Their mission began shortly after the buzzer sounded in Boston Garden last spring when the eventual world champion Celtics won a hard-fought Game 7 battle over the Cleveland Cavaliers and became the Eastern Conference title holders. 

LeBron James, who is perhaps the youngest veteran player in the league because he began his National Basketball Association career with the Cavs right out of high school, left the Garden dejected after scoring a whopping 45 points in that showdown game for all the Eastern Conference marbles.

That hollow feeling in the pit of LeBron James’ stomach was the same kind of ache that Michael Jordan felt after losing the playoffs year after year to the Detroit Pistons and what Isiah Thomas endured when his Pistons kept falling to the Celtics and what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird went through each time their team lost to one another.

Stomach-churning losses make ravenous competitors hungrier. It’s why the postseason brings out the best of the best. “The playoffs are all about having hunger to the point where you’re never satisfied,” James told ESPN Magazine recently.

James began mapping his long-range plans for the 2009 playoffs by pushing his teammates to play to the ultimate of their talents during EVERY game of the 2008-2009 NBA season.

The results confirm his success — the Cleveland Cavaliers posted the best record in the league at 66-16 and protected their home court to the tune of an NBA-best 39-2 worksheet. They not only defeated their opponents, the Cavs whipped most of them by more than 15 points a game.

James convinced his teammates that teams become world champions by knowing how to put an opponent away in the late going, much like the Boston Celtics did to them last year in the playoffs. He became a good role model and team leader of the Cavs.

And James’ mission didn’t end when the regular season concluded, it continued right into the first round of the playoffs against the No. 8-seeded Detroit Pistons. Cleveland is the only playoff team to sweep their first round opponent.

None of the games were even close as the Cavs won 102-84, 94-82, 79-68 and then eliminated the Pistons in Detroit Sunday 99-78. Now Cleveland must wait to play the winner between Atlanta and Miami in the second round of the playoffs.

And that could be a long wait because Miami was leading in the best-of-seven series 2-1 with a game played Monday in Miami and the next Wednesday in Atlanta. The series may not end until Sunday when Game 7 is scheduled, if necessary.

James is smart by not looking too far down the road of the playoffs. He demands that his teammates focus ONLY on the upcoming game to the delight of Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert.

Of course all 16 teams that qualified for the NBA playoffs have the same ambitions and hope that James has, but nobody has pushed his teammates like James has done so far this season. It’s almost like having a coach on the floor.

New Orleans Hornets head coach Byron Scott, who has won three championship rings when he played for the Lakers prophesized, “A lot of teams talk about how hungry they are, but until you go out and show it, it’s just talk.”

There are several players in the league who scour scouting reports like James does and there are others who merely skim them and the difference is quite clear at tip-off time.

James and a handful of other NBA players watch film on their free time and not just during coach-mandated sessions.

And that’s the reason that many of the so-called “basketball experts” believe the Cavaliers will win it all this year. Getting past the defending champion Celtics became much more of a reality when star player Kevin Garnett was injured and will probably miss the entire playoffs.

Going into Monday’s playoff schedule, our Houston Rockets hold a commanding 3-1 series lead over Portland, Dallas is leading San Antonio 3-1, the LA Lakers are 3-1 over Utah while Denver leads New Orleans 2-1 and Miami leads Atlanta 2-1. Two series were tied 2-2 Monday including Boston-Chicago and Orlando-Philadelphia.

This Korner has been watching many of the first-round games and can’t see a team that plays harder or better than the Cleveland Cavaliers or a player that leads his team better than LeBron James.
But the playoffs have a long way to go and anything can happen to someone who gets bounced around like an NBA player. But barring anything unusual happening to LeBron James, this Korner believes he is on a mission to fulfill his obsession to lead his team to that coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy that goes to the NBA’s world champion.

KWICKIES…Former NBA star Hotrod Hundley has decided to hang up his CBS microphone after working as a sportscaster for the network in the last five decades.

The Lamar Cardinals baseball team appears to be peaking at the right time of the season as they completely dominated Northwestern State last weekend, sweeping the three-game series from the Demons 6-0, 6-1 and 14-2. The sweep pushed the Redbirds into a tie for third place in the Southland Conference standings with a 14-10 mark and improves their overall record to 28-17 for the season. The Big Red put their four-game winning streak on the line Tuesday with a non-conference game against Louisiana-Monroe at Vincent-Beck Stadium in Beaumont.
The Dallas Cowboys didn’t have a draft pick until the third round on Sunday as the Pokes made 12 picks, including Texas A&M quarterback Stephen McGee in the fourth round. McGee was the first quarterback drafted by the Cowboys since taking Quincy Carter in 2001, who turned out to be a bust because of an alleged drug problem. However, when the 2009 draft was graded by USA Today, Dallas received an “F.”

Orange’s Scott Sterling fired rounds of 70-73-72-72—287 and finished 13 strokes behind Jerry Kelly, winner of last weekend’s PGA Tour Zurich Classic of New Orleans golf tournament. Sterling collected a $14,663 check for his effort.

The Houston Astros won the final game of that lengthy 10-game home stand 3-2 Sunday over Milwaukee and showed signs of looking like the Astros of old that can protect a one-run lead with five different relievers. Although the 4-6 record isn’t that shiny for a home stand, two of those wins came against the LA Dodgers, who, in this Korner’s opinion, was the toughest of the three teams to visit Minute Maid Park last week. The Astros began an eight-game road trio Monday at Cincinnati for three games, are off Thursday and then move on to Atlanta for a weekend series. The road trip concludes with games Monday and Tuesday in Washington before Houston returns home for two games with the Cubs and three against San Diego.

JUST BETWEEN US…Football announcer Cris Collingsworth has some mighty big shoes to fill taking over for recently retired John Madden as the lead analyst on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Madden was rated by his peers as the best in the business and will be missed by most NFL fans, except that sportswriter in Beaumont who said a lot of his friends are glad Madden is gone. What he forgot to mention is that most of his friends probably don’t know a football from an eggplant.