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It's one of the particularly disjointing quirks of the 24-hour news cycle and oversaturated sports media landscape that it feels like it was both just yesterday and 100 years ago that the Cleveland Cavaliers were careening off the rails, sitting sub-.500 after six straight losses with headlines about shoves and shrugged shoulders carrying the day. An awful lot has changed in just two weeks' time.
Suddenly, the Cavs are on a six-game winning streak, a surge sparked by bowling a few frames and sweeping Staples before scoring four straight double-figure victories, bookended by confident dispatchings of the Central Division-leading Chicago Bulls (who seem to have some issues of their own to address) and the Kevin Durant-led Oklahoma City Thunder (ditto).
Just like that, lickety split, the Cavs have the league's second-longest winning streak — we still see you, Atlanta Hawks — and have an excellent chance to extend it when they visit the Detroit Pistons, whose recent roll was slowed by the loss of point guard Brandon Jennings, at the Palace on Tuesday night.
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Though it took place on Jan. 25, three full weeks before the All-Star Game in a regular season that starts before Halloween and goes past Easter, [the matchup with the Thunder] truly was a big game.
And for once, the Cavaliers prevailed.
"We've improved, mentally more than anything," LeBron James said Sunday [...]
Remember, James said once this was a "very fragile" team. [...]
"We're a confident bunch, but for us, we're a humble bunch," James said. "It's one game, against a very experienced team, a very talented team, very good team that's been together for a while and it shows that we can match up with that caliber team."
The thing is, though, we already knew that the Cavs could beat good competition — they'd taken down Chicago, blown out the pre-rampage Hawks, taken a pair from the Toronto Raptors, and scored convincing wins over the Washington Wizards and Memphis Grizzlies. So what's been different about the Cavs during this recent uptick in form besides the brain boost LeBron referenced?
Well, for starters, there's been LeBron himself.
After a two-week stint on the DL to rest a balky left knee, strained back and body that hadn't felt right all season, the four-time MVP has looked more like the fire of
old young, averaging 29.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.3 steals in 36.3 minutes per night during the streak, shooting 50 percent from the floor.
His offensive profile hasn't changed a ton — he's taking roughly the same share of his shots in the paint, from midrange and from beyond the arc during Cleveland's streak as he did before coming back — but he's been an absolute monster in the lane since returning, improving his field-goal percentage on shots in the paint from an already strong 60.3 percent to a nuclear 69 percent over the last six games. James is also getting to the charity stripe more often these days, generating 10.2 free-throw attempts in 36.3 minutes per game over his last half-dozen outings compared to 7.9 in 37.5 before his fortnight away, despite drawing less than one full additional personal foul (7-per-game over the last six, 6.1-per-game before) per contest.
As you watch James' attempts in the paint during the winning streak, you see the full arsenal of weapons with which he generates high-percentage looks. He's running the wing hard off of turnovers, defensive rebounds and even, at times, opponents' makes. He's displaying the sharpened footwork in the post he's developed to over the years to become a nightmare on the block. He's making timely and explosive off-ball cuts on the rare occasion that his defender has somehow stopped paying attention to LeBron James.
Perhaps most encouragingly, he's showing not only a willingness to attack quickly after receiving a screen in the pick-and-roll, but also the burst to be able to push his giant frame through tight spaces and past the initial line of defense, where he almost invariably needs only one dribble to find himself one-on-one against an interior defender with an opportunity a mere handful of feet away from the basket.
"My first step is back," he told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick after Sunday's win over Oklahoma City, and the tape, the numbers and the results all suggest he's right.
While having a firing-on-all-cylinders LeBron is certainly enough to tilt a team's fortunes, though, other things are going right for the Cavaliers, too. The early returns on general manager David Griffin's midseason trades to shake up the rotation, improve Cleveland's depth on the wing and add some heft in the middle have been very promising.
We haven't seen very much of Iman Shumpert in a Cavs uniform, as the shoulder injury he suffered while still a member of the New York Knicks back in December kept him sidelined for the first couple of weeks after the big three-way trade, but Cleveland's outscored the opposition by 32 points in his 24 minutes of playing time in his first two games back; so far, so good. Instead, it's been the big-contract-having ne'er-do-well who came along with Shump from Manhattan who's been the star of that particular deal thus far.
After a bummerific ohfer of an opener to his time in Ohio, J.R. Smith has moved seamlessly into Cleveland's starting lineup and flourished in a role perfectly tailored to his interests: bomb away from deep, run the floor, hunt highlights and just kind of fly around. Smith's averaging 16.9 points per game in nine games as a #STARER for the Cavs, attempting a frankly hilarious nine 3-pointers in 34.5 minutes per game — more than Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver or, y'know, literally anyone else in NBA history has attempted on a per-game basis over the course of a full season (Baron Davis came closest). That's why he's already 60th on the Cavs' all-time 3-point attempts list, despite having played just 10 games in Cleveland, which is so mindboggling it has to be true.
