INDEPENDENCE: LeBron James’ heightened resolve is surely there, although it wasn’t yet evident.
The Cavaliers star was somewhat detached Tuesday after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. There was no defiance in his tone, no vows of a championship despite the loss of one of the team’s Big Three, no promises he can’t keep.
And all of Akron knows how much James values a promise.
In the previous 48 hours, James had learned Kevin Love is not expected to play again in the postseason after suffering a torn labrum and dislocated left shoulder at the hands of the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk on Sunday in Boston. Those who expected James to emerge from a day off Monday, when the extensive nature of Love’s shoulder damage was revealed, with some kind of angry, guns-a-blazing rant along the lines of ‘We’re still going to win this thing,’ would have been disappointed.
Inside, though, that fire surely burns. Or it will soon.
The Cavs don’t start the Eastern Conference semifinals until Monday in Cleveland. They won’t know their opponent until at least Thursday, when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Chicago Bulls, with the Bulls leading 3-2. James conceded that once their foe is determined, they’ll be able to “lock back in.”
He isn’t going to get his game face on too early, locking in with his trademark scowl and stare and an intensity that is unmistakable. That would be like a swimmer starting to taper too soon for the Olympics.
But neither is James going to throw away a chance for a championship just because Love is gone.
That’s what James came home to deliver. He’s 30 years old and has made it his mission to end the city’s 51-year title drought. He’s still at his peak in his 12th NBA season, but for how much longer? He’s already had back and knee issues that prompted a two-week hiatus. This is no time to procrastinate.
James has been through this before, losing a member of the Big Three, but not with such a dire prognosis as Love’s. In 2012 with the Miami Heat, Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal injury in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Indiana Pacers. Bosh didn’t return until Game 5 of the conference finals against the Celtics.
James showed then he could raise his game a notch. Against the Pacers in 2012, he averaged 30 points, 10.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists as the Heat won in six games and went on to win the first of two NBA titles with James. For comparison’s sake, James has averaged 27.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.4 assists in second-round series in his career.
“Every situation’s different. That postseason is so far behind me,” James said. “I would have to watch those games and see how we were able to go about our game plan, how we worked without C.B. C.B. was just as important as Kevin.”
Pressed on whether he will do that, James said, “Possibly. Just to see what we were able to accomplish having one of our big guys out. I won’t get too far into it.”
In the next round, the Cavs will also be without J.R. Smith for the first two games after he was suspended for a Flagrant-2 foul of the Celtics’ Jae Crowder on Sunday that left Crowder with a sprained ACL.
“We all have to pick our own game up,” James said. “We can’t fill Kevin’s shoes, you can’t do that, he’s special for a reason. And with J.R. being out the first two games, we have to pick it up even more. We all have a lot to do, even more to help this team win.”
Asked if he sensed a different kind of resolve Monday, Cavs coach David Blatt said, “Our guys have been locked in for quite some time now. I think everyone recognizes that we all have to pick it up. We’re hurting for what happened to Kev on a team level, on a personal level, but not discouraged to the point where we are any less ambitious and any less hungry to continue on this path.”
Perhaps some of that hurt is what tempered James’ comments Tuesday.
There was no anger or vengeance in James’ voice. But below the surface, his resolve to be an even stronger leader and carry his team in the face of such adversity was surely starting to bubble. By Monday, it should reach the boiling point.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.