LeBron: Noah Asked for Us, He Got Us
The thought of walking off the court in Orlando last May does not seem that far off to LeBron James.
"Like yesterday," he said as this season's playoff opener Saturday against the Chicago Bulls approached.
A year ago, James left the court a twisted mix of anger and disappointment. He didn't shake hands after losing in six games to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, didn't talk to the media, didn't do anything but shower, dress, don headphones and walk to the bus. The shock of losing was that painful.
As this year's playoffs approach, James seems resolute, determined, and angry about the fact he's lived with that defeat for so long.
"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 of 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."
Of course, a year ago James was probably just as resolute and determined. He and his team simply were not good enough against Orlando.
That series loss defined this entire Cavs season. It led to a revamping of the roster that included the addition of Shaquille O'Neal and a trade-deadline move to acquire Antawn Jamison. Last season, the Cavs made no moves at the deadline and lost to the Magic. They did not take a chance on standing pat this season.
A year ago Cleveland rollicked through a 66-win season, then had consecutive playoff sweeps before being hit in the gut with a baseball bat by the Magic. This year, they won 61 games, which for the second year in a row led the league.
This season's team was much more workmanlike -- as if they knew it were merely using the regular season to get to this point, where it could hope to erase the previous disappointment, starting with the first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls.
Consider the statement of Chicago's Joakim Noah that he and the Bulls are ready to "shock the world" against Cleveland.
"He asked for us a couple weeks ago and he got us," James said. "So ... we're ready."
Later, he added that the Bulls would be playing "a different monster" starting with the opener.
The Cavs played the last four games of the regular season without James, choosing to rest him and accepting a four-game losing streak. The rest brought controversy and criticism, as some claimed James should have played. The Cavs shrugged.
"I'm not worried about what's going on," James said. "We took care of business."
James also dismisses any concern that it will take a couple games for the team to get back in sync.
"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."
O'Neal's presence is one of the bigger changes from a year ago. But he has not played since Feb. 25, when he had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb. He has lost weight, looks slimmer than he's looked all season and pronounced himself ready to go -- even if he is playing with what he called a "fake thingy jammy thingy" to protect his thumb.
"We have a great shot at it," O'Neal said. "Shots like this only come around once in a while. We know what we have to do to get it done."
James did not disagree.
"This is the best possible chance for us to win a championship, this year with this team," James said.
Because of several factors. The most important: The Cavs believe they have the versatility to play any style. With O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, they can play big. With J.J. Hickson, James and Jamison they can play small. They have small guards in Mo Williams and Delonte West who can score, and big guards in Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon who can guard perimeter players.
The Cavs made the Finals three years ago, lost to Boston in the East semifinals two years ago and lost to Orlando in the East Finals last season.
The only two things they haven't done since they grew up as a team have been to win the title and lose in the first round.
Long-suffering Cleveland fans hope for the former, but always ... always ... fear the latter. Against this backdrop is the reality that James will be a free agent once the season ends, meaning Cleveland fans have to worry not only about losing a title, but maybe losing a superstar. One fan is even selling T-shirts that combine James' image with the design and layout of Barack Obama's campaign art and them. The one word on the T-shirts? Hope.
"It's April ... May, June ... we got a couple months left," James said. "We'll see what happens. But ... I'm really excited."
Let the record show that he was referring to the playoffs.