The Cavaliers have been a one-armed man. And however extraordinary their other qualities, most people are going to see a guy with one arm, which is pretty much how the Cavaliers played defense (with occasional lapses of excellence) until a week ago.
They had perhaps an additional sense of entitlement that comes with being the presumptive favorites for the Eastern Conference. Like an only child, they showed blithe indifference toward the concept of sharing and effort outside personal endeavors was often lacking.
Still, with LeBron playing at 75% speed – hampered by his own injuries and his own deficiencies in EQ (emotional intelligence exemplified by his inconsistent defensive effort) – these faults didn’t seem so pressing. Then Anderson Varejao went down, and the charade came down with it — don’t forget this team won 12 out of 15 before Varejao’s injury.
The emotional impact of his loss can’t be understated. He was the glue. His heady experience and unquenchable on-court energy was constant gas in the tank. His absence was felt in ways that go way beyond the stat sheet. When LeBron took a break as well, the consequence was not so surprising in hindsight.
But it served a great purpose. Going 1-7 in the King’s absence drove home to the team what they were – a very good offensive team with less toughness than Punch Out’s Glass Jaw Joe. This humbling experience seems to have extended beyond Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, whose poor defense and lack of ball movement was a source of manifold ugly issues in the King’s absence.
James returned not only in better physical shape but his defensive focus is significantly tighter and his on-court body language much better. He’s human – something people lose track of because his on-court play is so transcendent –and admitted on multiple occasions that he needed to improve these aspects of his game.
While going through his rehabilitation, teammate Mike Miller said he’d not seen James ever as intent as he was those two weeks. It will be attributed to his R&R, but the break seemed to refresh him as much mentally as physically. Watching his team struggle so and take media shots could’ve had a similar bracing impact, because he’s playing much more consistently on both ends.
It’s reflected in the offense that flows so much through him. There’s a bit more ball movement, though, truth be told still a lot of iso’s and pick-and-roll, but it’s initiated quickly, and there are more cuts and action away from the ball.
But to be honest, all this would probably just been a great personality on a one-armed guy were it not for the addition of Timofey Mozgov. His addition has been the tonic for what ails their defense. Equally important has been Kyrie’s commitment to defense – which only seems to have taken place since LeBron’s return. But there’s no replacement for those two long white slats of Mozgov which he uses to put the fence in “defense”.
Not to read too much into it, but as I noted in Tuesday’s column
with before and after video, Kyrie’s ability/willingness to fight through/over screens and picks is night and day. Maybe LeBron said something to him. Maybe he didn’t have to. Whatever the impetus, let us glory in the result.
I’ve rarely seen this kind of effort on the ball – but Kyrie’s done it three nights in a row, harassing opposing starting point guards (Jazz’s Trey Burke, Clips' Chris Paul, Bulls’ Derrick Rose) into 10-39 shooting and 7 turnovers. He was even responsible for causing this 24-second violation as he fought through at least three hard picks and screens undeterred.
The defensive intensity produced multiple fast break opportunities including a couple of Kevin Love’s patented court-length baseball passes to LeBron like this. Got to love the passionate “This is MY house” stare down the Jazz’ Gordon Haywood receives afterwards.
And this incredible play where Irving’s defense foiled an alley-oop play, and the trailing J.R. Smith tapped the loose, still-airborne ball out toward the 3-point line where Tristan Thompson retrieved it, handed it to an already-turned-offensive Kyrie, who stumbled but still managed to throw a perfect oop of his own to Kevin Love.
Which is perhaps all prelude for saying, "How about those Cavs!" Their effort on both ends has been splendid, though they did stop playing defense in the fourth quarter, forcing the return of LeBron when they trimmed the 23-point lead to 12, and even briefly got it into single-digits after his return.
That will soon be forgotten. What will be remembered is that this team has for two games in a row had five starters with 15 points or more. Before this week it’d been almost 22 years since the last time the Cavs did, back in the days of Price, Daugherty, Nance, and Ehlo. That’s evidence of the balance they’ve showed during this four game win streak.
Combine that with defense that has held their last three teams below 35% FG during the first half the last couple games, and there’s plenty to be excited about as a Cavs fan. (Enough that maybe announcer/ex-coach Mark Jackson’s agent Rich Paul and the national sports media won’t fire Coach David Blatt.)
They closed it out early going on a 24-6 run from 4:30 in the first until 7:24 was left in the second. While the Jazz got closer, the game was decided during this stretch, and the Cavs effectively kept their distance, shooting over 50%. They scored 9 of their points at the line during that stretch constantly going toward the basket, and were able to create much other offense out of transition and early in the clock for much of the game.
As many fans tweeted during the game, this is the Cavs team they were looking for. It’s been here all the time; they just couldn’t put it together consistently. They’ve finally begun to do that, with the help of their new additions, Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith.
The final piece gets unveiled on Friday when Iman Shumpert returns from a dislocated shoulder against the Charlotte Hornets. The Cavs beat the Hornets 97-88 last month, after jumping out to a 21-0 lead, and again 91-87 just after the New Year, the Cavs' only win this season without LeBron. (Both Al Jefferson and Lance Stephenson missed that game, but they’ll be back on Friday.)
The Hornets have won 8 out of 9 since that last meeting and as thus are PRIMED to upset the cart on this little Cavaliers joyfest. Let’s hope the Cavs don’t look past them to Sunday’s nationally televised game against the Thunder.
I’ll be covering both, tweeting video live from the game. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne
and read my column the next day on the Cleveland Scene blog.