LeBron James has been back in the Cavaliers' lineup for seven games since taking an eight-game hiatus to rest his ailing knee and back. He's taken the team on a six-game winning streak since coming back, with the most impressive win of the streak coming yesterday against a desperate, relatively full-strength Thunder team. The reason behind the Cavs' recent run of success is pretty easy to spot: Remember that version of LeBron James we saw earlier in the season, the one who couldn't get a bucket at the rim? He appears to be long gone.
If there's one play from yesterday's game that's indicative of how this refreshed version of LeBron has been playing, it's this one:
That's the LeBron that went missing early in the season, the one who can take the ball from one end of the court the other, hit his burst of speed before the defense can get set, and then go crashing straight through Serge Ibaka as easily as he would a piece of cardboard. Watch the replay angle of that play, and notice how far LeBron moves Ibaka when he hits him. That's Strong LeBron.
Since returning to the team on Jan. 13, LeBron is scoring 30 points per game and shooting 51 percent from the floor. Before he took time off, he was shooting 65 percent on shots less than five feet from the rim. In the seven games since he's been back, he's hitting 73 percent of his shots from that distance. On shots in the paint outside of the restricted area, he was shooting just 44 percent before his eight-game break. Since returning, that number is up to 66 percent.
This is all very good news for the Cavaliers, who aren't going anywhere in the playoffs without LeBron at full strength. They still have a long way to go toward becoming a real contender—their defensive rating has actually gotten a bit worse since the Timofey Mozgov trade, and holding the Thunder to 39 percent shooting yesterday had more to do with Bad Russ showing up and Dion Waiters being allergic to wide-open threes than anything the Cavs did—but things are finally starting to look up in Cleveland. In any case, it's nice to have old-school LeBron back in the NBA. That other version of him was depressing as hell.