By TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) _ LeBron James listened to a question he’s been asked in the past and began processing.
On the eve of his fifth consecutive NBA Finals, the four-time league MVP who has carried the Cavaliers within four wins of a championship in his homecoming season, James appears to be playing the best ball of his life.
Others have said so, some insisting they’ve never seen anyone _ at least no one this side of Michael Jordan _ perform at such a high level.
James has been magnificent in these playoffs. Clutch. Focused. Confident.
But does the 30-year-old believe he’s at the pinnacle of his 12-year career.
“I think if you put it all together, yeah,” he said. “If you put everything together as far as my mind, my body, my game. If you put everything in one bottle, this is probably the best I’ve been.”
King James has spoken.
Although he has jumped higher, scored more, shot for a higher percentage and had bigger statistical games in nine previous postseasons, James has taken his game to new boundaries, the outer limits as he prepares to take on the Golden State Warriors. He’s still doing what few can physically match on the floor, but he’s also lifting his teammates, inspiring them, making them believe they can end Cleveland’s 51-year title drought.
He can still take over a game, and he can get inside it.
Through words and actions, James has pushed the Cavs past postseason injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the other members of Cleveland’s Big 3, who haven’t pulled their weight in the postseason. James has picked up the slack with more rebounds, and by playing point guard.
He’s brought out the best in sharpshooter J.R. Smith and made reserves like Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova embrace their roles. He’s even caused David Blatt’s critics to pause and reconsider what kind of job Cleveland’s first-year coach has done.
James has never been better.
With dedication and hard work, James is exhibiting what he wrote in his letter to Cleveland fans last summer when he said: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.”
Irving didn’t fully understand James’ genius until they became teammates. Over the past few months, the All-Star point guard has grown to appreciate No. 23’s effect on those around him. Irving marvels at James’ photographic memory and uncanny knack for seeing plays unfold before others.
“I became a fan to be honest with you,” Irving said. “I told him that. It’s a different feeling when you’re on a team with someone you’ve watched for so long. When you get to see him up close and the work that he puts in, the dedication that he has, the drive and the will that he has. The true testament of him is that he embodies a leader and the true testament and the word `team’ is embodied with the guys we have. We have so many different personalities, so many different guys, and when you have a leader like that it lifts you up in every situation.”
Miami changed him.
During four seasons in South Florida, a period he refers to as his “college years,” James learned to be a champion. Playing alongside All-Star Dwyane Wade, James gained a better understanding of the trust necessary to win it all. He had Wade’s back and vice versa. They grew into one.
The blistering spotlight, too, hardened James, who mastered the ability to block out external noise.
Before he went to Miami, injuries like the ones to Irving and Love might have unraveled him. These days, they’re just more obstacles.
“Even in the past, mentally I just wasn’t who I am today,” he said. “My mind, my hard drive, wasn’t as big. I’m able to handle a lot of situations that I wasn’t able to handle at 24 and 25 years old. I just tried to do it by just going out and just playing.”
Warriors swingman Shaun Livingston said there’s an obvious difference in James (version 2015) and the one he played against in past years.
“He’s definitely better,” said Livingston. “His time in Miami helped sharpen his mental fortitude. They faced a lot of adversity in Miami with all the scrutiny. I think that’s helped him on the court, being more calm and not really playing to the outside but just between the lines.”
James has pieced together an amazing body of work in this postseason already. He nearly averaged a triple-double in the Eastern Conference finals, posting 30.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 9.3 assists in the series, the first player to average at least 30 points, 10 boards, and nine assists in a series.
In the previous round, he made a buzzer-beating shot to win Game 4 and followed that with a 38-point, zero-turnover masterpiece in Game 5.
He hasn’t been perfect. James missed his first 10 shots in Game 3 against Atlanta before getting a triple-double, and he’s been sloppy with the ball. But he’s on a mission, and within reach of winning a title that would top any of his many accomplishments.
“I’ve been watching a lot of playoffs the last six years,” Love said, “and I don’t know if I’ve seen him play better than this.”