It may have taken quite a bit of time and a couple of trades to get there, but the Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged as the terrifyingly efficient killing machine many experts pegged them to be at the start of the season.
Sunday’s performance on national television was just another coming of age party that has sent the rest of the Eastern Conference scurrying for cover. The Cavaliers handled the Chicago Bulls, one of their closest rivals for Eastern Conference supremacy, with relative ease, as the 99-94 final score was somewhat misleading.
The triumvirate of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love was slow to come to life, but they’ve found a groove, and what’s scary is they haven’t even reached their peak. James had his first triple-double of the season on Sunday and Irving was once again the best shot-maker on the court. (J.R. Smith‘s hot shooting notwithstanding.)
Even Love, the much-maligned third wheel, has been finding his own range of late and came up with the dagger three-pointer to bury Chicago.
Cleveland has now won 18 consecutive home games after the triumph over the Bulls on Sunday. With the Central Division and the second seed in the East essentially sewn up, they can rest easy knowing they’ll have to suffer their first home loss since Jan. 7 if any team other than the Atlanta Hawks wants to throw them out of the playoffs. (That’s if the Cavaliers don’t lose another home game the rest of the regular season, of course.)
Since that Jan. 7 home loss – which came as part of a worrying six-game losing skid – the Cavs have gone 31-10 and lost back-to-back games just once.
Part of their emphatic turnaround has been the eventual integration of Smith and Iman Shumpert into the lineup. The trade with the New York Knicks received a tepid response at the time, as some wondered the wisdom of adding Smith, sometimes deemed a distraction, to a team with serious designs on reaching the Finals.
Smith, for his worth, has played some of the best basketball of his career. His mission on the floor is to provide a release valve for the Cavaliers should their top trio fail to ignite. His performance against the Bulls was perhaps his finest work yet – an 8-17 shooting night may sound average, but Smith took every shot from behind the three-point line (an NBA record) and was sitting at 7-10 at halftime.
Many of Smith’s threes came on the kind of broken play he should see plenty of in the postseason. Teams will go to great lengths to stymie the Cavaliers’ offensive sets and force them to scramble for shots, and this has been J.R’s hunting ground all season, nailing shots when the ball invariably swings its way to him with nobody around.
The acquisition of Smith and Shumpert wasn’t the only key move made this season, as the arrival of Timofey Mozgov has also been a god send because of the frontcourt situation earlier in the year. The season-ending injury suffered by Anderson Varejao was greeted with all the happiness of a death in the family, and rightly so. For several games following the loss, the Cavaliers struggled with rebounding and rim protection and were often forced to deploy the defensively challenged (to put it kindly) Love as the last line of defense.
Enter Mozgov. The move was heralded at the time as a strong addition, but few surely anticipated the impact he would have on Cleveland’s shoddy interior defense.
The price for Mozgov – two first-round picks – meant his success was almost a necessity. He has repaid that faith in kind: the Russian is averaging just shy of a double-double per 36 minutes (14.9 points and 9.9 rebounds), and the Cavaliers are giving up just 101.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, one of the best marks on the team, per Basketball-Reference.com. Cleveland has given up nearly 108 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
Mozgov’s offensive contributions have also been a surprisingly welcome addition. He’s certainly not peak Bill Russell or anything, but by virtue of his overwhelming size and soft touch in the post, Mozgov at least garners enough attention to ensure his defender can’t ignore him and double team Irving, Love or James.
Taking another example from Sunday’s win, when the Cavaliers fielded a unit consisting of Irving, Smith, James, Love and Mozgov, the Bulls were forced to either put their best big man defender in Joakim Noah on Love on the perimeter and watch Pau Gasol fail to stop the massive Russian, or put Noah on Mozgov and allow Love free reign on the perimeter.
All told, the Cavaliers have come together to resemble a team quite capable of representing the East in the NBA Finals. Around them, the Hawks have been slowly regressing from their early-season peak, while the Bulls have been an weirdly incoherent team all year.
Whisper it quietly, but the Cavaliers are coming, and they’re coming at the perfect time.