Cavs stay true to their Finals road map

CLEVELAND -- In the postgame locker room a couple of days before the end of the regular season, LeBron James was asked the kind of question that would usually receive a perfunctory response at best, considering the mass-scrum setting.

So LeBron, the question went, what does it take to be a champion?

Rather than slip into a cliché or hesitate to think up a worthy answer, James spoke extemporaneously coming from a place of honesty and experience.

"It takes sacrifice," James said back on April 13. "That's the ultimate thing, and that's the thing that everyone talks about, but no one sees it when things are hard. We know we have guys that we can rely on and our guys are really committed to sacrificing everything for them personally and for the good of the team.

"If you can do that and all 15 guys are on the same page and it doesn't matter what you're doing individually, it's all about team, making the next play for your teammate, covering for your teammate, playing for your teammate [then you will succeed]. Doing everything. Living, waking up for your teammate in the postseason. To become a champion, you got to do it. I think that's the ultimate."

It was the road map the Cavs would have to stay true to in order to get where they were on Tuesday, just four wins away from that aforementioned championship, thanks to a rousing 118-88 win to sweep the Atlanta Hawks out of the Eastern Conference finals.

It was describing the essence of a team and what really matters when it comes to James' chosen endeavor.

All that's happened since prove the individual instances matter only if they feed into that team essence: Kevin Love's dislocated shoulder; Kyrie Irving's tendinitis-locked left knee; "Del-ly! Del-ly!" chants becoming a nightly occurrence at The Q to James' choosing the corner jump shot to do some late-game damage not once, but twice; J.R. Smith's ejection in Boston, suspension against Chicago and redemption against Atlanta; David Blatt's defensive adjustments; Tristan Thompson's coming-out party; Iman Shumpert's two-way display; Timofey Mozgov's rim protection; James Jones' triples; and right on down the line.

"I don't know how many chapters we have in the book as far as this season, but there's at least five," James said after turning the page on Atlanta in short order by becoming the first player in the history of the NBA playoffs to average at least 30 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in a series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"... we have so many different chapters to this season that's defined who we are."

While James has been preaching the same definition of "team" since the beginning of training camp, his actual team has morphed almost month to month from the perception of the league's newest super-squad back in October to a scrappy group that will be the underdog in the eyes of Las Vegas should it face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.

It's amazing the circuitous route life takes sometimes. If Anderson Varejao doesn't get hurt before Christmas, the Cavs might not bottom out in January and make their two roster-overhauling trades.

If Love doesn't get hurt in the first round of the playoffs, maybe Thompson doesn't emerge as perhaps their most important role player in the latter rounds in the process revamping their up-and-down defense.

If Irving doesn't have to miss the second half of that close-out game in Chicago, maybe Matthew Dellavedova doesn't have that fill-in performance to lean on and take his game to another level against Atlanta.

"I think there's always been that feeling that it was going to happen, but we didn't know when," Dellavedova said.

For all of his championship rhetoric and a confidence and command of the game that Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer says has grown exponentially since 2007 -- the first time he faced James in the postseason, when he was an assistant with San Antonio -- James admitted he had his doubts, too.

"Could I foresee this?" James said. "At the beginning of the season, I couldn't."

But at the beginning of the season, Irving couldn't foresee having to go through four days of round-the-clock "hell," as he called his knee rehab in between Games 2 and 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, so that he could "be out there for my brothers." And Smith and Shumpert couldn't foresee that being given up on by Phil Jackson would actually be a good thing. And Blatt couldn't foresee that some of the outside pressures he'd face in his rookie season in the NBA would end up actually humanizing him and make him more relatable to his team.

None of it was predictable. All of it was necessary. That's how the Cavs became the Cavs, a team that lives and breathes those sacrifice-first qualities that James said are what makes a champion.

"It's crazy, the video that's up there: 'We all come from different places,'" Irving said, referring to the Cavs' pregame video at the start of the season. "Literally and figuratively, just all the things that we've been through; individually and as a team we've been tested, and now we go into the Finals together as a team having the utmost confidence."

A confidence that comes from having been through so much already and allows that mindset that whatever lies ahead can simply not seem insurmountable.

"I can't guarantee the championship," James said. "That's not what I'm here for. I'm here to lead. But I will guarantee that we will play our asses off. ... We will do that."

Just like back in April, James knows what he is talking about.