CLEVELAND (AP) – Five years felt like 50.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers beat Houston 108-91 on Sunday night to clinch their first playoff berth since 2018, it ended a modest postseason drought for the franchise and its fans, who have become spoiled by victories and challenges for the NBA championship.
Blame it on LeBron James.
The superstar led Cleveland to four straight Finals, bringing the city its first professional sports title since 1964 in 2016. But since James left as a free agent five years ago — for the second time — his looming shadow has engulfed, if not engulfed, the Cavs .
They finally got out of it.
After missing the playoffs a year ago, the Cavs have accomplished one of their goals and have a few more on their to-do list.
“They’re not satisfied with just this,” said coach JB Bickerstaff, who was instrumental in rebuilding the team after LeBron. “We’re not done yet.”
Currently just two games back of Philadelphia for the third seed in the Eastern Conference, Cleveland is healthy, playing its best ball in weeks and peaking as the regular season enters its final days.
Using a soft stretch in their schedule, the Cavs, who were eliminated in the playoffs a year ago, have won 9 of 11 and are on track for their first 50-win season without James on the roster since 1992-93.
The road back to relevance was not smooth.
James’ departure in the summer of 2018 followed several notable setbacks, including firing coach Tyronn Lue six games into the 2019 season and the ill-advised decision to hire former Michigan coach John Beilein, who didn’t reach the All-Star break until 2020.
There have been a couple of 19-win seasons, trips to the NBA lottery, major injuries, team struggles, roster collapses and general breakdowns.
“The first year I got traded here, it was tough,” recalled center Jarrett Allen, whose arrival from Brooklyn in a three-team James Harden trade in 2021 hastened the turnaround. “Although it was still fun, a lot of things didn’t go right for us back then. Not playing for anything at the end of the year, looking forward to the summer, I think we’ve all been through that.
“Next year we lost in the play-in game and now we’re finally here. It was a journey.”
Along the way, Koby Altman, the team’s president of basketball operations, made shrewd moves to restructure a roster left in virtual shambles after James’ departure. The Cavs now have one of the strongest and most promising young cores in the league.
Altman jump started the process in 2019 by drafting Darius Garland first, who blossomed into an elite cornerback at age 23. Isaac Okoro came a year later and is the team’s best defender.
Forward Evan Mobley joined last year, and the 21-year-old not only pairs with Allen to give Cleveland a formidable front line — he leads the league in defensive rating — but his growth on offense makes the Cavs tough to guard.
Nothing, however, changed them more than Donovan Mitchell.
When Altman swooped in and landed Mitchell, who was thought to be headed to the New York Knicks, in an emergency trade with Utah in September, Cleveland sent a clear message that its home remodeling was complete.
One of the game’s most prolific scorers, Mitchell fit in seamlessly, almost effortlessly. Not only has the supremely confident 26-year-old increased the Cavs’ win total, but the team’s expectations and prospects have risen to levels not seen since James wore Cleveland’s maroon and gold.
After Sunday’s win, Mitchell reminded his teammates that there is more to do.
“We have a bigger goal in the game. Not just making the playoffs, not just winning the first round, the second round, the third round,” he said. “I make it to the end. It will be difficult. There will be guys or teams that have a lot of experience and have been there, but I think we’re ready for that challenge.
“We have that hunger. You see that with this group, night after night. He continues to prepare and continues to play until June.”
After pulling away from the Rockets to seal their 30th win at a raucous Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, the Cavs barely celebrated on the floor before retreating to their locker room. For them it was just another victory, routine, expected.
But it meant much more. It was the first time Cleveland entered the playoffs without James on the roster in 25 years.
“Since 1998?” Mitchell asked in disbelief, looking at the scroll on the bottom of the TV. “I had no idea.”
It just felt like forever.
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