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Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James delivering on promise, looking recharged following recent trades

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Nearly two weeks ago, after LeBron James spent eight minutes trying to squash an untimely story about maybe taking a summertime meeting with the Golden State Warriors, he was asked about his abnormal dip in production during a shockingly bad January for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“I’ll be all right,” James said at the time. “I’m used to it. It’s the same with the Warriors story. It’s the life I live in. But it’s fine. I’ll be all right. I’ll give you better numbers. I promise you.”

The two games after weren’t his best, a pair of franchise-altering embarrassments. But James has finally delivered on that promise, regaining his MVP form during the Cavaliers’ current four-game winning streak.

On Tuesday night, the final matchup before the All-Star break, James scored 37 points on 14-of-23 from the field and 3-of-7 from 3-point range to go with eight rebounds and eight assists in an impressive 120-112 win against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

He tallied 17 points on 7-of-10 from the field and 2-of-4 from long range in an explosive, grab-the-game-by-the-throat third quarter. His outburst helped give the Cavs the lead heading into the fourth, setting the table for the revamped bench to close it out, moving the team’s record to 30-0 when tied or taking a lead into the final period.

In the four games since getting word from general manager Koby Altman that Cleveland was gaining traction on a few trades to significantly reshape the roster, James has averaged 30.0 points on 55.3 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from beyond the arc to go with 9.5 rebounds and 13.0 assists. The Cavs have outscored the opponent by 33 points with him on the floor.

That’s closer to what Cleveland expects each night. Are those lofty expectations? Certainly. But it comes with the territory of being the game’s best — just as James admitted in early February during that media session.

He’s supposed to be the tide that lifts all boats. He’s the reason, despite a pile of evidence to the contrary, many refused to bury the Cavs too early, believing he would somehow drag a broken roster into the NBA Finals once again. Cleveland’s ace in the hole, James masks weaknesses and helps turn fringe players into pivotal rotation pieces.

That guy is back, enlivened and motivated, ready to propel the Cavs into the stretch run after a watershed trade deadline.

The Cavs added four players — Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill — and all of them delivered in a signature win. Still, getting a joyful James was the most substantial addition.

By James’ standards, he wasn’t good enough in January. Not immune to criticism, he was at the center of Cleveland’s grim month, complete with blowout losses and team meetings. Under his watch, the locker room, a family environment he worked so hard to build, deteriorated.

On the court, it wasn’t much better.

James failed to reach his season scoring average in eight of the 14 games. He averaged 23.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 4.7 turnovers. He also shot a paltry 22 percent from 3-point range. Fine numbers for a lesser player, just not for one of the greatest ever.

With him on the floor, the Cavs were outscored by a whopping 99 points in 504 minutes. His effort waned and his body language was poor. In close games late, when James typically puts his imprint on the outcome, he repeatedly came up short.

Maybe James was willingly stepping aside, letting Thomas run the offense so he could try to work his way back into form and build some positive momentum. Or maybe James was trying to teach Thomas a lesson about playing the right way, something James did with Kyrie Irving by letting him fail on his own early in their time together.

Perhaps James was protesting, trying to shine a light on the flawed roster. In the past, James has smoothly sent messages to the front office — on or off the court — prior to the trade deadline, hoping to spark changes. Just last year, he talked about the roster being top heavy, the front office being content following an NBA championship and the team needing another playmaker.

This time, it was his play that signaled an unhappy star.      

Whatever the reason, whether it was intentional or not, the Cavs are now benefiting. He looks different, having the ball in his hands more and attacking the defense with shooters surrounding him. He’s moving faster and there’s a bounce in his step. He sounds different too, hoarse after days of barking out instructions to new teammates.

“This is the third game in a row my voice is gone,” James told reporters following the game. “I’m just trying to have the communication at an all-time high for us, for the new guys and for the rest of the guys as well.

“My voice has to be heard. Some things we could do on the fly with the guys that we had to start the season or in the past because we kind of knew the system. Right now I’m trying to fast track it and make sure that the new guys are always hearing me behind them on the defensive end and offensively they know where to go. So I’m just trying to do my part and lead them the best way I can.”

James didn’t do that last month. If the trades have again unlocked the early-season MVP candidate then those January doldrums were all worth it and another Finals appearance is no longer out of reach. 

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