The Cleveland Cavaliers’ early-season struggles appear to be a thing of the past - not all that surprising considering they won a league-best 66 games in 2008-09.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ turnaround from a slow start, on the other hand, is quite surprising.
Cleveland has taken control of the Central Division by winning four in a row and seven of eight, and looks for its eighth straight victory over the improving Grizzlies on Tuesday night at FedEx Forum.
The Cavaliers (15-5) lost their first two games and three of their first six as they adjusted to having new center Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and dealt with the uncertain status of troubled guard Delonte West(notes), who was arrested on weapons charges during a tumultuous offseason.
West has played in 12 games after sitting out the first three, and when he’s played more than 10 minutes, Cleveland is 7-2. The Cavaliers’ fourth-leading scorer (11.7 points per game) last season had his most effective game since the Eastern Conference finals Sunday, when he scored 21 points off the bench in a 101-86 win at Milwaukee.
West had 14 straight points to start the second quarter - part of a 29-0 Cleveland run that turned a seven-point deficit into a 22-point cushion. Two nights earlier against Chicago, West had played five scoreless minutes.
“He started for us on a 66-win team last year,” coach Mike Brown said. “We know what he’s definitely capable of. We’re going to be patient with him. The team’s going to be patient, I’m going to be patient and just continue kind of plugging along.
“When he gets his opportunity and he’s playing well, we’ll keep playing him. But we won’t expect that every night.”
A wrist injury sidelined West for the Cavaliers’ seventh straight win over the Grizzlies, 94-79 in Cleveland on Feb. 24. The guard had 19 points Jan. 13 in the Cavaliers’ last trip to Memphis, a 102-87 victory aided by LeBron James’(notes) triple-double (30 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists).
James, who had 51 points, nine assists and eight boards as visiting Cleveland beat the Grizzlies (8-12) in overtime on Jan. 15, 2008, is averaging 35.4 points in his last five visits to Memphis.
The Cavaliers have built a 5 1/2-game lead in the Central by winning 12 of 14, while the Grizzlies are simply trying to work their way out of the Southwest Division basement after a 1-8 start.
They seem to be on their way. Memphis has won seven of 11 since its ugly beginning, with the biggest improvement on the defensive end. The Grizzlies allowed an average of 111.1 points in their first nine games but have yielded just 100.0 in their last 11.
Their best defensive effort yet came Friday, when they held division-leading Dallas to 35.2 percent from the field in a 98-82 victory.
“I’m just pleased with the way we’ve been able to come back,” coach Lionel Hollins told the NBA’s official Web site. “… I told them if you keep making noise like this, you start getting respect. You get it from the referees, you get it from the fans, and most importantly, you get it from the rest of the NBA.”