CLEVELAND — If the past six Cleveland Cavaliers games—all Cavs wins—haven't served as sufficient warning, five words should sound a piercing alarm for the rest of the NBA. They're words that merely confirm what the pictures have portrayed, but they're words that take on further resonance when LeBron James utters them.
"My first step is back," James told Bleacher Report while he dressed to depart Quicken Loans Arena following a 108-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
It clearly is, and that is why the rest of the Eastern Conference—starting with the Chicago Bulls—better start picking up the pace.
There are many reasons why the Cavaliers have closed the gap to 3.5 games in the Central Division—from Cleveland recently revamping its roster to Chicago's increasing inconsistency—but there's one that runs circles around all the others, right as the Cavaliers run into a forgiving section of their schedule.
James is running, cutting and jumping like himself again.
That was evident again Sunday versus the Thunder, even in James' least-efficient shooting performance (11-of-25) in the seven games since taking eight off to heal his knee and back, not to mention his mind and spirit.
LeBron scored 22 of his 34 points in the first half, and after Kevin Love (nine on three three-pointers) and Kyrie Irving (eight) sustained the home side during James' scoreless third quarter, he returned to romp over OKC at the start of the fourth.
First, there was the personal 8-0 run, with two three-pointers (one over former teammate Dion Waiters) sandwiched around a feathery fadeaway jumper. Later in the quarter, there was a spin past Kevin Durant that didn't result in a basket but, after a quick spring back to the rim, finished in an offensive rebound and two free throws.
By then, the home crowd was chanting "MVP," and, while he has some ground to gain to get back in that chase, two statistics—the Cavs are 24-12 with him and 1-8 without him—should generate some tailwind. Certainly, he's already dusted the defending winner, Kevin Durant, who played well enough Sunday (32 points, six rebounds, nine assists) and who is 13-7 in 20 games this season, but whose Thunder have slipped back to .500, three games out of the postseason in the brutal West.
"I thought we played a good game," Durant said. "We passed the ball well. We defended well. They hit more free throws than us and they had more threes, but we defended well. We had some good looks and missed them."
They had the right to an excuse, even if the Thunder star chose not to exercise it. This was the end of an exhausting five-game Eastern swing for Oklahoma City, one that included an emotionally charged visit to Durant-hungry Washington, D.C., right before a trip to Atlanta to face the streaking Hawks. But it may not have mattered anyway Sunday, not with how much healthier James is feeling of late. And James isn't just feeling good physically; he is positive about the team around him, as well their collective chances going forward.
"I was trying to play through it," James told Bleacher Report of his early-season aches. "Obviously, if I was in Miami, I would have probably sat out sooner, when I felt, because chemistry-wise, we were already there. So I could afford to sit out."
However, James rarely sat with the Heat, missing a total of 18 games in four seasons. And many of those were maintenance days late in the season, with seeding determined.
"But here we were trying to build so much chemistry and camaraderie, I was trying to play through it," James said.
He wasn't playing poorly earlier in the season, but he was significantly below his own standards, especially in categories that he typically dominates. He looked tentative, especially when trying to plant on his left foot. His accuracy near the rim, which soared into the high .700's last season, was down at just .658 for the month of December before he shut it down following a 23-point home loss to Detroit on Dec. 23, per Basketball-Reference.com. Since coming back Jan. 13 in Phoenix, he was at 72.7 percent from the rim in January entering Sunday.
And since the calendar flipped to 2015, James is averaging an astounding 30.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.1 steals on 51.4 percent shooting.
James pushing to play started to become counterproductive, even in terms of building that chemistry and camaraderie. He started to possess the beaten look of Sisyphus trying to shove that boulder up the hill.
That's because the Cavaliers' initial roster was so obviously ill-equipped to contend even prior to Anderson Varejao's season-ending injury. Dion Waiters is a lot of things—some quite redeeming, some requiring growth—but he is not by any means an accomplished spot-up shooter, as he showed again Sunday in his Cleveland homecoming (2-of-7 from deep, 5-of-15 from the field).
James didn't play in the first three games after Cavaliers general manager David Griffin consummated two trades, landing Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert—and Shumpert didn't play until five games after James got back—for Waiters and a first-round pick, but team insiders will tell you the transactions made James' disposition much sunnier.
The Cavaliers liked Mozgov even before his former Russian national team coach David Blatt came aboard, and coincidentally, so did James. James tends to look beyond numbers and at skill sets. Like the Cavaliers, he viewed Mozgov as an underutilized asset—someone with nifty feet, a soft touch and a hustling mentality.
Oh, and a huge body. A bigger body than anyone competent with whom he collaborated in Miami— Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire, Eddy Curry, an aged Zydrunas Ilgauskas and a broken-down Greg Oden don't count, and Chris Andersen was a different kind of player. This is pleasing to James, who prefers, if all is equal, to play more on the perimeter than at power forward.
So the more useful big men, the better.
"Well, we have a giant," James said. "It feels great to have him. Bird [Andersen], he played a little bit more above the rim, as far as flying. Timo [Mozgov] plays bigger. But they're both really good. But I love Bird. I still love Bird to this day, what he brought to our team. And Timo is the same."
Mozgov put up some sizable numbers in his last three games, all double-doubles, as other Cavaliers gained confidence in his capability—Love, who played with the massive Nikola Pekovic in Minnesota, spoke of working with Mozgov on some high-low connections, with Mozgov learning to use his sun-blocking body to seal off defenders.
"He's 7'1", he can just turn and shoot right over you," Love said. "I'll keep telling him to do that—take up the space when he can, get an easy bucket or get fouled. He's big enough to be able to do that. I just don't know if anybody's quite looked like that for him before. So I'll keep telling him to do that."
Mozgov made a more meager statistical contribution (two points, six rebounds) in 28 foul-saddled minutes Sunday.
But the 7'1" center—a man of few English words—showed something else prior to leaving the arena in a leather jacket. That was when he drew a technical in an exchange with pugnacious center Kendrick Perkins, then locked arms with the latter as they battled for a rebound on the other end of the floor.
Mozzie, as he's known, doesn't take much, well, bleep. "Name one Russian that does," James said, smiling. James also gave as good as he got Sunday, even as Russell Westbrook and others got a little chippy at times.
He was certainly more active defensively than he has been for stretches of this season, whether he was guarding Durant, Waiters and even a little on Serge Ibaka. Does he feel he can continue picking it up on that end, now that his body is cooperating? "Uh huh," James said. "I feel great."
Then, while moving gingerly to gather some things, he smiled again.
"I'm hurting tonight, though," James said. "After that physical game."
Now that he's physically right, James appears primed to be the one dishing out pain.