Cleveland Cavaliers are piling up 'statement' wins, proving they can punch back in NBA's Eastern Conference

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Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) reacts after making a 3-point shot in the first half of a 115-99 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]
Cavaliers forward Kevin Love (0) reacts after making a 3-point shot in the first half of a 115-99 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. [Tony Dejak/Associated Press]

The underdog Cavaliers have a lot more bite than bark these days.

And on Wednesday night, they made yet another statement. The message is they can trade punches with any team in the Eastern Conference, at least on any given night.

It came in the form of a resounding 115-99 win over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.

Consider that the Cavs finished the first quarter trailing by nine points, taking the Bucks' best haymaker, and were in complete control for the rest of the night. Consider, also, that rookie Evan Mobley dunked over Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo on a play that will undoubtedly be the phone or computer background for many Cavs fans and yet another highlight reel for the clear frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year.

'He's the one': Cavs teammates rave about rookie Evan Mobley

Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff said before the game that he wasn't as concerned with sending a message or making a statement to the Bucks or the rest of the conference, but that it was more about how the Cavs are performing and if they can make the needed in-game adjustments.

Outscoring the defending champs in the final three quarters 89-66 would qualify.

"Just who we are," Bickerstaff said when asked what this win says about the group. "We take challenges, we don’t run from anybody, we don’t back down. And we give everybody our best shot."

Going into the game, Bickerstaff wasn't worried about making a statement. Well, it happened anyway.

"The statement is what our guys are capable of," Bickerstaff said. "This isn’t a commentary on opponents, right? It’s a commentary on our group of guys and the ability they have when they're together. That’s the statement we’re making. This is about us as a group and what we can do when we play the right way, play together."

The win catapulted the surprising Cavs (30-19) into third place in the Eastern Conference, just 1.5 games behind the top-seeded Miami Heat. They're also just one game from dropping to the sixth seed in what has become a tight race between the Heat, Chicago Bulls, Cavaliers, Brooklyn Nets, Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, all 2.5 games within one another. The Cavs have beaten all of those teams except the 76ers, who they haven't yet played.

The Cavs are firmly in the conversation to host a playoff series or, in an unthinkable scenario entering the season, grab the top seed in the East.

They've won eight of their past nine games. They've earned two "statement" level wins over the Nets and Bucks within the past two weeks. The Cavs' upside has become intriguing. But it's also something that Kevin Love wants to keep out of his mind for now. They simply have too much momentum to try to think about anything else.

"It's like for me, having been in a situation, maybe not quite like this, every season is different, but I almost don't even want to acknowledge [the team's ceiling] because I just want to bottle what we have right now and keep us super hungry," Love said Wednesday night after scoring a team-high 25 points to go with nine rebounds. "And understand, yeah, we're what, 11 games over .500? We have 30 wins. People didn't expect us to be here.

"I like that we're hungry. I like that we feel like we're underdogs and people have sacrificed, people have stepped up, guys come in every day and work their asses off. I know that we will continue to do that, but it's almost like I would almost rather us fly under the radar and not talk about ceilings."

Belt it out: Rookie Evan Mobley serenades 3 Cavs players for their birthdays

The days of the scrappy, young Cavs being viewed as simply enjoying a nice stretch are finished. They'll be treated as contenders as long as they're showcasing games like Wednesday night, even if they try to view themselves as the constant underdogs for as long as possible.

But they also know that they're not going to sneak up on anybody now. Their resume has become too strong.

"Obviously now we know that teams are taking us more seriously and they’re going to get prepared because right now we’re [third] in the East and we’re playing great basketball, especially from the beginning of the season," said Cedi Osman, who made six 3-pointers and scored 23 points against the Bucks. "Obviously teams are going to come ready and they’re going to try to beat us. I think that we have caught the flow and now we just have to keep playing like we’ve been playing all season."

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Beating some of the top teams in the East in a seven-game series, as opposed to playing at a high level on one night, is a completely different story and a test that most of the Cavs have yet to face at this level. The Cavs aren't getting ahead of themselves, as it has been noted by many that there's still a long way to go. But quickly, the Cavs' hunger for the next level has created an appetite for more.

"Now it's getting guys in a mindset of, can we do it again?" Love said. "Can we do it night in and night out?... And as much as myself or anybody that chooses to keep it on the back burner and not, listen, we're gonna acknowledge it, but fly under the radar, we're gonna start getting everybody's best shot. People are gonna start looking at us as – if they haven't already – as a very good team in this league.

"And that's something that we want. We want respect in this league. We want teams to understand that we want to bottle this up and make something special here."

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cavs. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

Cavaliers at Pistons

Time: 6 p.m. Sunday

TV: Bally Sports Ohio

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cavaliers are piling up 'statement' wins, proving they can punch back