LeBron staring at possible sixth straight trip to NBA Finals

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CLEVELAND (AP) -- LeBron James understands what it takes to reach the NBA Finals.

The route, strewn with obstacles and doubts, has become a personal path. He knows the way as well as anyone.

James has been to the league's showcase event five straight years and six times in the past nine. On his most recent visit, the four-time MVP, two-time Olympic gold medalist and global icon, reminded everyone he remains the game's biggest, brightest star.

And now, as he embarks on his 13th pro season, James, just two months shy of turning 31, understands getting back to the Finals will not come easy for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"We've got a long way to go," he said.

When he and the Cavs tip off Tuesday night in Chicago, the ending that Cleveland fans can only dream of - celebrating the city's first pro sports title since 1964 - is nearly eight months away.

Right now, however, it's still just a dream.

James nearly carried the Cavs to the top in his first season back in Ohio. But they came up two wins shy of the championship. Last season's journey, loaded with injuries, trades and whispers, seems to have made him more confident a title will happen.

If not this season, then soon.

"I know what we're capable of," James said following a recent practice. "I didn't know what we're capable of going into the first game of the season last year. I knew it was going to be a long process. I still think it's going to be a process. It doesn't matter what we did last year, that's over and done with. We were happy how we progressed last year and how we played all the way to the end, but this is a new year."


Like last season, when they struggled trying to integrate Kevin Love into their offense and didn't mesh for months under first-year NBA coach David Blatt, the Cavs may need some time to jell. James recently received an anti-inflammatory injection in his back - his second in 10 months - and his minutes will be closely monitored all season.

Though he does a better job now of pampering his body, but the odometer is showing heavy mileage and the Cavs intend to rest him whenever possible.

He missed a career-high 13 games last season and averaged 36.1 minutes, his fewest in 12 seasons. There's a good chance he'll lighten his workload more this season, especially on back-to-back games or when the Cavs are playing three times in four nights.

The goal is not just self-preservation, but for James to be healthy when the games matter most. The Cavs' sights are on wins in June, not January.

The last time James was on the floor during the playoffs, he played at a postseason level never seen before. During the Finals, James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists - the greatest stat line in history - and nearly carried the Cavs to a crown before they were overpowered by the Warriors.

Of course, James had to step up his game since he was playing without Love and All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who was injured in Game 1 and who will start this season on the sideline following surgery. But the sublime performance was a reminder of James' past - and his potential.

"He's playing his best complete basketball now," said Cavs guard James Jones, who has played with James in each of the last five Finals. "This team poses a challenge for him because we have so many good players and now he's playing with a stacked deck. He's the type of guy that relishes that opportunity.

"What he does this year will be unlike anything he's ever done in the past because this team is definitely one of the more loaded teams he's ever played with."

In the end, the Finals will define him and shape his legacy. He can't get there alone and James said his five most recent visits were with teams who gave of themselves.

"Everyone has to sacrifice," he said. "Sacrifice your own agenda. Things are not always going to go well for yourself, but if everyone has the same common goal and that's working hard every single day, having those type of habits every single day. ... You have to have talent as well. But having guys going out there and just sacrificing for one another for the better of the team."

LEBRON JAMES OVER THE YEARS:

