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For 29 1/2 minutes, Monday's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors was about as evenly matched as it gets, the score knotted at 69 with Toronto's All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan going shot-for-shot and blow-for-blow with Cleveland's starry starting five in a high-level game chock full of offensive execution and smart playmaking. And then the Cavaliers — finally back at full strength after the recent returns of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert — served up a reminder that when they put their foot on the gas, there might not be a team in the East that can hang with them.
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Cleveland absolutely blew Toronto's doors off after the midpoint of the third. The Cavs clamped down defensively, generating nine points off four Raptor turnovers in 6 1/2 minutes, and closed the quarter on a 21-9 run thanks largely to nine points from an aggressive LeBron James:
From there, Irving — playing in his sixth game after spending six months rehabilitating after surgery to repair a fractured left kneecap — took over.
Irving scored or directly assisted on 16 of the Cavaliers' 32 fourth-quarter points, mixing up long-range shots and forays to the rim. He kept the ball on a string, the Raptors at bay and LeBron resting on the bench, and the Cavs continued to snuff out Toronto's attack, holding the Raps to 36.8 percent shooting in the final frame. Firing on all cylinders on both ends, Cleveland ran away late, notching a convincing 122-100 win over Toronto. Irving finished with a season-high 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting to go with eight assists, six rebounds and just one turnover in 29 minutes of work in his best performance of the season.
Joining Irving in unloading on the Raptors defense was designated gunner Smith, who added 24 points on a season-high eight 3-pointers in 14 long-range attempts. That's the 14th time in his 12-year NBA career that he's canned at least eight triples in a game; only Stephen Curry (16) has more:
Tristan Thompson (14 points, 11 rebounds) and Kevin Love (14 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals) held down the interior, and James (20 points, seven assists, three steals, two rebounds) got to take the entire fourth quarter off as the Cavs cruised to their fourth straight win, improving their East-leading record to 23-9 and looking like a very different, and very frightening, team with its full roster available.
Cleveland is now 5-1 with Irving in the lineup, and has outscored its opposition by a whopping 25.5 points per 100 possessions with Kyrie on the floor during his six appearances. The new Cavalier starting five of James, Love, Thompson, Smith and Irving has generated 127 points in 52 minutes of combined playing time, outscoring opponents by 30 total points (and by 24.2 points-per-100) in that span.
With Thompson's screen-setting, rim-rolling and board-crashing occupying defenders in the middle of the floor, and shooting threats Smith and Love stretching defenders out to the perimeter, there's all sorts of room to penetrate and create on the interior. Few in the game do that better than the Cavaliers' All-Star point guard, and as Irving continues to knock the rust off, rediscover his rhythm and find the touch on those jumpers and runners — and if complementary players like Smith, Thompson, Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova feast on the open looks his threat creates — then Cleveland's offense could rise from merely top-five-caliber (as it was in the 24 games Irving missed) to perhaps the very best in the game, Steph and company included.
"Honestly, I just told him, 'Man, it's good to have you back and looking at full strength,'" Cavaliers head coach David Blatt said after the game, according to Steve Herrick of the Associated Press. "It felt like he was himself tonight. It just looked like the old Kyrie."
And it looked like an even deeper, stronger version of the Cavs team that laid waste to the league over the final 43 games of last season before injuries decimated the roster during the playoffs. That's a scary sight for clubs, like the Raptors, with designs on knocking the defending Eastern champs from their perch atop the conference ... and, if it keeps up, it just might be enough to put at least a little fear into the hearts of the West's elite.
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