The last time we were talking about a matchup between the Detroit Pistons and the Cleveland Cavaliers, the tone was much different. Nearly one month ago, the Pistons had their way with Cleveland, outscoring them 86-52 after the first quarter. Detroit knocked down 17 3-pointers, a Detroit franchise record, en route to a 103-80 blowout. After their loss to Detroit, Cleveland went on to win only two out of their next 10 games. This could have arguably been the lowest point of their season so far.
So what issue caused this Cleveland landslide? LeBron James not loving his new coach? How about Cleveland’s deficiency on the defensive side of the floor (4th in OPP FG %)? Maybe the amount of minutes the Big Three of Irving, James and Love are playing (2nd, 3rd, and 17th respectively)?
You could say it is a combination of all these issues and maybe more but it shouldn’t matter anymore.
Cleveland has recently extended their winning streak to seven games after defeating the Detroit Pistons 103-95. The Cavaliers were led by the duo of James and Irving as they combined for 70 points. Irving accounted for 38 points, 16 of them in the 4th quarter. This was your typical case of giving these two the ball and getting out of their way, on the offensive side of the floor anyways.
They continued their winning ways against the Portland Trail Blazers defeating them 99-94 behind Kyrie Irving’s 55 points, the highest point total in a game in the NBA this season.
Cleveland’s defense has been in question all season. Initially, criticism was directed at Irving and Love, as they weren’t the most effective on the defensive side of the floor. It then extended to James as YouTube highlights of his defensive “efforts” came to life. Their anchor down low, Anderson Varejao, then injured his Achilles and was declared out for the rest of the season.
Cleveland was officially in a state of emergency after their loss to Phoenix on January 13. They had fallen below the .500 mark and were quickly being written off of many people’s championship ballots.
Just when we thought Cleveland was falling into obscurity, they managed to turn it around, by and large because of their defense.
This season, Cleveland is ranked 27th in OPP FG% by allowing their opponents to shoot 46.4% from the field per game. The three teams ranked behind Cleveland are Orlando, Los Angeles and Minnesota, three lottery teams. They also ranked dead last in OPP assist per game, giving up 24.9 assists per game. However, during their eight-game winning streak, their defensive efforts has been showing. They’re holding opponents to 42.7% shooting while giving up 98.9 points per game.
The additions of Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith seemed to have helped ease Cleveland into this defensive mindset as well. Mozgov has been solid, recording a block in all but one game during the winning streak. The importance of a big body down low cannot be stressed enough, especially when you’re LeBron James’ teammate.
“You know, Chris Bosh is a great big, Kevin Love is a great big, but I’m talking about a true, 7-foot, big guy. He’s probably the best one I’ve played with since Z (Zydrunas Ilgauskas),” said James. Trading for Mozgov showed that Cleveland wanted to emphasize defense and it’s shown during their winning streak.
Irving has been making a significant impact as well. He has held his point guard counterpart to under 50% shooting in seven out of the eight games. D.J. Augustin went 8-15, scoring 19 points. The matchups weren’t chumps either: Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Trey Burke, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, and Damian Lilliard.
He’s finally coming in to his own. LeBron James sees it too, “He’s turning into a leader in his own right, and every day it’s great to see him improve.”
The biggest testament to his growth has to be the victory against Portland where Irving scored 55 points to lead Cleveland to victory with James out of the lineup. Cleveland was previously 1-8 with James out of the lineup.
It’s surprising that we haven’t even gotten to James yet. Courtesy of Basketball Reference, James has averaged 30.5 points 6.8 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.0 steals, and 50.6% FG.
Maybe we don’t need to talk about James. We know what he provides when he steps on the floor. Cleveland demonstrated that they could be a competent team that can win games against tough teams and not the same abysmal team they were about a month ago when James was out.
Cleveland is finally playing together as team. Although they may be realizing how well they can play, Cleveland still has work to do before they can be treated as legitimate championship contenders like Golden State and Atlanta.
They’ll have some more time to get it completely together. Four of their next 10 opponents are from the bottom of the NBA (Timberwolves, 76ers, Lakers, Knicks). This is the perfect time for Cleveland to catch some steam and move up in the standings.
Watch out, NBA. Cleveland is finally here.