Cavs focused like never before
CLEVELAND -- I've spent a lot of time around the Cleveland Cavaliers: holding in-depth conversations with members of their coaching staff; working with LeBron James on several feature stories for ESPN The Magazine; hobnobbing at photo shoots with LeBron and his teammates; playing ball at The Q with team employees; chronicling the joy, then pain, of last year's march toward postseason death in Orlando.
But I've never seen the Cavaliers like this.
There is a distinctively different feel around this team -- actually, it runs throughout the entire organization -- as it embarks on its quest for the 2010 NBA championship. Sure, the players, as fun-loving as any in professional sports, still fool around and rib one another. But there's a seriousness, a solemnity, that permeates the franchise like never before.
Have you noticed LeBron hasn't smiled at a news conference since the regular season ended?
On Saturday, as a reporter asked him a long-winded question about the Cavs' dismissal of the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of their first-round series, LeBron glared at him like a boxer about to touch gloves in the prefight stare-down. It had nothing to do with the reporter and everything to do with the club's grave approach to these playoffs. Hours earlier, someone close to LeBron told me he'd never seen the superstar so serious.
"It's business time, and I know what's at hand," LeBron said Sunday, explaining his demeanor.
Last year, the Cavs, perhaps not knowing how to handle a 66-win season, were fairly giddy about every single victory as they ran through their first eight postseason games. But on Saturday, as they built an 18-point first-half lead, even a low-level team employee was all but yawning.
"So far, so good," he said somberly. "But it's not about the first round."
It's not even about the third round, or just getting to the fourth round. It's championship or bust for Cleveland, and everyone -- from the ball boys to owner Dan Gilbert -- knows it.
One high-ranking member of the organization called it the "Shaq factor," crediting four-time champion Shaquille O'Neal with the team's new tone. While Shaq has taken a subordinate role to LeBron on the court, he's been as vocal as anyone, dispensing his hard-earned title wisdom to both the team and to individual players.
"He's focused," Antawn Jamison said. "He's a guy who's been in this situation numerous times. You sense a different personality, a different approach, a different focus. He's letting us know exactly what we need to do as a team and as individuals to take the next step."
The Cavs won't admit it, but the likelihood is that they're just hungrier now. They thought they were hungry last year and the year before and the year before that, but nothing increases hunger like pain. And last year was the first postseason in which these Cavs truly experienced pain.
Of course, it hurt to lose to Boston in the second round of the 2008 playoffs, but the fact is that the LeBron James-led Cavaliers had always gone further than they were supposed to; they'd always left each season with a silver lining, a moral victory. In 2006, they stunned everyone by forcing a seventh game in their second-round loss to Detroit. A year later, they upset the Pistons to reach the Finals, and in '08, they were the decided underdogs against the Big Three-led Celtics.
But losing when you're expected to lose and losing as the favorite are two different things. And last year, for the first time, James and the Cavs lost a series they were favored to win. That'll make a hungry man ravenous. And that's what has happened to the Cavs.
"I think last year, because of the way they lost in the Eastern Conference finals, this has been the moment that [LeBron's] been waiting for for a long time," Jamison said. "The closer and closer we got to the end of the season, you started to see a different person -- in film sessions, in the huddle, just communicating with the coaching staff and the players. The closer and closer we got, you could sense the demeanor of the whole organization, the team, and everybody change. The focus is at an ultimate high here."
The closer and closer we got to the end of the season, you could sense the demeanor of the whole organization, the team, and everybody change. The focus is at an ultimate high here."” -- Cavs forward Antawn Jamison
Mo Williams said there's something else behind the club's new tone: confidence.
"We're better than we were last year, so we're more confident than we were last year," Williams said. "Going into the playoffs last year, we knew that we could do it. That was kind of our mind frame -- we could do it. But there was the slight chance that if we get the wrong matchup, things would probably go the other way; that was a possibility, which it did. But this year, we're confident. We feel like we've got all the pieces, and it's just up to us to continue to play the right way."
That word "continue" is key, because the Cavs almost always start games playing the right way. The league's best first-quarter team, they routinely jump out to big leads only to let up as the game wears on. Saturday was no exception, as they ran to a 32-18 advantage over the Bulls, but were outscored by a point over the final three quarters.
And who can forget last year's Eastern Conference finals, when the Cavs built 14-point first-quarter leads in Games 1 and 2 against Orlando, but wound up splitting those contests because of poor third quarters?
"I don't know if it's because our guys are extremely juiced when they come out and they play at the highest level they can because of the excitement of the game and the intensity," said Cavs coach Mike Brown, who admitted that his team might sometimes play the scoreboard rather than the opponent. "I think we've gotten better over the years with our third quarters, and hopefully, we won't have too many lulls in the third quarters throughout our playoff run."
Of course, the Cavs are who they are, and that means they won't entirely cut out the cutting up. Before Sunday's practice, Shaq teased Brown, who hasn't shaved his face or his head in three days, about his receding hairline.
"That hurt my feelings a little bit," Brown said with a laugh.
There's nothing wrong with a little joking, even during the playoffs, even when you're more focused than ever.