Loose, Unified Cavaliers Looking More Like a LeBron James Team

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterFebruary 12, 2015

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — There had been plenty of sweet harmony on the floor Wednesday night, but now LeBron James was reaching for something with an even more pulsating beat.

And so, with several media members still loitering in the Cavaliers' locker room following their 113-93 victory against Miami, James turned up the hip-hop hit "Deliver" and broke into laughter as Kyrie Irving, and then Iman Shumpert, danced and bounced and laughed along.

"The pizza man don't come 'round here no more."

The Cavaliers' season, with one game left prior to the All-Star break, has taken quite a turn over the past month since two trades and James' two-week break:

From hoops fiasco to Lupe Fiasco.

Simply, the 33-21 Cavaliers, winners of 14 of 15, are starting to look much more like a LeBron James team. That's not just on the court, where they had 32 assists on 44 made baskets Wednesday, at least four dimes from five different players, with many of those passes finding Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson (16-of-19 combined) in perfect position to finish.

"It's the team," James said. "We all care about the team. We all care about each other right now, at this point. We're still growing, obviously. But it's fun basketball when everybody feels in rhythm."

They're also starting to look like a LeBron James outfit off the court, where the "fun" translates to the locker room and other team activities.

That was noticeably missing at times earlier in the season, when James was clearly exasperated not only by his sore back and knee but also by the obvious limitations of the roster and when he interacted largely with those—such as Mike Miller, James Jones, Damon Jones and Anderson Varejao—whom he knew well prior to rejoining the Cavaliers.

There was still some of that Wednesday night, as when Miller loudly alerted James from across the room that ESPN was mentioning him as an MVP candidate again.

"I don't know why," James shouted back, with a smile. "I suck."

Clearly not, not when the Cavaliers have a 31-13 record when he's active. Clearly not, even when—on a night he didn't shoot all that well—he still made enough impactful plays, somehow finishing a layup after changing hands with former teammate Chris Bosh fouling him throughout, and slamming over Bosh and Danny Granger in transition before letting out a primal scream.

Clearly not, when he's played a major role in keeping his team on course throughout controversy, albeit controversy to which he, with sideways glances or cryptic tweets, has sometimes contributed.

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 11: LeBron James #23 celebrates with Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after James scored during the first half against the Miami Heat at Quicken Loans Arena on February 11, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: Use
Jason Miller/Getty Images

But Wednesday night, no one was talking about whether Kevin Love had fit in or fit out, not after the Cavaliers forward had played 20 solid minutes until a Mario Chalmers-caused bout of blurry vision.

No one was asking James about whether his other teammates could conform and collaborate, not when Shumpert, Mozgov and the best-behavior J.R. Smith have jelled so seamlessly.

Each player is bringing needed skill sets to the rotation and sunnier personalities to the surroundings, all seeming content to provide something useful and not—as was the case at times with Dion Waiters—trying to prove a point about their value.

Winning is typically more responsible for better chemistry than better chemistry is responsible for winning, but in this situation it seems as if they should get equal credit. The Cavaliers needed James back at his best before they had a chance to rip off a run, but they needed to start trusting each other more, too, or else his efforts would be in vain. That appears to have occurred.

This is starting to resemble what James had in Miami, and especially for the two championship seasons, when the Heat were tight enough that they could stay relatively loose even under intense pressure.

They had the perfect blend of personalities, from the brainiacs (Bosh, Shane Battier, James Jones, Ray Allen) to the tension-relievers (Miller, Chris Andersen, Chalmers) to the culture stalwarts (Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem) to the quiet pros (Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony) to the humble kid (Norris Cole).

Everyone understood his own role on the court as well as off, in creating a supportive climate that allowed for plenty of good-natured jibes, with James setting the tempo and pulling everyone together. Everyone understood the collective kinship was unique, which is why there was such frustration with the amnesty of Miller and later trade of Anthony, all part of the souring of James' fourth Heat season.

That Heat team is long gone now, even as some of the bodies remain in familiar jerseys, with Bosh, Chalmers, Cole, Andersen and Haslem combining to play 125 minutes and miss 28 of 44 shots, as Wade watched, missing a seventh straight game with a hamstring injury.

James shared a laugh with Wade and Bosh after the final buzzer, and he lit up when Chalmers entered the locker room to visit, just as "Deliver" was coming to a conclusion. Even so, this was less emotional than the Christmas loss to the Heat, since it was in friendlier surroundings, and since Wade wasn't between the lines.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

"I mean, there's still going to be memories for sure when I see my guys," James had just finished telling the media. "Any one of the teammates that I had when I won a championship or even lost a championship. Because we gave so much to each other, we sacrificed so much."

They did, but then, after four years, he decided that he was done, for a combination of reasons, from community to family to business to basketball, with even the people who deem themselves most familiar with the decision differing on precisely which factors mattered most.

But at least from a basketball perspective, James is looking wiser than he did a couple of months ago, prior to the Cavaliers upgrading the roster and leaving the disheveled Heat, struggling to retain the eighth seed, in the dust.

The comparisons are somewhat unfair, since there's no way to know how the Heat might have looked if James had been determined to return and helped Pat Riley recruit. Perhaps they would have netted more than the since-injured Josh McRoberts and the still-sluggish Granger, two pieces that weren't enough to keep James when Riley finally pitched him in person in Las Vegas.

There is also no way to know how much quicker they would have recovered if James had informed the organization earlier about his intentions to depart. You can't really do the might-have-beens when many of the complementary components remain, even in retrospect, so unclear.

For instance, it's pointless to ponder how James would have clicked with the Heat's emerging center Hassan Whiteside—who had 17 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday but no blocks, never meeting "good player" James at the rim.

Whiteside started the season with Memphis and didn't join the Heat until late November. If James is still in Miami, perhaps the Heat, still fixated on small ball with James as a power forward and Bosh still at center, wouldn't have bothered to give Whiteside a shot.

Still, there's one statistic that does stick out and wasn't likely to be impacted by anything James did: Wade has missed 17 out of 52 games.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

That's roughly the same percentage that the 11-time All-Star missed last season, when he was sidelined for 28 out of 82, and that's without missing a single game due to knee trouble. That's the primary frustration of this Heat season, since Wade, when active, has shown explosion that the team hadn't seen in a couple of years, getting to most of his spots when he wants.

But that's part of what James, who had tired of carrying the Heat amid the injury uncertainty, traded when he took flight for Ohio. No one of reasonable mind questions Wade's basketball ability or intelligence, not when he is still the most efficient 2-guard in the Eastern Conference when playing.

But no one knows anymore how hard he can push his body, without it pushing back, not after three separate hamstring pulls this season. He and the Heat are hoping he can push through the final 30 games, to stave off flawed squads from Charlotte, Brooklyn, Detroit, Indiana and Boston.

By contrast, Irving, younger than Wade by a little over a decade but just as injury-afflicted the past three seasons, has played 51 of 54 games this season. That's allowed him and James to develop some comfort on the court, and that—as judged by the laughter in the locker room—seems to be carrying over.

"I knew there were going to be some ups and downs; I knew it was a process; I know what it's about," James said of the pre-All-Star break portion of the season. "I know that coming into a season, everybody wants overnight success. It's not about that. It's about the process for me. I've always stayed even-keeled. I'm still even-keeled right now. I understand we still have a lot of room to improve."

They do.

Still, it won't hurt that they're having a lot more fun in their locker room. The pizza man may not come around, but the Cavaliers certainly have.


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