LeBron enters new realm ­- the playoffs

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CLEVELAND – You’re on, LeBron.

Three years into his thus far impeccable pro career, Cavaliers star LeBron James will take center stage for the first time where legacies either grow or get swatted away like a weak layup.

In the NBA playoffs, nothing comes easy.

The fouls are a little nastier. The whistle blows a little less frequently. The intensity is ratcheted to an extreme level. The stakes, well, they’ve never been higher for Cleveland’s 21-year-old superstar.

Everything is bigger – just how James likes it.

“It’s a different ballgame,” he said. “The crowd is into it for 48 minutes strong. The lights in the arena look brighter. It’s a different feeling. Now to be a part of it, it’s going to be great.”

James makes his playoff debut Saturday as the Cavaliers host the Washington Wizards in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference series. Game 2 is scheduled for Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena.

For championship-deprived Cleveland, the wait is over. A city fueled by sports is at last embarking on another chance at winning a world title. The Cavaliers are the first of Cleveland’s three pro teams to reach the postseason since 2002, and the first to host a playoff game since 2001.

No Cleveland team has finished on top since the Browns won an NFL title in 1964. Since then, the Indians, Browns and Cavaliers are 0-for-a generation. Maybe two.

James intends to change that.

“It’s my goal,” he said. “Guys are talking about making the playoffs. I want to win a championship.”

That may not happen this year, but there’s no reason to think an NBA title – or several championship rings – aren’t in James’ blinding future. In his first three seasons, he has impacted the league like no other player in history.

None before have scored, passed and rebounded like him at such a tender age. With MVP-type numbers, he has carried the Cavaliers, taking to just their fourth 50-win season and back to the postseason for the first time since 1998.

Now, it’s time to see if James, who joined Oscar Robertson (1963-64, 65-66), Jerry West (1965-66) and Michael Jordan (1988-89) as the only players to average at least 31 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in a season, can do it in the playoffs.

First-year Cavs coach Mike Brown expects James to soar higher than ever.

“Not comparing him to Michael Jordan, but LeBron has the necessary talent to take his game to another level,” Brown said. “And on a stage like this, it would be a great time to do it. It’s interesting to note that when you bring up Jordan and the great ones, I don’t know if any of them got it done right away.

“It will be interesting to see if LeBron can.”

As great as he was, Jordan, who scored 23 points in his playoff debut, didn’t advance in the postseason until his fourth trip, when he hung in the air and made the famed “Shot” over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo to oust the favored Cavaliers from the 1988-89 playoffs.

Somber mood surrounds Heat as playoffs loom

MIAMI – Sometime before every game, Pat Riley stands in the Miami Heat locker room and tries to say whatever he deems necessary at the time to motivate his team.

He may not have to say a word on tonight.

As if the Heat didn’t have enough reasons already to be ready for the start of the Eastern Conference first-round series with the Chicago Bulls, another presented itself Friday when the team learned that Riley’s mother Mary, 96, had died in upstate New York.

Riley did not speak with reporters after running practice on Friday, and will lead the Heat through their shootaround and then Game 1 of the series on Saturday. The team has not released any information about what Riley’s plans are for Sunday and beyond.

“There’s far more important things than basketball, obviously, but we should make his job as easy as possible right now by going out and doing everything in our power to win this game,” forward Udonis Haslem said.

“Everyone do their job. He’s given us his best, and now it’s time for us to give him something.”

Riley spent four days earlier this week in his native Schenectady, N.Y. area with his mother, returning to the club on Thursday. He missed Miami’s final two regular-season games, both losses in which neither Shaquille O’Neal nor Dwyane Wade played.

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Spurs get no first-round break against Kings

SAN ANTONIO – Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs have won plenty of postseason prizes in recent years. This first-round playoff matchup definitely isn’t one of them.

As a reward for the best regular season in franchise history while holding off Dallas for the Western Conference’s top seed, the defending NBA champions open the postseason on Saturday against Ron Artest and the Sacramento Kings, who surged into the playoffs on a 25-11 run and caught the league’s attention with their newfound toughness.

“It seems like if you ended up first, you ought to play the eighth-best team in the West,” said Popovich, who coached the Spurs to three titles in the last seven seasons.

“These guys are – whatever you want to call them – the third-, fourth-, fifth-best team in the West with the way they’re playing here lately. It’s a very, very, very tough draw, but that’s the way the cards have been dealt.”

No, the Kings aren’t the average eighth seed. While the top-seeded Detroit Pistons – San Antonio’s foe in last season’s finals – are expected to toy with the 40-42 Milwaukee Bucks in the East, the Spurs will take on a hungry, veteran club that Artest boldly called “the team to beat” on Thursday.

The Spurs won’t go that far, but the matchup should provide a quick test of the Spurs’ readiness for another long playoff haul – or a quick exit if the Kings pull a best-of-seven shocker.

“We think we’ve probably got as good of a shot as anybody against them, so I guess we’ll take it,” Kings center Brad Miller said.

But if anybody can handle such an unorthodox matchup, it’s the seasoned Spurs. San Antonio was as consistent as Tim Duncan’s footwork this season, going 63-19 while overcoming injuries and quietly building the bench’s cohesion and toughness for the difficult days of May and June.

The Kings (44-38) had more peaks and dips than a roller coaster, nearly flopping in January before surging to one of the NBA’s best finishes. Artest’s arrival in a trade for Peja Stojakovic transformed Sacramento into “one of the better defensive teams in the entire league now,” according to Popovich – a shocking concept to fans of the Kings’ freewheeling past clubs.

That’s why it’s hard to determine what the longtime Western powers’ first playoff meeting will resemble.

Will the clubs lock down on each other in a defensive struggle, or will high-scoring point guards Mike Bibby and Tony Parker coax their clubs into long stretches or run-and-gun ball, as the Spurs adeptly played last season against Phoenix?

“Their personality has changed,” Duncan said. “They’re a better defensive club. They also do the things they’ve always done. They’re very good passers. They’re very unselfish, and a very good shooting team. They move well without the ball. They still do that stuff, and (Artest) fits right into it.”

While eight members of the Kings’ 12-man roster weren’t even with the club last spring, the Spurs knew their mission from the first days of training camp, when Popovich reminded his core players they had never repeated as champions.

Duncan, the three-time NBA Finals MVP, played the stretch run with a nagging leg injury. He averaged a career-low 18.6 points, but showed a toughness that never surprised his teammates. Like most clubs, the Kings never have found a consistent way to slow Duncan.

“Nothing’s changed at all. Timmy is our go-to guy,” said Parker, who averaged a career-best 18.9 points. “I think they will have problems with Timmy. They have no one who can stop him. Manu (Ginobili) and I will try to get baskets in transition, but it all starts inside with Timmy.”

Nobody in a purple uniform is hungrier for the playoffs than Artest, who spent most of the past 11/2 seasons at home. He was suspended for 73 games and last season’s playoffs for the infamous brawl in the Detroit stands, and the Indiana Pacers deactivated him for 25 games this season following his trade request before shipping him to Sacramento.

“I only watched the Pacers last year,” Artest said of his television viewing habits. “Every day I would just work out and get ready for this year. It was kind of hard, though. … (Duncan) is too tall for me, but if I had to guard him, I would. I just want to be out there.”

AP-ES-04-21-06 1702EDT

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