The Cavaliers, up 2-0 in the East semifinal series, are building toward something special, leaving James with few opportunities to get lost in the moment. Near the end of the first half of Cleveland’s Game 2 victory, James let loose because of a different kind of special moment that was so euphoric, so lit, as the kids would say. J.R. Smith nailed another insane, one-legged, fall-away, heat-check 3-pointer, and James, observing from the Cavaliers’ bench, began hopping and swinging his fist in a manner reminiscent of championship celebrations by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

“We understand that we’ve got bigger goals, but I always stress that when you accomplish something special along the way that you don’t take it for granted,” James said after scoring 27 points and nailing four of those record threes, “and I’m one of the guys that kind of always takes it for granted. I never get to appreciate what I’m a part of. I’ve always said, when I’m done playing, I’ll be able to appreciate it more, but [Wednesday] was a special night for our organization … to be able to set an all-time record, it's special. It's truly special."

No Eastern Conference team has had the look of a viable challenger to the Cavs, who have always seemed to be the most talented but have never looked better nor appeared more unified in their cause. So this postseason is about proving something to themselves, not to the teams they’ll face trying to reach the NBA Finals. The Cavs want to show they are good enough to get the job done, regardless of what Golden State and San Antonio have already done.

Smith said after the game that the Cavaliers aren't trying to send any messages with their performance thus far against Detroit and Atlanta. Nothing needs to be said that hasn't been shown. The Cavaliers are making it clear that they are on a mission. They are the only unbeaten team in the playoffs and might never have a better opportunity to deliver that title to Northeast Ohio.

When the Warriors ended the best regular season in NBA history with 73 wins, the next two months were set up to be a coronation. But then Stephen Curry sprained his right ankle and later his right knee, creating some genuine suspense for the remainder of this postseason. Until Curry comes back and starts to resemble his old self, teams with hopes of dethroning the defending champs – such as Cleveland – won't have the same trepidation.

Should an NBA Finals rematch be in store, the Cavaliers would certainly prefer to defeat a mostly healthy Warriors team to avoid hearing any comments about them getting lucky or having an easier path. But they already had to spend an entire offseason fuming over what could've been last June with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. It just took a sometimes frustrating slog that included the dismissal of former coach David Blatt, and finally getting to the playoffs, for the Cavaliers to suddenly start reflecting that passion and purpose.

That scatterbrained squad from a few months ago has been non-existent through a relatively breezy six games of the postseason. It helps that Cleveland hasn’t faced any serious adversity. By the same time last postseason, the Cavs had already lost Love, played two games without a suspended Smith, and Irving was dealing with a foot problem that set the stage for more serious injuries later in the playoffs.

This time around, Cleveland has managed to stay healthy and can sit back and watch the teams out West engage in steel-cage brawls. The Cavaliers have also developed another essential element to any team looking to eventually hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “A lot of trust,” Irving said.

James exhibited that trust in the first round against the Pistons, when he deferred to Irving and let him serve as the team’s closer and leading scorer. If the Cavaliers fail again, James will get the blame. Not coach Tyronn Lue. Not Love. Not Irving. And James learned through that defiant run last postseason that he can’t do it alone. That's why he has been such a difficult, demanding teammate. That's why he couldn't tolerate the lack of focus during the regular season from his often bored teammates, prompting those bizarre subtweets and self-inflicted, contrived controversies.

The Cavaliers haven’t played either of the Western Conference’s top two teams since Jan. 30, leading to some understandable complacency toward the end of the season. The Toronto Raptors nipped at their heels, but never enough to make them scared. The Heat are the one opponent that would at least provide some intrigue, given James’ history with the franchise and Wade. But that could easily dissipate once the games are played. With Miami officially announcing on Wednesday that Chris Bosh has no chance of returning to play this postseason because of his recurring health problems, the possibility that James’ former team trips him up in his quest for a sixth straight Finals trip has been hampered.

About 12 hours after he called out the Heat, James was seated at the dais, holding a microphone and sending a message to his teammates that they have no room for comfort in their current prosperity. “It’s no reason to look ahead. Tomorrow is not promised,” James said. “Let’s not get this mistaken, we’re still a young group that was just put together last year. We don’t have enough games played in pressure situations for us to ever lose focus on what the main key is, and that’s to play that next game. We can’t afford it. We don’t have the experience like San Antonio, Golden State, OKC and even the team that we’re playing now. So we have to understand and be in the moment every time we go out on the floor.”

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