The Cleveland Cavaliers destroyed the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday night, slicing and dicing the NBA's third-stingiest defense to the tune of 111 points, 30 assists on 43 made field goals and 14 3-pointers, rolling up a 29-point lead on the road against the second-best team in the Western Conference. The dominant, leave-no-doubt win — which Grizzlies talismen Tony Allen deemed an "old fashioned beat down" and Zach Randolph said left him with "a sick feeling in [his] stomach" — improved the Cavs to 28-6 since Jan. 15, the day after their famed bowling trip, which marked their second game with a rejuvenated LeBron James rejoining the new-look starting lineup remade via midseason trades by general manager David Griffin.
Cleveland's been an absolute wrecking crew over the past two-plus months, owning the NBA's best record, far and away the No. 1 offense in the league (112.4 points per 100 possessions, a full 2.5 points-per-100 ahead of the Golden State Warriors) and the league's second-best efficiency differential over that span (outscoring the opposition by 10.7 points-per-100, second only to the league-best Dubs).
And they haven't rolled up those marks against the league's weaker links. David Blatt's club has a 14-1 record against the West since Jan. 15, knocking off nearly the entire likely Western playoff bracket — the first-place Warriors, second-place Grizzlies, fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, fifth-ranked Los Angeles Clippers (twice), No. 6 San Antonio Spurs, No. 7 Dallas Mavericks and No. 8 Oklahoma City Thunder — over that stretch. (Their lone loss to a Western playoff club in that span: the "you've got to make your free throws" overtime defeat at the hands of the third-seeded Houston Rockets.)
After another feather-in-their-cap win, you'd have expected the primary storyline to be the Cavs peaking at the right time, playing their best ball of the season as the Atlanta Hawks falter to become, in the eyes of many, the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in this June's NBA Finals. Instead, the trending topic was a reheated bit of alleged dysfunction, something a bit less exciting, a bit more junior-high-reminiscent, and a bit tougher to pin down. From Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:
Kevin Love's future in Cleveland is more uncertain not only by the day but by the latest social media postings from LeBron James. [...]
Love is viewed by some as an aloof player who alienated teammates in Minnesota and is now doing the same in Cleveland. [...]
several sources close to the situation in Cleveland claim that James has tried to make it work but that he’s frustrated by Love’s inability, and in some ways unwillingness, to get with the program. Remember, James pushed the Cavs to trade Wiggins to the Timberwolves to acquire Love, who could be one-and-done in Cleveland.
Isola's wondering about whether Love — who has a player option in his contract for the 2015-16 season, meaning he can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent this summer, which would seem to be a sensible decision for him to make financially, even if he does ultimately want to return to the Cavaliers — is on the way out in Cleveland seems cut from the same cloth as his prior wondering about whether Kevin Durant could soon be on the way out of Oklahoma City.
The New York Knicks, the team Isola has long and ably covered for the Daily News, stinks on ice, and needs talent, and will have a bunch of money to spend in free agency over the next couple of summers. As was the case with Durant, Love represents a super-starry name who could be available for the Knicks to pursue; ipso facto, here's a story about how things are falling apart in Cleveland, based on Instagram photos and MVP-race opinions, and how it could wind up benefiting the boys in orange and blue through a potential (and, probably, pipe-dream) pairing that's been bandied about for more than a year and a half.
It's possible that whatever weirdness exists in the relationship between James and Love — and there's certainly been enough smoke there over the course of the season to make you at least wonder about the presence of fire — could result in Love donning colors other than wine and gold next season. (All things, after all, are possible through the workings of GM LeBron.) It's hard, though, to see the relationship as so remarkably dysfunctional as to require a drastic shake-up, if only because, for whatever on- and off-court awkwardness there's been, the Cavs continue to crush the opposition when LeBron and Love share the floor. Consider the following:
• The Cavaliers have 11 five-man units that have played at least 50 total minutes this season. Ten of them feature Love alongside LeBron. Nine have outscored the opposition — the lone straggler being the early-season group that put Anderson Varejao and Dion Waiters alongside the new Big Three, long since kiboshed due to Varejao's season-ending injury and Waiters' trade to Oklahoma City — with six outscoring opponents by at least 10 points per 100 possessions and five blowing the competition away by at least 20 points-per-100.
