Awaiting a New, Improved James
Cavs’ Star Vows He’ll Step It Up Against Wizards
CLEVELAND, April 21 — LeBron James admitted that he was unsure before he made his postseason debut last season against the Washington Wizards. His first shot, in fact, was an air ball.
But James quickly settled into his first game, recording a triple-double, and he was so confident by the end of the series that he had no problem walking up to Gilbert Arenas in the closing seconds of decisive Game 6 to tap him on the chest and tell him, “Miss these free throws, and you’re going home.”
James averaged 35.7 points — the third-highest scoring average for a player in their debut series behind Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — and had two-game winning baskets in leading the Cavaliers to their first postseason series victory in 13 years, before nearly directing an upset of the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Honestly, I was a little nervous before Game 1,” James said Friday as the Cavaliers prepared for a firstround playoff Sunday against the Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena. “Our franchise hadn’t been part of the postseason in eight years. It was new for us, definitely new for me. Me being a leader, I didn’t know how to take it at first. I got used to it.”
The same 40-foot billboard with the four-word catchphrase that defined James’s first postseason run last season, “We Are All Witnesses,” still hangs in downtown Cleveland, but the would-be King promises that a different James will emerge this time. He vowed that he has more in store for his second playoff tour. “You’ll see,” James said, smiling. “I’m not going to go into too much insight, but you’ll find out.”
The rematch of last season’s playoff series — in which three games were decided by one point — doesn’t shape up to be a tightly contested affair, given that James won’t be able to reprise his scoring duel with Arenas, who will be in street clothes after having knee surgery earlier this month. The Wizards will also be without Caron Butler, who walked around practice yesterday with a device attached to his broken right hand that uses ultrasound to heal bones.
On the first day of training camp, James proclaimed the Cavaliers ready to contend for the NBA championship, and they appear to have a favorable path to make a long postseason run. With a year of postseason experience together, they also have the advantage of not having to face the defending champion Miami Heat, top-seeded Detroit Pistons or Chicago Bulls until the conference finals — if they are fortunate enough to get that far.
James said he learned to value every possession last year, and that one play can alter a series. “I know what it takes in the postseason. I know what it takes to lose, also,” James said. He also learned from watching his friend Dwyane Wade lead the Heat to the NBA title last season that a dominant run from one perimeter player can be the difference this time of year.
But to get that far, James will likely have to silence the criticism that he lacks a killer instinct and aggression with the game on the line. “Hey, keep saying bad stuff about him,” Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown said with a laugh.
“I don’t have to prove anything to no one,” James said.
James has been playing with a renewed sense of purpose and energy of late, and the Cavaliers enter the playoffs on a four-game winning streak. Although James put up respectable numbers in the first half of the season, his statistics seemed hollow as the Cavaliers underwhelmed and James rarely looked like the player many thought would run away with the league’s most valuable award this season.
He heard that his participation with Team USA last summer and other nagging injuries had slowed him down; that he was more focused on being “a global icon” and resting on his laurels. Even Wade chimed in, saying in February that James didn’t “have that same pep in his step.”
“People said he was tired and I’m sure he was a little bit, but he was able to re-energize himself,” Cavaliers reserve forward Donyell Marshall said. “He’s the type of person that doesn’t like to be talked about. He likes to go out there and prove people wrong. As soon as you do that, he’s going to pick it up and step his game up. Last year, they were questioning him taking the last shot. After that, I think three or four games in a row, he started hitting them. If you want to bring out the beast in him, talk about him.”
Brown has heard that James is shifting his game to another gear. “I never doubt, nor question the great ones. I just sit back and watch,” Brown said. “I’ve seen guys of his stature, of his nature, rise to the occasion come playoff time.”
The Cavaliers take their cue from James — good or bad — and James said he wouldn’t be nervous this time. “I’ll be very excited. It’s going to be more a nervous excitement, as opposed to being scared or anything. I’m definitely waiting for it. I don’t want to get too excited. It’s too early.”
The Cav’ LeBron James, here being guarded by Jarvis Hayes, says he has more in store for his second playoff tour.