With the NBA playoffs set to begin this weekend, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) enter as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, looking to return to the NBA Finals after last season’s loss to the Golden State Warriors in six games.
Set to play the No. 8 seed Detroit Pistons, who have a record of 44-38 on the season, the Cavs will be looking to make quick work of their Central Division rival in the first round and march their way through the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland is widely looked at as the favorite to win the East, and rightfully so. It’s expected to meet with either the Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals in June. Obviously for the Cavs, getting to that point isn’t a shoo-in, as they will have to play some very good basketball to make their way through some solid Eastern Conference teams along the way.
With that being said, here are three keys for the Cavs to play at their highest level and succeed in this year’s playoffs.
Widely looked at as one of the best basketball players in the world, LeBron James returned to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 after winning two championships in four years with the Miami Heat with the purpose of delivering a championship to the city of Cleveland. His mission was and still is to bring an end to the 52-year title drought for any Cleveland professional sports team.
Having been to five straight Finals and six overall, James is the most playoff-experienced player on the Cavs, making him a great leader for the team during its title chase. As he has been known to do in recent years, the four-time MVP locks himself down physically and mentally right before the playoffs by staying off social media and shifting his attention to his team.
While he did have an all-around good season despite some struggles with 3-point shooting and free throws, James led the Cavs to the East’s top seed while setting some career milestones along the way. He moved from 20th on the all-time scoring list to 11th during the regular season, passing some of the game’s greats.
However, it is the King’s play of late that has really stood out.
In his last 10 games, James averaged 28.4 points, 8 rebounds and 8.5 assists while shooting 63 percent from the field, 51.8 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line.
Whether this play is due to the fact that James has gone into playoff mode earlier than normal or if it is a result of his recent talks with team management about his behavior on social media and his interactions with long-time friend Dwyane Wade during the Cavs’ 122-101 loss in Miami on March 19 is still unknown.
Either way you look at it, the Cavs live and die with James. His presence and leadership on and off the floor will be vital for the team’s success in the playoffs. The Cavs are at their best when James is making his imprint on the game by running the show, driving to the hole and setting up his teammates for open shots. To end the drought, they’ll need the James from the past 10 games.
Irving and Love: the other two of the “Big Three”
While James is one of the best players ever, even he needs some help.
Another benefit of James returning to Cleveland was that he would be joining young up-and-coming star Kyrie Irving, who was one of the few reasons to watch the Cavs during the years James played in Miami. Add in the trade that brought all-star power forward Kevin Love to Cleveland, and the Cavs were an instant championship contender.
While there have been moments of greatness with this “Big Three,” it seems that it is more often that James has a great game, and only one of the other two has a great game, while the other struggles or has a lackluster game.
This could be due to the pressure that being part of a “Big Three” brings, the fact that Irving and Love are inexperienced with big moments, particularly in the postseason, or even the fact that James and Irving are ball-dominant players, leaving Love with fewer touches.
Obviously, if a player does what he has to do to give his team the best chance to win, it’s a plus. But against teams like Golden State, San Antonio and even Toronto, the Cavs will need consistent, strong games night in and night out from not only their leader James but also from Love and Irving.
The second option in the offense, Irving had a very good season last year playing with Love and James and has proven to be a star in the league. He can handle the ball at an extremely high level, he is a good shooter, he is one of the league’s best at finishing near the rim and he has been improving as a defender.
But due to his knee injury in Game 1 of the NBA Finals last year, Irving missed about a fourth of this season, and ever since he has returned, he has had his ups and downs. Some nights, he looks like the Irving from last year, but on other nights, his play is plagued with inconsistencies. Throw that in with the rumors that he and James have tension and that he wants out of Cleveland, and it shows how much Irving has been through this season.
So in these playoffs, it is important for Irving to live up to being that second option by staying consistent on the offensive end, playing defense, setting up his teammates and just being his old self.
As the third member of the “Big Three,” Love often gets the butt end of criticism. Obviously, Love can play. He is an excellent post player, a great rebounder, a good shooter and a guy who will hit his free throws. While there are plenty of question marks about his defensive ability, he is a good offensive player.
Last season and earlier this season when the Cavs were coached by David Blatt, Love was limited, for the most part, to a spot-up 3-point shooter and rarely saw touches in the post or at the elbow. However, ever since Tyronn Lue took over for Blatt, Love has seen more touches at the elbow and in the post, while letting his 3-point attempts come naturally in the offense.
Very much like Irving, it is important that Love stays consistent with his shots, keeps being aggressive inside and, if possible, plays some better defense.
Both Irving and Love are good players capable of playing at extremely high levels, and in these playoffs, it is very important for them to do so for the Cavs to achieve optimum success.
The last key is kind of a given, but it is worth mentioning, especially since it was something that haunted the Cavs in their postseason run last year. The Cavs are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and to reach the ultimate goal of winning a championship, they will need all hands on deck.
Despite Golden State’s phenomenal season last year, and an even better one this season, many people are still convinced that if the Cavs had a healthy Love and a healthy Irving throughout all of last year’s Finals, the outcome would have been different between the two teams.
In order for the Cavs to succeed in this year’s playoffs, not only will the “Big Three” need to stay healthy, but so will key role players such as Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and J.R. Smith, among many others.
There are many other keys to success for the Cavs in the upcoming playoffs, such as energetic defense, efficient 3-point shooting, coaching consistency and ball movement, but ultimately, the majority of their success will weigh on the performances from their “Big Three,” and staying healthy as a unit.