• The most frequently used of those lineups — the Cavs' post-mid-January starting five, with James and Love alongside Kyrie Irving, Timofey Mozgov and J.R. Smith — has absolutely mopped the floor with the league, outscoring opponents by a staggering 20.2 points-per-100 over the space of 412 minutes and 28 appearances, making it the second-best big-minutes five-man group in the league (behind only the surging Spurs' starting five).
• Lineups featuring LeBron and Love together have played 1,650 minutes together this season, outscoring opponents by 10.8 points-per-100, a tick above the similarly stellar mark for James-Irving lineups (+10.3 in 1,656 minutes).
• The biggest runs of the Cavaliers' win over Memphis — the late-second-quarter spurt that pushed Cleveland's lead to 13 at the half and the mid-third-quarter surge that put the game out of reach — came with LeBron and Love on the floor together.
That's due, in part, to Love becoming a valuable counter to a defensive strategy that stalled the Cavaliers' offense when they met up with the Hawks a few weeks back:
So…. watching some stuff… you know how the Hawks murdered the Cavs by trapping Kyrie? MEM tried that. They countered with Love pick and pop
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 26, 2015
That’s a major adjustment to a significant weakness. And Love KILLED Memphis with it. Major credit to Blatt for finding a counter to it.
— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 26, 2015
And it's due, in part, to Love — for all the struggling fits and false starts — finding a real comfortable rhythm working off James and Irving against the Grizzlies' front line, as broken down by Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney:
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Love played 32 minutes of seamless, proficient basketball—perhaps his most comfortable game of the season. His offense was encouraging in its variety. Love got the best of Memphis' defenders on cuts, deep post-ups, and pops off screens, avoiding those extended stretches of parked irrelevance on the weak side of the floor. [...]
Love serves a function that borders on irreplaceable. Short of James playing big minutes at power forward (something he is loathe to do), Cleveland has neither floor-spacing bigs nor particularly solvent small-ball options. Love, then, is the most effective complement to the creation of James and Irving, to the point that the Cavs suffer a losing margin (-0.7 points per 100 possessions, 7.5 points worse than otherwise) without him. Even if accepting that Love hasn't lived up to his billing, there's still no question that Cleveland is a better team for having him and learning more and more how to best utilize his skills.
And the Cavaliers most certainly made a concerted effort to utilize Love's skills on Wednesday, getting him involved en route to an efficient 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting, 10 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal in 32 minutes. After the game, Irving and James both emphasized the importance of going to Love early and often, according to Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com:
“When we’re coming out like that, Kev’s being ultra-aggressive and he’s taking open shots and he’s knocking them down, we’re practically unguardable out there,” Irving said. “From a confidence standpoint that we have, just in our offense, I told Kevin in the game, ‘Man, you space out the floor so well for us.’ It’s a big piece that we need going forward. We need him to continue to be aggressive and be himself. I know he puts in a lot of hard work, as we all do, but we trust him making those decisions because me and Bron are going to get downhill, we’re going to be aggressive and Kevin is going to do his thing, as well. So, it’s a team thing. I love it.”
James, when talking about the impact the Cavs’ sometimes-forgotten forward can have, made sure to gesture his eyes across the locker room to where Love was icing his feet after a 10-for-13 shooting night that also featured two blocked shots against the Grizzlies giants.
“It was by design to get Kev involved,” James said. “It’s always by design to get him involved. Tonight, he was very aggressive. One of his first plays he got a dunk. I think that was his first basket, and when you get a dunk, it kind of sets the tone. I think he had three of them tonight. In order for us to do what we need to do at the end of the day and be great, the Big Three got to play at a high level and we did that tonight.”
They've been doing it just about every night for about two and a half months now, leaving the wreckage of opposing defenses in their wake. If this is what frustration and "not fitting in" look like, then man ... what the hell would a happy and seamless Cavaliers team be doing to the competition?
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