CLEVELAND -- After giving ammunition to his critics before he ever even played a game for the Miami Heat with his boastful "not six, not seven" championship declaration, LeBron James has been meticulous about managing expectations -- at least publicly -- for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season.
On Dec. 26, the day after the Cavs looked absolutely flat on national TV in a loss to the Heat, James said his team was "nowhere near championship ball."
Two days later, after a home loss to the Detroit Pistons, he said, "We're not a very good team."
And then on Jan. 12, a day before he made his comeback in Phoenix after two weeks off to recover from strains to his left knee and lower back, James said this: "Playoffs is something we don't need to be thinking about right now. We're not ready to win a seven-game series."
The Cavs have followed his lead. Even as Cleveland coach David Blatt has started to puff his chest out once again as his team, after Sunday's impressive 108-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, has now won six in a row, he's couched his confidence with caveats like "we still have a long way to go" and "we're a work in progress."
While James and Blatt have done their best to focus on process in place of predicting success, one of the newest members to the program, J.R. Smith, wasn't as reserved about stating his goal for the Cavs.
Before the game, Smith strolled through the locker room and noticed a throng of reporters and TV cameras on hand for Cleveland's nationally televised date with the Thunder and blurted out, "Are you all here for me?"
With James and the other principal Cavs spokesmen Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love nowhere to be found during the pregame media availability time, reporters gladly filled their notebooks with Smith's musings.
On if he was receiving passes in his sweet spots: "Honestly, as long as I get the ball, that's where I want it."
On how far his shooting range extends past the 3-point line: "I feel comfortable shooting at half court as a spot-up shot, so probably a little beyond that."
On Klay Thompson's magical 37-point quarter for the Golden State Warriors on Friday: "Unbelievable. He should have just walked off the court in the third, walked off like the old Larry Bird, one finger up [and said], 'I'll see you all in the locker room, man. In the showers.'"
It was entertaining stuff and a breath of fresh air, much the same as his play on the court has been -- in 10 games with the Cavs, he now has seven games in double-digit scoring and six games in which he made at least three 3-pointers after his 14 points including a 4-for-12 mark from 3 against the Thunder -- but while he was riffing he actually acknowledged the Cavs' pursuit of a championship this season.
With Iman Shumpert, another one of the Cavs' new pieces, adding more minutes to his playing time game by game, Smith was asked if he cared about potentially being replaced in the starting lineup by Shumpert and coming off the bench.
"As long as we get that gold ball, it don't matter what I do," Smith said, referring to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. "I could sit out for all I care, as long as we win."
Even if Smith might have turned up the pressure by mentioning the race for the ring while playing for a city that hasn't enjoyed a pro sports championship in more than 50 years, his team-centric answer was an overwhelmingly positive sign.
There have been a lot of positive signs for the Cavs lately, from James' revitalized play (when fans at The Q chanted "M-V-P" for him late in James' 34-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist, 2-block effort Sunday, it should have made some echoes in Golden State for those pulling for Stephen Curry and in Houston for those pulling for James Harden); to the increased overall defensive commitment (the Cavs held the Thunder to just 39.4 percent); to the sheer presence of Timofey Mozgov (who broke a streak of three straight double-doubles with just 2 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks -- more on him later).
In just a couple of weeks the Cavs have gone from one of the league's biggest letdowns to a team that nobody wants to face, beating opponents by an average of 14.8 points per game during their current streak. Seeing Dion Waiters go 5-for-15 from the field dressed in Thunder blue on Sunday was an in-your-face reminder of the trade that set everything in motion, turning one guy who wasn't quite fitting into the role the Cavs wanted him to play, into three contributors who already feel like vital pieces.
"The new guys obviously gave us a real shot in the arm because they were players that not only filled skill-set positions that we needed, just by example Mozgov taking the place of Andy Varejao -- a starting center who we missed for a good period of time and had no one to replace him -- but also Iman and J.R. coming in with positive energy and with a good understanding of what they need to do to help this team," Blatt said.
The additions haven't only grown the Cavs' confidence, but Mozgov showed another dimension that could serve them well down the line against the Thunder: a mean streak. When Kendrick Perkins tried to intimidate him with physical play, Mozgov pushed right back.
"That toughness, that's all him and we got his back," Irving said. "It's great to have a big guy like that that's not going to take any nonsense or anything like that. He's being competitive and that's what we want from him."
Mozgov, who was sporting a black eye that was beginning to yellow from a previous on-court battle, said he embraces that part of the game.
"You know, we are not in hockey, but some games are like that where you just have to be strong and tough and you just go hard," Mozgov said. "That's it."
Add it all up, and even James and Blatt are starting to come off their no-championship talk stance.
"It's such a long road ahead of us," said James. "I don't get too ahead of myself, personally ... but we've improved. Mentally, more than anything. Obviously you add some great pieces in Shump, J.R. and Mozzy, but mentally we've been more sharp and we've played some great basketball as of late."
Added Blatt: "I think we have a long way to go, and I think we have to try to improve our position in the conference and I also think that we're on the right path and that's what we need to focus on."