Tristan Thompson yelled at LeBron James. He kept yelling at him, actually.
Through successful possessions. Through timeouts. Apparently, the King crossed the line. James ended up apologizing for it. Given their relationship – Thompson is represented by LRMR, the marketing agency backed by James – this is entirely like a family dispute at the Thanksgiving table. Thompson basically said as much in the post-game.
What it demonstrates is the Cavs have a lot of fire in them as the calendar hits April, which is definitely not as envisioned. Although they only defeated the Raptors by a game for the top seed last season, they did sit starters in the final game of the regular season. They did fall in three of four before going on to eventually win the NBA title. Cleveland also knew it would end up with homecourt advantage, something it coveted.
This season, nothing is assured.
While the Warriors will absolutely still command the most attention over the final weeks as Kevin Durant returns and we see how they work him back in, the team that ultimately conquered the NBA’s first 73-game winner and blew up what would’ve been the best season in NBA history becomes the most relevant.
Will James rest? He understands how important that is, having witnessed first-hand what a difference that made for San Antonio. Since returning to Cleveland, he’s actually taken time off in January in order to manage wear and tear.
Still, Thompson standing up to him lets you know all these guys, as champions, recognize there’s now pressure in repeating. Kevin Love missed time and disrupted the team’s rhythm. Upon his return, there really hasn’t been any continuity.
In fairness, they lost Kyle Korver, who shot 59 percent from 3-point range and averaged 15.5 points per game in February. He just returned from a nagging foot injury and helped the team pick up a win on Sunday against Indiana. There’s no question having him back will make a difference.
The point of this column is to provide a reminder from something I wrote back in early February:
If you want to take lessons from Super Bowl LI while they’re still fresh, making sure you don’t make premature declarations of victory or wallow in defeat halfway through certainly stand out, especially when there’s greatness involved.
You don’t write off goats.
That’s why you’re going to want to back the Cavs to get out of the Eastern Conference this season and you’re going to want to do it sooner than later. Backing them to win it all depends on how much faith you have in the reigning Finals MVP. It would be wise to take his cranky nature and defiance of late as a sign he has no intentions of being satisfied with winning one trophy for Cleveland.
Like Tom Brady, LeBron James has been at the top of his sport most of this century. Watching him navigate his way through season after season over the last decade-plus has been incredibly entertaining, and since his return to Northeast Ohio, a pattern has developed when the calendar turns to January.
Turning the corner into a new year has perennially been an adventure. In 2015, he was feeling so out of sync and worn down he took a break, returning to Miami to handle business and train, getting himself mentally prepared for the remaining grind and leaving teammates behind to figure it out.
This time, he’s no longer leaving teammates behind. Having won a championship for Cleveland, there’s more of a tendency to trust he’ll be able to bring teammates along for the ride. That’s why the exchange with Thompson was so impressive, so vital. He respects somebody enough to apologize.
We’ll see what happens with this group over the final 10 days.
There will likely only be one situation where Cleveland will be a double-digit favorite in the coming month (April 4 vs. Orlando), so there are no sure things ahead. How important is getting the homecourt advantage to James? Can Love regain his groove? Will Korver ever overcome his pesky foot injury?
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, x-factors since their arrival, also require finding a rhythm, and defensive communication has been non-existent. There’s no reason to lay points like these are the defending champs just yet, but don’t write them off as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference either. They may not wind up with the top seed, but that’s not a deal-breaker for this group.
Avoiding slipping all the way to No. 4 given how hot their three closest competitors have gotten should provide motivation to start kicking it into gear before the regular season ends, but there are back-to-backs to be concerned with, too. Remaining healthy for the playoffs will be the primary concern for this group because they know they can turn it on with a full group.
Don’t bet against them.