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LeBron James through the years
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LeBron staring at possible sixth straight trip to NBA Finals
U.S. men's national basketball team forward LeBron James pauses during a media availability before a practice, Sunday, July 15, 2012, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Akron Saint Vincent-Saint Mary's LeBron James celebrates with his mother, Gloria James, Saturday, March 15, 2003, after a win against Ottwa-Glandorf during the Ohio High School Athletic Association Boys' basketball Reginal Tournament in Toledo, Ohio. (AP Photo/J.D. Pooley)
NBA draft candidate LeBron James answers reporters' questions in Chicago, Sunday, June 8, 2003. The Cleveland Cavaliers have said they will take James with the first pick in the NBA draft. (AP Photo/Aynsley Floyd)
LeBron James goes up for layup during the first half of Magic's All-Star Charity Game on Sunday, July 27, 2003 in Los Angeles. James, a 1st round draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers, played for the Rookies team against a squad of veterans at Staples Center. The Rookies won 127-123. James had 23 points for the game. (AP Photo/Chris Urso)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives the ball as Miami Heat's Lamar Odum follows in the first quarter Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2003, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard LeBron James grimices in pain as he is attended to by athletic trainer Max Benton during the fourth quarter against the Utah Jazz Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004, in Salt Lake City. James had to leave the game with an injured right ankle.(AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
U.S. basketball player LeBron James of Cleveland Cavaliers plays with the ball during a U.S. basketball team practice in Cologne, western Germany, Monday Aug. 2, 2004. The U.S. team is preparing for upcoming matches against Italy and Germany and for the Olympics in Athens. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James dives for a loose ball during the second quarter against the Chicago Bulls, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2004, in Chicago. The Bulls won 113-85. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)
United States' Lebron James reacts after scoring a point during their game against Australia in the basketball preliminary round match at Hellinikon Indoor Arena, Thursday Aug. 19, 2004, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. U.S. beat Australia 89-79. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) drives around Atlanta Hawks' Antoine Walker during the second quarter Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James looks on during the third quarter of their game with the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005, at the Rose Garden, in Portland, Ore. James had 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists to become the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double, and the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Trail Blazers 107-101 Wednesday night to send Portland to its fifth straight loss. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
LeBron James holds his left ankle as trainer Max Benton, top, tends to the Cleveland Cavlaiers star after James was injured in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005, in Cleveland. James traveled with his teammates to New York and may play Friday night against the Knicks after further medical tests did not reveal any more damage to his ankle. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James Monday, Oct. 3, 2005, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) looks for a teammate to pass to as New Jersey Nets' Bostjan Nachbar (7), from Slovenia, watches in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts to a shot made by teammate Anderson Varejao during the final seconds of the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 10, 2007, in Milwaukee. The Cavaliers won, 94-92. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James looks at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter against the Washington Wizards during their first-round NBA playoff basketball game on Sunday, April 30, 2006, in Washington. The Wizards won 106-96. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) dunks in the last second of the first quarter during an NBA basketball game against the New Jersey Nets Thursday, April 12, 2007, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
United States' LeBron James holds the first-place trophy during an award ceremony after a FIBA Americas Championship gold medal basketball game against Argentina at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007. USA won the game, 118-81. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James holds up his New York Yankees hat during the fourth inning of Game 1 of an American League Division Series baseball game between the Yankees and Cleveland Indians Thursday, Oct. 4, 2007, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, pressures Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, who passes the ball, in the third quarter during their preseason basketball game in Boston, Friday, Oct. 26, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) creates a cloud of dust after he clapped his powder-coated hands together prior to the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
East All-Star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks over West All-Star Dirk Nowitzki, bottom right, of the Dallas Mavericks during the fourth quarter of the NBA All-Star Basketball Game Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008, in New Orleans. James was named the game's MVP as the East won 134-128. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James wipes his face during the first half of Game 1 of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball series against the Boston Celtics in Boston on Tuesday, May 6, 2008. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, second from right, yells at his mother, Gloria, left, who left her seat after a foul on James by Boston Celtics' Paul Pierce, second from left, in the second quarter of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference semifinals Monday, May 12, 2008, in Cleveland. Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett is on the right. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Team USA basketball player Lebron James is shown during stretching exercises at practice at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008. 2008. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James shouts after dunking against the Detroit Pistons in the second half of a first-round NBA playoff basketball game Friday, April 24, 2009, in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 79-68 to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) and Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard tangle under the basket in the first quarter of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball finals Wednesday, May 20, 2009, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, jokes with Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade in the second quarter during an NBA basketball game in Miami, Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, middle, is defended by Indiana Pacers guard T.J. Ford, right, and forward Danny Granger during the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Friday, Nov. 20, 2009. Cleveland won 105-95. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James reacts during the second half against the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA basketball game, Friday, Dec. 25, 2009, in Los Angeles. The Cavaliers won 102-87. (AP Photo/Lori Shepler)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, right, celebrates with center J.J. Hickson during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons in an NBA basketball game in Auburn Hills, Mich., Tuesday, March 16, 2010. Cleveland won 113-101. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James talks to teammate Anderson Varejao during the first quarter of Game 3 in the first round of the NBA basketball playoffs against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, April 22, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
LeBron James (6), Dwyane Wade (3) and Chris Bosh (1) show off their Miami Heat jerseys at the American Airlines Arena in Miami Friday July 9, 2010. To the right is Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. (AP Photo/J.Pat Carter)
Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) drives around Charlotte Bobcats' Nazr Mohammed during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game in Miami, Monday, Oct. 18, 2010. The Bobcats won 102-96. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Miami Heat forward LeBron James reacts to his dunk against the Phoenix Suns during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Miami Heat's LeBron James throws powder into the air prior to the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010 in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) works between Atlanta Hawks' Josh Powell, left, and Jamal Crawford in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game Monday, April 11, 2011, in Atlanta. Miami won 98-90. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Miami Heat's LeBron James watches his shot through the net during Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks Thursday, June 2, 2011, in Miami. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip; Pool)
Miami Heat's Udonis Haslem, left, and Mario Chalmers, right, check on teammate LeBron James (6) after he took a fall during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns in Miami, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. The Heat defeated the Suns 99-95. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Miami Heat's LeBron James (6) dunks as Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook (0) and Heat's Mario Chalmers (15) watch during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012, in Miami. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)
Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) blocks a shot by San Antonio Spurs center Tiago Splitter (22) of Brazil, during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA Finals basketball game, Sunday, June 9, 2013 in Miami. The Miami Heat won 103-84. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) is helped from the court by guard Mario Chalmers (15), guard Dwyane Wade (3), Erik Spoelstra, front, right, and Rashard Lewis, right rear, during the second half in Game 1 of the NBA basketball finals on Thursday, June 5, 2014 in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James grabs his head after a foul by the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, in Phoenix. Looking at James are Matthew Dellavedova (8) and Tristan Thompson (13). (AP Photo/Matt York)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates after end of the overtime period of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 7, 2015. The Cavaliers won 95-93 in overtime. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
A wound is seen on the head Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland, Thursday, June 11, 2015. James was injured in the first half. The Golden State Warriors won 103-82. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) hangs his head during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland, Tuesday, June 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
NBA player LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, accepts the award for best championship performance at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater on Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
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