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James using the 'championship' word again

By JOE VARDON • May 8, 2018 at 11:00 PM

CLEVELAND — For someone who has won three of them, LeBron James sure has been averse to the word "championship" this season.

As in, he hasn't really said it. In months. Until Monday night.

Here's a little glimpse into how the sausage is made here on the Cavaliers beat. The writers who cover the team every day keep Google documents containing the transcript of every interview every player has given to groups of reporters after games, morning shootarounds, and practices.

So, basically anything outside of exclusive or TV or radio interviews, we have them. For James, the Google doc is 248 pages long, counting playoffs.

James this season, from the first day of training camp on, had never — not once — spoken of the Cavs as though he believed they had a legitimate chance to win a second NBA championship. He hadn't even said they could compete for one since March 1.

And then, this happened. The Cavs swept the No. 1 Raptors. Bounced them right out of the playoffs with a 128-93 shellacking in Game 4.

Cleveland's back in the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth consecutive year; the eighth for James. And for once, James sounds like he is at least entertaining the possibility that the Cavs could in fact, maybe, be in the discussion for a championship.

"We're excited about being part of the Eastern Conference finals once again and having the opportunity to compete for a championship," James said. "That is what our goal is. We're excited about that.

"We're humble about it."

He could say that again.

This has been the hardest of James' four seasons since he returned to Cleveland. Even the occasional reader of this space knows most of the ups and downs, the roster tumult, coach Tyronn Lue's illness, the bad defense, the near first-round disaster against Indiana.

We told you in January that numerous veterans felt the Cavs didn't have enough talent to win a championship. You surely surmised, based on how the information was presented, that James was among the doubters.

We reminded James at the end of the regular season that in every year since he came back, at least once before the playoffs started, he declared the Cavs fit to win a championship. Each of those seasons ended in the Finals, one with him hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy.

His response after the Cavs' last regular-season game: "We're one of 16 teams that have a chance to win a championship."

Translation: We made the playoffs and that's all I have to say about that.

What James said on Monday was not exactly a declaration that the Cavs would be boarding flights in June for Oakland, Calif. and taking the Warriors prisoner. But he is clearly starting to come around on a team that as recently as the middle of first round looked like it was incapable of helping him this postseason.

"As everyone was burying my teammates alive throughout that first-round series, I just continued to tell them, 'Listen, we can't win without each and everyone doing their job and being as great as they can be,'" James said. "It's impossible for me to lose confidence in our ballclub no matter what the stakes are or where we're down because if I do that then where are we going to go from a team aspect?"

James' numbers these playoffs put him beyond reproach in almost any discussion. He averaged 34 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 11.3 assists against the Raptors, and overall in the postseason is averaging 34.3 points, 9.4 boards, and 9.0 assists. Not to mention, two game-winning shots.

So it's hard to make the argument that's coming next, but, through three games in the postseason, members of the Cavs' organization felt James wasn't engaged the way he usually is during the playoffs. The stats were good, but the extra level, the total domination of the game at both ends of the court, the look in his eye, it just wasn't there.

Whereas only Kevin Love averaged double-digit points alongside James in Round 1 (and Love was a mess in that round, too, averaging just 11.4 points and shooting .333), six players averaged at least 10 points against the Raptors.

Yes, Saturday Night Live made a skit poking fun at the lack of help from LeBron's teammates. They cut it from the show last weekend for time constraints.

It's not accurate anymore, anyway.

Love gave the Cavs 20.5 points in this series. Kyle Korver scored 14.5 points per game. JR Smith contributed 12.5 points, Jeff Green scored 12.3 and George Hill chipped in with 10.3 points.

Hill missed basically 3 1/2 games of the Pacers series because of a back injury. Having him in the lineup unlocks Korver and Smith and unleashes the full powers of playing James at power forward because none of them has to bring the ball up the court on a regular basis.

The Cavs are also thrilled with themselves defensively, slapping fives over DeMar DeRozan's struggles in the series and because of their success in keeping anyone — outside of Jonas Valanciunas — from playing with consistency on offense.

The Cavs shot .595 from the field in Game 4 (50-of-84), tying a franchise playoff record. They averaged 118.5 points against the Raptors and shot .511 for the series (.411 from 3-point range). They averaged 24.3 assists and just 8.0 turnovers.

But unlike any team entering the playoffs, the Cavs hadn't played a game together as a full squad. Deadline trades and injuries saw to that.

The Cavs won their first playoff game when Lue turned to Smith and Korver as starters. They won Game 7 when Tristan Thompson went from out of the rotation to starter — giving Lue a lineup of all five players left from last year's Finals team, and the only four (LeBron, Love, Smith, Thompson) left from the 2016 championship team.

Hill and Green have earned their keep and their teammates' trust.

The Cavs became the only team in NBA history to sweep a No. 1 seed out of the playoffs before the conference finals, since the league expanded to a 16-team format. Cleveland's knocked off the East's top team from the regular season in three of the last four years (the Cavs were the No. 1 seed in 2016).

Many of the faces changed. The year was a trying one. A word familiar to Cavs fans over the past three years was taboo to James.

But he's warming to it.

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