For much of this season, it looked like Cleveland was miles away from putting everything together, and that made sense to the skeptics. All of the causes for hype that had experts projecting the Cavaliers atop the East at the beginning of the year were backfiring. David Blatt, trumpeted as an ingenious International Man of Mystery, was making questionable in-game decisions, and even more questionable out-of-game decisions.
Kevin Love, who many worried was a stat-padder rather than a bonafide superstar, looked strikingly like the former as the Cavs struggled to string together wins early in the season. In January, Love found himself riding the bench during fourth quarters, and is now playing his worst basketball of the year. Over his last ten games, Love is shooting under 38 percent from the field and has scored in the single digits on three occasions, even when playing thirty-plus minutes each time.
LeBron James, statistically, has had a good season by almost any standard, but looks to have lost a step. James was taking possessions off on defense, occasionally looked outright lazy on offense, and was sporting a shooting percentage under .500, his worst since the 2008-09 season.
Anderson Varejao, the team’s ideal option at center, went down for the season just before Christmas. Dion Waiters fell far short of being the team’s fourth musketeer, and was traded for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a three-way deal that became a Twitter laughingstock. After the trade, Cleveland lost four straight games, putting Blatt and Love on the hot seat, and putting James under the microscope. On January 13, Cleveland was 19-20. Since then, they have won 11 straight, despite Love’s sagging play.
How has this been happening? Well, first of all, one member of the “Big Three” has been playing some of the best basketball of his career. Kyrie Irving, who many have believed to be a point guard with too heavy of a shooting hand and not enough of an ability to distribute the ball, has played to his stereotype fairly accurately. But Irving’s proclivity toward scoring has played to Cleveland’s benefit. Irving has shot over .500 from the field over his last ten games while averaging over 26 points per contest. Among these performances have come two games with over 36 points, as well as a 55-point eruption, the league-leading single game scoring total this season.
Smith, who was more of a punchline than a contributor in New York, has become a meaningful contributor in Cleveland. Timofey Mozgov, who Cleveland acquired from Denver to fill their need at center, has also played a significant role, scoring, grabbing boards, and even protecting the rim (Mozgov had a five block game this week against Philadelphia).
And of course, with winning, Blatt no longer has to worry about losing his job to Tyronn Lue.
Of course, the Cavs are still far from being the favorites in the East, and even further from being considered serious title contenders. Cleveland is still sitting in the lower half of the East’s title picture, more than ten games behind the blinding hot Atlanta Hawks, but this is LeBron’s team, and LeBron’s teams know how to win, something that Atlanta, Washington, Toronto, and even Chicago, to a degree, are fairly unused to.
It would be very bold at this point to say that Cleveland is going to be winning, let alone playing, in the NBA Finals, but the pieces are certainly falling into place. When a team has the best player on the planet, it doesn’t die quietly. The Cavs are coming, and you shouldn’t be surprised.
Photo: Erik Drost/Wikipedia