It’s April and Playoff Mode is Engaged
Despite clinching the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs for the first time in six years Monday night with a victory over the Atlanta Hawks, critics continue to circle the team like vultures hovering over roadkill. In short, the Cavs’ road to home-court advantage has not always been a smooth one.
In fact, just three weeks ago, LeBron James & Co. squandered two twenty-point leads in a three game span. Kyrie Irving, even after a big game Monday, has been prone to inconsistent play all season long. Matthew Dellavedova, one of the team’s most consistent players for the first two-thirds of the season, has been in the midst of a shooting drought the past several weeks. Iman Shumpert seems to be, once again, hampered by a left knee injury. With the postseason fast approaching, a number of questions still linger above the Cavs’ proverbial heads.
Can they, unlike last postseason, stay healthy? Do they have what it takes to give the juggernauts in the West – the San Antonio Spurs and the record-breaking Golden State Warriors – a run for their money? Will they be able to flip a switch and string together weeks of consistently dominant basketball when they really need it?
Luckily for the Cavaliers, LeBron James is locked in and ready to go. Three weeks ago, James announced, after a string of questions surrounding his sometimes-odd use of social media, that he was entering into his infamous “playoff mode” a little earlier than normal.
“I have (changed my focus), a little bit sooner than normal, but you know I understand that [the Playoffs are] right around the corner and I want to start mentally preparing myself for the distance,” he said. “I’m just being a little more sharper minded as of late, just gearing toward it, understanding that it’s right around the corner and it’s going to be very, very challenging.”
But, what exactly does that mean? Has LeBron really played that much better?
The answer, most certainly, is a resounding yes. In the nine games LeBron has played since announcing his activation of “playoff mode,” he has averaged a remarkable 27.9 points, 8.2 assists and 7.7 rebounds with otherworldly 61.9/52.0/81.6 shooting splits.
Moving over to his advanced stats, this astonishing trend continues. His true shooting percentage is up to a whopping .691. His net-rating is up to +15.7 and he’s posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.18.
Now, you may be asking, just how good are those numbers? Let’s use Steph Curry, a man in the midst of a historic season with the record-setting Golden State Warriors, as a comparison. Over Curry’s last nine games, which includes three games of 37 or more points, the Warriors’ point guard is averaging 30.3 points, 7.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds on 48.7/48.1/96.9 splits, while posting true shooting, net-rating and assist-to-turnover numbers of .653, +12.5 and 1.81, respectively.
While Curry holds the edge in points and, unsurprisingly, free throw percentage, LeBron bests the all-but-assured back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player in assists, rebounds, and both field goal and three-point percentages, with each advanced metric following the same trend. He’s shooting significantly better than the man often hailed as the best shooter in the history of the game. To put it simply, the man is on a tear.
Even taking Curry out of the equation and comparing LeBron to his prime self, those numbers remain nothing short of amazing. His current .691 true shooting percentage is significantly better than his best season average. The same can be said for his current turnover rate. He is shooting threes a whopping ten full percentage points better than his best shooting year and is even converting at a much higher rate from the charity stripe. The way he has simply “flipped the switch” is nothing short of astounding.
With LeBron James playing some of the best basketball of his career, the questions surrounding the Cleveland Cavaliers only carry so much weight. Regardless of the questionable play of superstar teammates like Kyrie Irving, LeBron James is ready for whatever the NBA throws at him.
Don’t count out the Cavs just yet. As we have seen before, James is an unstoppable force when playing at his best. In Game 1 against Detroit, we saw a confident and integrated Kevin Love excelling at the 5, a Kyrie Irving scoring takeover and an extremely efficient LeBron James. Should the Cavaliers make it through the Eastern Conference Playoffs to meet either of the historic squads in Golden State or San Antonio, the basketball world will finally be able to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.
Regardless of what happens between now and then, King James is ready to retake his throne atop the NBA’s hierarchy of dominance; for the rest of the league is about to hear the three words that strike fear in the hearts of each and every one of their opponents – “Playoff Mode, engaged.”