CHICAGO -- By the time the playoffs rolled around in April, this tumultuous season, perhaps more than any other of LeBron James’ career, made opening night feel like eons ago.
James kicked things off to so much fanfare that he unabashedly referred to it as “one of the biggest sporting events ever.” His new-look Cleveland Cavaliers featured a starting lineup of Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving beside him. They were, in the eyes of Vegas and the general public, the favorites to tear through the league.
All that excitement eroded. All of those preset plans went sideways. And when it was time for the Cavs to play the biggest game of their season on Thursday on the road in Chicago with a potential closeout opportunity on the line, that original starting five was barely recognizable.
One by one, James’ partners left his side: Varejao tore his Achilles in December; Waiters was shipped out of town in January; Love had his left shoulder ripped out of its socket at the end of the first round; and Irving’s body, after weeks of battling through injuries to his right foot and left leg, finally gave out in the second quarter of Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls.
Rather than fall in the moment, James empowered his team and his ragtag bunch of replacements proved to be indispensable.
And so LeBron James and a couple of Phil Jackson castaways, a former lottery pick turned bench player, a guy whose last name had become synonymous with getting dunked on in much the same way as all tissues are referred to as Kleenex, a 34-year-old shooter who dislocated the index finger on his shooting hand in Game 5 and a plucky Australian who entered the league undrafted marched into the Eastern Conference finals with a runaway 94-73 win over the Bulls.
“We’ve come a long way, man,” James told ESPN.com when asked about the Cavs’ transformation as he made his way out of the United Center, now a perfect 4-0 in his career against the Bulls in four postseason series. “We’ve come a long way as a team. And I knew we had to get better at some point either through trades or whatever the case may be. I just felt like we needed to get better, but my opening-night mindset wasn’t that at the time. It was, ‘OK, this is the unit that we have. I got to be very patient. I got to be very patient with this group. But if we can continue to grow, we can be good.’ I’m not quite sure if I knew we could be this good right now.”
The Cavs are four wins away from the NBA Finals, though they must await a date with either the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards to get there. The reason the Cavs can be so good, even with the injuries they’ve sustained, is the belief in themselves that James instills.
“I just try to bring this leadership to these guys and just try to bring that leadership, that energy to make these guys even believe that they’re even [more] supernatural sometimes than they are,” James said after the game, flanked by the unlikeliest of podium pals as Tristan Thompson (13 points, 17 rebounds) and Matthew Dellavedova (19 points on 7-for-11 shooting, compared to 14 on 7-for-16 for the Bulls’ Derrick Rose) joined him.
James sat between them, a smile plastered on his face like a proud parent. In fact, Thompson called James the Cavs’ “great father.”
The thing about Game 6 that was so satisfying to James was he was good, sure -- 15 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds and two blocks -- but not great with his 7-for-23 shooting line and four turnovers. But his reinforcements, his kids so to speak, were. It wasn’t just Thompson and Dellavedova, it was Iman Shumpert’s 13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and unparalleled poise after Nikola Mirotic clotheslined him, using the contact to motivate him because he “wanted to win the game, not the fight.”
There was J.R. Smith’s 12 points and eight rebounds off the bench. There was James Jones hitting three 3-pointers. There was Timofey Mozgov’s blocked shot and four offensive rebounds.
All of it added up to a win and James’ fifth straight trip to the conference finals, something that hasn’t been done since those Chauncey Billups-led Detroit Pistons teams, the original hurdle that James had to overcome when he was just a young kid in the playoffs during his first stint with the Cavs, the same way his teammates are now.
At one point, the Cavs trailed 2-1 in the series against the Bulls. Cleveland was down 11 points in the second half of Game 4 and barely escaped a 3-1 deficit after referees missed a timeout signal from coach David Blatt before James demanded he take -- and make -- the final shot to win it.
And now the Cavs have something special. It’s an almost invincible feeling that James promotes.
“I haven’t seen a shadow of a doubt on anyone’s face or hear anybody verbalize some sense of fear or some lack of chance to keep moving forward. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t heard it,” Blatt said when asked about the injuries that have hit his team at the worst possible time. “Fairly, and not to belabor the point, I think you’ve got to give LeBron a lot of credit. This guy has become here a true leader. He’s vocal and he’s an example. He’s out there. And he’s willful and so committed to helping this team succeed. I give him a lot of credit. He really, really is stepping up as far as leading these guys to believing what we can do. And he deserves credit for that.”
James wants a championship, not credit. It’s an attainable goal at this stage, but one that will only get harder from here. James asked if he was now the “underdog” after Game 6, considering that the Wizards are the only franchise out of the other six teams still standing in the playoffs that had fewer wins that Cleveland did during the regular season. He scoffed at the word. “Huh? Underdog? Me? ... I would never be an underdog,” James said.
His teammates have adopted the same outlook.
“We’re never out of any game,” said Shumpert. “Every game in the playoffs is going to be tough and every game is going to be close. Crazy stuff is going to happen, as you saw in this playoff series and we just have to stay with each other. As long as we have each other and we keep everything in this locker room we will be fine.”
Before James rounded the corner in the hallway to catch the team bus, he had a final reflection on his group.
“We’re so young,” James told ESPN.com. “We still make so many young mistakes out on the floor, but we played so hard. Guys played hard and they only care about the team’s success. I mean, I had high hopes. I had high hopes. But I also had some concern. Coming into the season, I just had some concern. I didn’t know what was going to present itself, but I knew if we could continue to grow, like I always stress the process, you know me. I always stress the process. I knew that if we could continue to grow we could do some good things, and I’m glad. I’m going five straight times to the Eastern Conference finals, man. That just doesn’t happen all the time.”
And it certainly doesn’t happen all the time the way it’s happened for James.