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LeBron James has the Cavaliers back on the path to NBA Finals

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Google 'LeBron James lost a step' and you get 636,000 results. Articles from ESPN, Bleacher Report, Business Insider - they all pondered, is 'King James' the same player?

The LeBron that could dunk on any opponent was reportedly 'gone', the all-conquering offensive behemoth had 'slowed' down, he 'no longer played above the rim.'

In those first few months upon his return to Cleveland, all you'd hear was how many miles he had on the clock. More than 34,000 minutes, more than any other NBA player in history before turning 30.

It didn't help that the Cavs were struggling to find an identity, struggling to learn a new coach's sets, struggling to find roles for All-Stars transformed in role players.

Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving had always been first options, but then LeBron arrived and that changed.

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But now, after a 12th straight win, the narrative is shifting. Love flashed glimpses of his talent as the Cavs rolled the LA Clippers last night, but the former-Timberwolves man is still searching for a place.

Irving and LeBron have looked in sync since third wheel Dion Waiters left the building - one fast break in particular an example of the high intensity, high flying, high scoring offense many expected to see when LeBron returned.

Because even as Love struggles with his efficiency on reduced touches, the Cavs are swatting rivals aside easily and are riding a winning streak that has put them back in the Championship picture.

Pre and post injury LeBron

LeBron missed eight games through December and January, and the Cavs have lost just once since his return. Let's look at the 13 games before his injury, and the 13 games since his comeback.

Obviously, those two weeks (off) helped me, not only physically but mentally - LeBron on his injury break

The first thing to mention is his plus/minus. He's been in the positive every game since returning at Phoenix. From December 4 through December 28, before the injury break, he was a net negative to his team on five different occasions.

“Obviously, those two weeks (off) helped me, not only physically but mentally," LeBron said last night. "I was able to refocus my mind and reboot my system. It’s definitely helped out a lot.”

When the Cavs win, LeBron averages 8.1 assists-per-game. When they lose it's down to just 5.8. It's a relatively simple distinction and just one factor among hundreds, but it is still helpful in understanding the Cavs offense as it currently functions.

Before the Clippers game it was put to David Blatt that his team led the league in points from isolations with 12.1 of their 101.7 ppg from isos.

As ESPN pointed out, exactly zero of the previous five NBA champions ranked in the top five for that statistical category.

Blatt's response? Not pleased.

"Man, you guys come up with some new stat every day. It's amazing. I'm just amazed how many different little things. We're becoming like football. We used to be just this beautiful free-flowing game.

"And now it's broken down to every minute detail possible. I don't know if it's good or it's bad. It's just interesting."

I'm sure Blatt was happier after the game, as last night the Cavs were beautiful to watch, assisting on 72.4 per cent of their 29 baskets by the time LeBron and the starters were pulled at the end of the third quarter.

LeBron had nine assists in just 27 minutes of action.

There were plays like this…

And this…

After calling into question Love's confidence following his poor shooting performance earlier this week, LeBron hooked him up time after time.

"Long term, that's exactly how we want to play," James said after the game. "When the ball moves, we're a better team. We're a much better team."

LeBron's defense has also improved in the recent stretch, this steal was vintage James…

The problems have come on the road, when LeBron is guilty of trying to do too much himself. Away from the Quicken Loans Arena just 28 per cent of his buckets are assisted, versus 44 per cent at home.

That iso mentality is reflected in the fact that when LeBron settles for his least efficient shot - the 10 to 16 footer - he's being assisted on just 10 per cent of his makes. And he's shooting just 37 per cent from there anyway.

Those unassisted long-twos highlight when the Cavs offense breaks down.

Post-Waiters

It's unfair to pin it all on Waiters, but the Cavs were just plain bad when he was on the floor. Per Basketball Reference, five-man lineups with Waiters, Love, Varejao, Irving and James were 11.9 points worse off than their opponents per 100 possessions.

With Varejao out and Tristian Thompson in, the Cavs were great but that's a super-small lineup that logged just 62 minutes together.

Since Timofey Mozgov and JR Smith joined and Waiters departed, the Cavs are 16.9 points better off per 100 possessions than their opponent with Mozgov and Smith in a five with Love, Irving and James.

It takes time

James has been adjusting to a new team, new role and, per positional estimates, relearning what it requires to play small forward. He's playing 59 per cent of the time as the nominal small forward, having spent 82 per cent of the past two seasons as a power forward in Erik Spoelstra's offense.

His shooting percentages are down pretty much across the board when you compare them to last season. But that's an unfair comparison. Looking back to his first season in the Miami offense, his last period of adjustment, they're pretty close.

In 2010-11, LeBron shot 55 per cent on two-pointers - a hair better than his 54 per cent mark this year. His mid-range game is weaker but from three-point range and within 10 feet of the basket he's pretty much the same player.

Cavs on a roll at the right time

So the eye test may tell you LeBron has lost a step, and maybe he has. He's only human after all.

But the stats tell a different story. Like Irving, Love and every other player on a team full of new faces, he's simply finding his role.

When you figure it out on the fly during the regular season, there's always going to be moments where things clunk rather than click.

The NBA season is 82 games long, things don't shake out until after the All-Star break. Good timing then.

Because this 12-game win streak suggests the Cavs may be pulling it together at just the right time.

Topics:
Eastern Conference
NBA
Cleveland Cavaliers
Central Division
LeBron James

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