CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James has been in the shadows, somewhat overlooked.
For months, the Cavaliers’ megastar has been slightly under the radar, if that’s even possible for one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.
While Stephen Curry rained 3-pointers as the new face of the NBA, the Golden State Warriors hunted history and Kobe Bryant took his final bows, James remained in the background — waiting.
Well, it’s time. Playoff time. His time. James appears more than ready.
“I’m in that mode right now,” he said. “I’m where I want to be.”
His body feeling as healthy as it has in several seasons, James, who finished the regular season with a focused flourish, is about to take aim at getting the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals for another chance at slaying the three-sport dragon that is Cleveland’s 52-year pro championship drought.
Following a drama-filled 82-game schedule during which they abruptly fired coach David Blatt despite a 30-11 record, James teased fans about his future and toyed with teammates via social media. Cleveland’s talented roster too often seemed disinterested, but the Cavs are expected to win the Eastern Conference.
James won’t settle for less. He can’t settle for less.
There’s only suitable outcome for James, seeking his sixth straight Finals and third title. He has to win it all.
And when the Cavs open the playoffs Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, James is in an unfamiliar role: underdog. He’s not supposed to win it this year, which could even make him more dangerous.
More than anyone, he understands his window opportunity to win another title is closing. James is on the down slope of his career and knows Father Time is the only one who doesn’t get posterized at the rim. The 31-year-old James, too, sees a juggernaut growing in Golden State and would like nothing more than to slow it down.
If his play over the past few weeks is any indication, and as long as he gets some help from Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and others, James could add a fourth crown to his resume.
After declaring he had shifted into “playoff mode” earlier than usual, James averaged 28.4 points on 63 percent shooting — 52 percent on 3-ponters — with 8.0 assists and 8.5 rebounds in his last 10 games. Because those numbers are attached to James they lose some meaning as he has established a personal standard unlike almost any player in league history.
“I hope he can keep it up,” said coach Tyronn Lue. “If he plays like this, man, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
Perhaps most stunning about the way he closed out is that it came in the aftermath of a strange chapter in a most unusual season.
On March 19, James and the Cavs were drubbed by Miami, a team capable of re-routing Cleveland’s presumed path to the Finals. As his teammates warmed up during halftime that night, James spent several minutes chatting with former teammate and dear friend Dwyane Wade.
It wasn’t a good look for James, who later created more commotion by unfollowing the Cavs’ Twitter account and being quoted that he wanted to someday play again with Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. His behavior, and the fact that he has continued to sign one-year contracts with Cleveland, led to speculation he was planning an escape.
Something was going on, and both Lue and general manager David Griffin met with James to sort it out.
Since then, he’s been on a tear, playing with a vengeance that has softened some critics and made others think that the Cavs might actually have a chance against the Warriors or whichever team survives the steel-cage match that figures to be the Western Conference playoffs.
“I’m just in a good rhythm,” James explained after scoring 34 points in three quarters against Atlanta, his final regular-season game.
Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has faced James in the playoffs before and must formulate a way to stop him.
“When you’re preparing you have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D,” Van Gundy said. “What you’re really doing is throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks. You can’t just go in and have a blanket strategy how you want to play LeBron James. If somebody had the book on how to stop him, then this guy wouldn’t be doing what he’s done for 13 years in this league.”
With his 179th career playoff game approaching, James, who averaged 30.3 points, 11 rebounds and 9.3 assists in last year’s playoffs, is as energized as he was before his first. Since hugging Curry and walking off the floor with his head held high following a Game 6 loss in last year’s Finals, James has been eyeing his shot at redemption.
This is when James shines like no other.
“I get that feel,” he said.