LeBron: Bulls to face 'different monster'
As his teammates finished shooting free throws after practice on Thursday night, Cleveland's superstar stood against a wall and fixed his eyes on an imaginary target moving closer by the minute.
The postseason has arrived, and with it another chance at an NBA championship.
"I am serious," James said about his sober demeanor. "This is the playoffs."
James and the Cavaliers, who have spent nearly one year trying to get over last season's disappointing loss to Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, will begin their run toward a title on Saturday when they host the Chicago Bulls, a team that beat them twice during the regular season and most recently on April 8.
The Bulls, who in recent days have been dealing with ugly reports of an altercation between coach Vinny Del Negro and executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson, are huge underdogs against the Cavs -- the league's best team all season.
But despite the perceived mismatch and Chicago's long odds, Bulls forward Joakim Noah said he and his teammates plan "to try to shock the world" and upset the Cavs.
James has other plans.
"We're ready for the challenge," James said. "I think Noah's a really good player. He's a really good talent. But, you know, he asked for us a couple weeks ago and he got us. So we're ready. It's a different monster they're going to be playing against on Saturday."
For the first time since Feb. 25, the Cavs will take the floor with Shaquille O'Neal at center.
After missing 23 games following surgery to repair a torn right thumb ligament, O'Neal has come back rested and ready to fulfill his goal of winning a championship with James. The 7-foot-1 center has returned in incredible shape, saying he spent the down time "eating right, swimming, working out, doing what I do. It's all about the mission."
The "mission" is to deliver a championship to Cleveland, a city that hasn't had a pro sports title since 1964 and has rarely been better positioned to have one of its teams win it all.
On the brink of his 204th playoff game, O'Neal said he's prepared to help the Cavs go as far as possible.
"It's a chance for me to do something special, personal-wise, city-wise, LeBron-wise and everybody wise," he said. "We have a pretty good shot at it. If we go out and do what we're supposed to do, then we'll be fine."
O'Neal said he will not be limited by his injury and that his thumb will be protected by a "fake thingy, jammy, thingy." He's expecting the Bulls' best shot, but feels the Cavaliers should be able to handle it.
"We got everybody healthy," he said. "We know what we have to do and it's going to be a hard battle. We know that every team we play against is going to be playing way above their heads."
James has never gone into the playoffs with a post player -- or any teammate -- like O'Neal, who gives the Cavs a unique weapon and vital playoff experience.
"He's been there," James said. "Shaq has definitely played at the highest level. He's played with some of the greats. To have one of the greats on our team, on our side, this time around, it adds a dimension to our team that we haven't had in the past. It's going to help us a lot."
James, who will likely add a second straight MVP award to his resume, sat out Cleveland's final four regular-season games to rest up for the playoffs. He doesn't anticipate any rust in Game 1, and said the Cavs can't worry about working through any kinks early in the series.
"We don't have time for a game or two," he said. "There's no excuses right now. We'll go out and play, guys that are comfortable will be in the game. We expect everyone that has a uniform on to be ready to play. There's no room for one or two games where we have to get it turned on. It's the playoffs."
ESPNChicago.com Bulls blog
The latest news from Bulls reporter Nick Friedell. Blog
James has been eager for the chance to erase the memory of last year's loss to the Magic, which ended with him storming off the floor in disgust.
"I've been waiting personally on this since Game 6 of the Orlando series," he said. "It kind of hurts for a long time. You kind hold that in for all summer and all regular season to get back to this point. I'll be happy Saturday when I get the opportunity to release it."
Last week, James made a speech to his teammates, reminding them of what's at stake.
"I basically just said this is the time," he said. "This is what everyone was brought here for. This is what everybody worked hard in the offseason all year long. This is the time now. There's no time to look backwards. It's all about straight forward and just the vision of us winning an NBA championship.
"We want to win every series, we want to take every game like it's our last. But our whole vision is to win an NBA championship and we have to believe it first."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press