Playoffs started early for LeBron James, and the Cavaliers benefited

CLEVELAND -- The NBA regular season ends Wednesday, but LeBron James' regular season seemingly finished when the third-quarter buzzer sounded on Monday. James checked out for good with the Cleveland Cavaliers up by 15 over the Atlanta Hawks.

He did plenty of damage in the 33 minutes he played prior to that, scoring 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting and adding six rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block to set up the Cavs for a comfortable 109-94 win that clinched their spot as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

James' work for the 82-game grind is finished. Cavs coach Tyronn Lue all but guaranteed he’ll rest all the Cavs' key pieces in Wednesday’s finale against Detroit by bringing up Sasha Kaun's name as the only player sure to see minutes.

James' averages of 25.3 points per game on 52 percent shooting, to go with 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in his 13th season, are only believable because of what he showed he was capable of in the previous dozen years. And they’re certainly underrated.

As the Cavs cruise into the playoffs on solid footing after a mercurial campaign that featured more scrutiny than you'll just about ever see for a first-place team, maybe it’s time to recognize that James’ regular season actually came to a close about three weeks ago.

There was absolutely nothing regular about his play over his past 10 games, as he has averaged 28.4 points per game on 63 percent shooting (51.8 percent from 3), along with 8.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists per contest as the Cavs went 8-2.

The shift coincided with a dreadful performance by James and the Cavs in a blowout loss to Miami on March 19. It was a defeat that shook Cleveland to its core, with Lue using it as evidence that he needed to do something drastic about his team’s defense. He also took it as an opportunity to challenge James to be better in everything he does -- both on and off the court.

Lue’s message resonated, and James not only internalized the mission, but put it out there for the public to hold him accountable, declaring he had entered a so-called “playoff mode” early.

“It's a mind switch, a mind switch,” James said Monday. “I've been going to the gym even more, dialed in more on what needs to be done and what needs to be better. I've been in this league a long time and I know what I need to do for my game to be even more sharp, so I'm glad I was able to deliver and not just talk about it, be able to deliver for my teammates because that's what means more to me than anything."

James gets flak for his leadership style -- be it for coming off as too demonstrative on the bench in the games he sits out or as too passive-aggressive for his use of social media to push the buttons of his teammates. But if that aspect of his presence wasn’t as effective as his numbers have been lately, there is no way a text-message exchange between him and Kyrie Irving would have occurred after Cleveland’s loss to Chicago on Saturday. Irving vowed to be better for the team after that exchange, feeling like his late turnovers cost them the game.

“I told him we all need to be better,” James said when asked for his response to Irving. “And it's not about what you did tonight, it's about what you come back from a little adversity from a personal performance. He didn't play well and he put a lot on his shoulders in that game, and we all needed to be better in that game. It wasn't just him, and the good thing about it is we have another opportunity to accept the challenge, and that's what you do, to be able to accept it and move on and be better."

Irving matched his season high with 35 points against Atlanta, scoring 13 in the fourth quarter with James on the bench to secure the win.

It was a wild season, from David Blatt being fired, cryptic tweets galore, a public breakup for Irving, a declaration of wanting to play with old friends by James, trade rumors, injuries and the like. Yet here the Cavs are in first place, relatively healthy with a clean slate ahead of them.

“For me, personally, I can’t get involved in what goes on outside our locker room, what goes on outside our practice facility, what goes on outside our arena and the guys we have,” James said. “There’s always going to be talk about what should be done, what shouldn’t be done. For us, we can worry about what we need to do to get better, and that’s all that matters for myself, personally, as a leader, and for the rest of the guys, as Coach Lue as a captain, and for the rest of the coaching staff. We all just try to figure out how we can make each other better, and that’s all that matters.”