LeBron James built for burden of latest challenge

NBA.com Global on Feb 11, 2018 08:32 AM
LeBron James built for burden of latest challenge
WASHINGTON, DC -  DECEMBER 17: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks through the hallway after the game against the Washington Wizards on December 17, 2017 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

ATLANTA -- Some of the best work LeBron James has done during his 15-plus seasons in the NBA has come against tall odds.

No, really. The best player of his generation hasn’t always had the deck stacked in his favor, he hasn’t always been on the best team.

You do remember don’t you?

Earlier in his career, before his Heatles days, during his first stint in Cleveland, when he and the upstart Cavaliers had to fight through an incumbent Eastern Conference power in Detroit to make it to The Finals in 2007.

The Big 3 Boston Celtics provided a similar roadblock after he conquered the Pistons, proving once again that just because you are recognized as the world’s best player doesn’t mean it’s your world come championship time.

It wasn’t until LeBron and the loaded Miami Heat won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 in the middle of a four-year run of Finals that he finally found out what it was like to have it all. And that sensation didn’t last.

And not once in the Cavaliers’ current run of three straight trips to The Finals have they been favored against the Golden State Warriors, who own a 2-1 edge in the championship round as both teams plot their courses for a fourth trip this season.

If the Cavaliers do have a chance to get there this season, it’ll take some of LeBron’s very best work (remember, this is the man who helped wipe out Cleveland’s 52-year title drought by vanquishing a record-setting 73-win Warriors team in The Finals two years ago).

He’s attempting to resuscitate the Cavaliers’ season right now in the aftermath of a seismic trade deadline performance authored by Cleveland general manager Koby Altman -- six players shipped out, four new faces added during a whirlwind day that shook up the entire league.

And guess who’s on the hook for making it all come together on the floor? That’s right, the 7-13 slide between Christmas and the deadline was on a little of everybody, but mainly jettisoned former All-Star point guards Isaiah Thomas (Lakers) and Derrick Rose (Utah and eventually waived), neither of whom was a great fit alongside LeBron in the limited action we saw from both.

But now it’s on LeBron to make sure new faces George Hill and Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood all find a rhythm, and quickly.

If the first glimpse of the, as Altman coined it, a “rejuvenated” LeBron came Friday night (Saturday, PHL time) here in a rout of the lowly Atlanta Hawks, the immediate future of this lab experiment could get very interesting down the stretch of the regular season.

LeBron refused to throw shade on those who had departed before, during and after his 22-point, 12-rebound and career-high 19 assist triple-double. And he served up the perfect reminder with his new teammates in the building but not yet cleared to play, that everyone wins when the Cavaliers play his way.

The signs of new life for these Cavaliers were obvious, even with only a skeleton crew available against the Hawks. LeBron’s 10th triple-double of the season was bolstered by a 30-point outing from Kyle Korver, who drained seven of his 13 shots from beyond the three-point line and looked a decade younger version of himself. Jeff Green (24 points) and rookie Cedi Osman, who has quickly become LeBron’s favorite pet project, had his best outing of the season with a career-high 16 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals.

“We played together offensively and defensively. The communication was very high,” he said. “The ball was moving around. The ball was popping. Everybody felt like we were in a good rhythm. This team has played us tough every single season, no matter their record. Tonight, we finally played them tough. We played Cavaliers basketball.”

LeBron acknowledged the daunting challenge ahead, reassured anyone wondering if he’s up for it that he most certainly is, and confirmed his commitment to finishing this season the same way he has each and every one of his past seven seasons: playing for a title.

The newcomers will have all of one workout under their belts before the Cavaliers hit the floor for at TD Garden for a Sunday showdown (early Monday, PHL time) with the Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics and the player truly responsible for Altman’s Thursday (Friday, PHL time) roster overhaul, Kyrie Irving.

Without his offseason trade request (demand … or whatever you want to call it) after three fruitful but apparently frustrating season’s trying it LeBron’s way, the Cavaliers are still sitting in the favorite’s spot for that fourth straight Finals showdown with the Warriors.

And to be sure, Kyrie and his new team will have something to say about who comes out of the Eastern Conference this year, as will the Toronto Raptors.

Focusing on the past, or what could have or should have been, or even the competition angling to keep the Cavaliers from playing deep into he summer, doesn’t aid LeBron’s cause now.

It’s what goes on today and every day through mid-April and beyond, that will make or break this season for the Cavaliers.

“It’s not about what the other guys didn’t bring, or what these guys bring,” LeBron said. “I think we’re all professionals. We’re happy with the guys that we had, and we’re going to be happy with the guys that we have now. That’s the way the league is, and the business. There’s no shade on anybody. We’re excited about the new guys that we have coming in – Jordan (Clarkson), Larry (Nance, Jr.), Rodney (Hood) and George (Hill) – and we look forward to them getting acclimated to what we want to do and finishing this regular season on a high note.”

History tells us that if any player is built for this sort of burden, for this type of against-all-odds adventure, it’s the guy who has been there before, time and time again.

And we should expect some of his best work.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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