CLEVELAND (AP) — As LeBron James dressed following a dominating win over Miami, the team he fled to return home, he pushed play on the stereo in his corner cubicle and cranked up the volume.
Suddenly, the Cavaliers’ locker room, still filled with reporters, was alive with thumping music, turning the space into a postgame dance club.
With rapper Lupe Fiasco’s “Deliver” providing the beat, James bobbed his head and spit lyrics as if he had written them himself. Cavs guard Iman Shumpert, too, began to bounce and it wasn’t long before normally reserved All-Star guard Kyrie Irving showed off a few moves, grooving his way around reporters and toward the door.
As he left, James, Shumpert and J.R. Smith smiled and laughed along with him.
The Cavaliers have found their rhythm after a clumsy start.
Entering the All-Star break with 14 wins in 16 games following a 113-98 loss to the Bulls in Chicago on Thursday night, the Cavs, revamped by two trades and James’ two-week wellness break, have put a turmoil-filled few months behind them. They again look like a team capable of winning an NBA title.
They’ve found harmony on and off the floor, reflected Wednesday night in 32 assists in 44 field goals against the Heat, who could do little about a high-flying Cleveland team that took turns offering up lob passes for dunks.
“It’s the team,” said James, re-energized by a recent hiatus. “We all care about the team and we all care about each other right now. We’re still growing, obviously. But it’s fun basketball when everyone feels in a rhythm. When the ball is moving and popping from one side to the other, that’s important to our success.”
Nothing has meant more to Cleveland’s success than James. The 30-year-old looks refreshed after resting a troublesome back and knee. More importantly, James appears confident that Cleveland’s roster, bolstered by the acquisitions of Smith, Shumpert and 7-foot-1 center Timofey Mozgov, a Russian wrecking ball at both ends, can make a run at a championship.
The Cavs are 31-13 with James in the lineup, and just 2-8 without him, an imbalance that perhaps makes the best case why he might win a fifth league MVP award. Following the 113-93 dismantling of the Heat (who played without star Dwyane Wade) Cavs swingman Mike Miller, the team’s resident chairman of positive vibes, yelled across the room to point out a TV screen showing James as an MVP candidate.
“I don’t know why,” James cracked. “I (stink).”
Hardly. In the 15 games since he returned, James is averaging 27 points on 49 percent shooting. But beyond his always gaudy stats, James is providing leadership to a Cavs team still working through some kinks. It hasn’t always been smooth as evidenced by this week’s strange situation when James posted a message on Twitter aimed at teammate Kevin Love, backtracked from his story and then blamed the media for creating controversy.
But despite any issues with first-year coach David Blatt or Love’s uneven transition — he’s still averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds — the Cavs are flourishing and they may have only scratched their potential. James insists he won’t know the team’s true identity until the postseason, when every possession is magnified and team’s flaws get exposed in the back and forth of a seven-game series.
For now, though, there is a calm and confidence about the Cavaliers. Winning will do that.
Saddled with extreme expectations, they’re fulfilling them.
Back in July when he announced his homecoming, James warned in an essay that any path to a title would be filled with challenges. He’s done this before, which is why James hasn’t allowed three months of twists and turns to deter him.
He says he knew this would be a process with some ups and downs.
“I know coming into the season everyone wanted overnight success. It’s not about that. It’s about the process for me. I’ve always stayed even-keeled,” he said. “I understand we have a lot of room to improve and we have to continue to work our habits in a good way.”
In all likelihood, the Cavs will encounter more bumps; no team is immune from injuries or disorder.
They’ve got James to steer them around the obstacles and toward their ultimate goal.
James won’t allow this year’s extended All-Star breather to interrupt his team’s rhythm. In fact, he believes it will only make the Cavs better.
“The break will allow me to get healthy,” James said, smiling. “We’ll be all right.”
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