Rachel Nichols: ‘People Didn’t Expect Cavs To Be Title Contender’

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are no longer in Boston, but the Celtics/Cavs series – which begins this Sunday in Cleveland at 3 p.m. ET – still has the potential to be entertaining.

“It’s always fun when those two teams go head-to-head – and Boston’s been such a surprise this season,” TNT NBA analyst Rachel Nichols said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “(It) really looked like they were heading for the lottery, especially after some midseason deals. But Brad Stevens has just done a tremendous job coaching that team, using the talent he has in smart ways, and they’re really building something there. It’s going to be interesting to watch.”

Nichols, who will be covering the series, has gotten to know LeBron James quite well over the years. She’s interviewed him countless times in Cleveland, in Miami and now back in Cleveland.

She’s watched him grow up.

“Well, it’s funny,” Nichols said. “When he went back to Cleveland, he made the statement that his four years in Miami sort of felt like college to him – and I’m not sure how people in Miami felt about that, but I actually felt that was a very apt comparison. He needed that to grow up. A lot of us need college to grow up. And the experience he got there learning how to be a professional in a way he really hadn’t before – being around a regimented system that Pat Riley had set up, being around teammates like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, veterans like Ray Allen – he really learned how to win in that extra way that wins you a championship. They were a great team. They withstood really a capital amount of pressure, and I think LeBron learned a lot about himself and who he wanted to be in the world during that time.”

The result was four Finals appearances and two championships.

“He brought the city of Miami a lot of joy and then decided what he really wanted to do was go home and try to win at least one ring for the people in Cleveland,” Nichols said. “It’s been so long since the people of that area have had a championship in any sport, and they certainly looked poised to get in the neighborhood – if not this year, then sometime soon. But boy, he would like to have it as soon as possible. I think they have made more progress this season than people thought they might. They will certainly be a contender to be the team that comes out of the East, no question.”

After starting 19-20, the Cavaliers (53-29) went 34-9 the rest of the way.

“I just think it’s kind of remarkable this has all happened in one season,” Nichols said. “LeBron was very honest going into the situation. He said ‘It’s not going to be easy.’ This is a young team that hasn’t learned a lot of the things he learned in his years (in) Miami: how to win, how to grow, how to deal with the tremendous spotlight that he brings with him, how to work as a team of superstars.

“We always talk about these Big Threes in basketball,” Nichols continued. “Well, it’s tough when you’re used to being the best player on your team like Kevin Love was all those years (and) having to then fit in a system where you are not the best player on your team. You’re probably the third-best player on the team, and your position changes and the way you play that position changes and the number of shots you get changes and how effective you have to be in your opportunities changes. So it’s all a process.

“They’ve been able to come together in the last couple months (in a way) that, frankly, even LeBron said he wasn’t expecting. And now they’re a force to be reckoned with. They are a contender for the NBA title this year, which is not something that people really expected when he first went over there. Thats something to watch, no question.”

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