CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James took one last look over his shoulder at the scoreboard in Oracle Arena just to be sure.
It was all so surreal, unimaginable.
When James eyes saw only zeroes on the clock, he threw his arms around Kevin Love and time seemed to stand still. Game 7 of the NBA Finals was over as was a comeback for the ages. Golden State’s one-year reign and dream season ended and so did Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.
James delivered on his personal pledge to bring home a title in June. And although it’s one he can never duplicate personally or for a fan base that had its heart broken and healed by him, the Cavaliers superstar and his teammates aren’t resting, getting comfortable or complacent. They want more.
“We’re still pretty much uptight,” James said. “We’re not satisfied with what we did.”
A three-time champion, and at 31 still the most complete player on the planet, James, who has acknowledged wanting to chase down Michael Jordan and his six league crowns, will again lead a Cleveland team expected to win the Eastern Conference and make a third straight finals trip. There doesn’t appear to be much in their way.
Cleveland’s Big 3 — James, Love and Kyrie Irving — have finally meshed after two turbulent, strange seasons when the trio of All-Stars were often disconnected. But whatever kept them from uniting seems to be resolved and they’re determined to add to their legacy.
“The mindset of this team is a lot different than maybe the first couple years,” said Love, whose odd relationship with James and Cleveland fans is finally in a good place. “From the onset you come in every year and want to compete for a championship, but we feel like we know exactly what we want to get done. I think just from a comfort standpoint it’s pretty different. We are a ways ahead of where we were the first two years.”
That’s one of the things often overlooked about the Cavs — their core is only entering its third year together. And, this is the first one where they’ve been at full strength from the start and guided by a coach they adore.
Tyronn Lue’s promotion after David Blatt was fired in January transformed the Cavs. Lue earned their respect by holding all of them — even James — accountable and making them understand nothing would be gained without sacrifice.
They rallied from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Warriors, and with a title, Lue expects his team to play with more freedom.
“Once you get the monkey off your back and you’re crowned champions, you’re at the top of the mountain, I think it’s a lot easier,” said Lue, who on a championship in 2001 with the Lakers. “Now you can exhale and play the way you’re capable of playing.”
Now, as the first Cleveland team since 1964 to defend a title, here are some other things to watch with the Cavs:
BANNER NIGHT: The Cavs will receive their diamond-studded championship rings before hosting the New York Knicks on Oct. 25. A banner will be unveiled in Quicken Loans Arena on what promises to be an emotional night in the city as the Indians will open the World Series next door at Progressive Field.
“It’s great times for all of us,” said James, who has been attending baseball playoff games with his teammates. “Not only the people playing, but everyone that lives around the area. They deserve it.”
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: James, who has been to six straight finals, knows what it takes win back-to-back championships after doing it in Miami.
“Don’t become complacent,” he said. “Our GM has put together a great team, our owners have done what they needed to do. For us, it’s up to us to continue to work our coaching staff’s system and just play our game.”
SWISH ON BOARD: Cleveland was delayed in having all its pieces in place during training camp until last week when shooting guard J.R. Smith signed a four-year, $57 million contract.
Smith, who made a franchise record 204 3-pointers last year, spreads the floor for James and he’s one of Cleveland’s best defenders. With his tattoos and carefree spirit, Smith has also become an unlikely fan favorite in Cleveland, a 180-degree turn from his time in New York.
GOLDEN DATE: Put another circle around Dec. 25 on your calendar. For the second straight year, the Cavaliers and Warriors will exchange elbows rather than presents on Christmas. This will be their first matchup since last season’s epic Game 7 and first since Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay Area.
NEW FACES: The Cavs let free agents Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov go and replaced them with Mike Dunleavy and Chris “Birdman” Andersen, a pair of proven veterans who blend in and give Lue more depth.