A funny thing happened on the way to another J.R. punchline, though; he's drilling a deadly serious 40.7 percent of those 3s, thanks in large part to the acres of space defenses are affording him due to the presence of his starry teammates (62.2 percent of his field-goal attempts as a starter, including 70.4 percent of his 3-point tries, have come with no defender within even four feet of him, according to the NBA's SportVU optical tracking data) and the service he's receiving (60 of his 81 triple tries have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, where J.R.'s always been more deadly than off the dribble).
Smith has been exactly the kind of floor-spacing jolt of instant offense that Cleveland hoped he'd be, bringing precious little drama, seeming energized by playing on a good team for the first time in two years (when, lest we forget, he won Sixth Man of the Year honors) and looking like he genuinely enjoys doing fun, productive stuff again:
While Smith has helped make the Cavs more lethal from outside, Russian big man Timofey Mozgov has made Cleveland significantly stouter on the interior. He's averaging nearly a double-double — 10.5 points and 9.2 rebounds on 57.8 percent shooting — during the winning streak, and the Cavs have been beastly on the offensive glass with him in the mix, grabbing 37.7 percent of their own misses in Mozgov's minutes during the streak (up from 27.2 percent for the full season) and producing nearly eight more second-chance points per 48 minutes with Mozgov on the floor during the streak (21.6) than on the whole over the course of the campaign (12.9).
Mozgov isn't an elite defensive rebounder; he's grabbing 22.7 percent of opponents' misses this season, right around 25th among centers (depending on whether or not you consider Tim Duncan a center) who have played rotation minutes. Nor is he an elite rim protector; opponents are shooting 50.6 percent at the rim with him in the neighborhood this season, 38th in the league, which ranks right between Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson. Despite those relatively pedestrian numbers, though, he's having a real impact on the defensive end for the Cavs.
Cleveland's still been mostly middling at preventing baskets during this hot stretch, ranking 16th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession over the last half-dozen games. With the 7-foot former New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets pivot on the floor, though, the Cavs have allowed just 97.2 points-per-100 over the last six games, a mark commensurate with the top-ranked Golden State Warriors' defense over the course of the full season.
Such stinginess likely won't last; it'd strain credulity to suggest that simply plunking Mozgov in the middle will turn the Cavs from a bottom-third-of-the-league D into a meat-grinder squad that snuffs out opponents' every option. But he's a very big person who can move around, get in the way of drivers and dissuade shot attempts, which makes him a perfect fit for the more conservative style of pick-and-roll coverage — way less aggressive high hedging to try to cut ball-handlers off, way more dropping back toward the paint to keep the ball in front of you — to which head coach David Blatt has turned of late. The results have been pretty decent so far, and when you've got offensive talent like Cleveland does, "pretty decent" defense can often send you home with a W.
So, too, can simply trying hard. Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney wrote after the Cavs beat Chicago that Cleveland's "effort level on defense [had been] palpably different" in the wins over the Lakers, Clippers and Bulls; "James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love might not be All-NBA defenders at the moment, but they’ve been more reliable in coverage recently." That's continued, with more active hands, more deflections, more tips turning into steals and open-court opportunities for an offense that's averaging nearly six more fast-break points per game during this winning streak than it did in the first 39 games of the season.
The standard small-sample-size caveats apply — we're talking about 93 total minutes over a span of six games — but all told, Cleveland's new-look starting five has looked monstrous since its introduction two weeks ago. James-Irving-Love-Smith-Mozgov has scored at a rate (113 points-per-100) that would eclipse the league-leading Clippers' O, defended at a clip (95.2 points-per-100) that would nudge the rampaging Dubs down to second place, and outscored the opposition by 17.8 points-per-100, head-and-shoulders above the mark that has Golden State looking like one of the best teams we've seen in the last couple of decades.
Plus, Mozgov holding down the center spot has bumped Tristan Thompson back to the bench, where he's been feasting on second units (just under nine points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes per game since Mozgov came on board), while Smith slotting in so capably on the wing (with Shumpert now joining him) has meant less reliance on more limited players like rookie Joe Harris or aging vets Mike Miller, James Jones and the farewell-touring Shawn Marion. Strengthening the starting lineup has added depth to the reserve corps, giving Blatt more, and higher-class, options to choose from as he sets about setting his team right after its early stumbles.
"It is a process," Blatt recently told Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski. "It really has to come first from the professional side. Man to man, we're OK. We don't go out drinking together, but we're fine man to man. But professionally, LeBron wants to win. And he wants from me, from any coach, a vehicle to help him win. [...] He's one of the great players of all time. He's been in the Finals four straight years and five times overall. He's got his own opinions and he expresses them. At times, he can be stubborn. But what I know from him, what he wants from me, is a vehicle to help him win. And beyond that, nothing else is really important."
Thanks to a well-timed midseason tune-up for LeBron, a nitrous-oxide injection of offense in Smith and a brand new suspension system in Mozgov to keep things stable on the back line, the Cavs are finally starting to resemble that sort of vehicle. Just how far LeBron can drive it, though, remains to be seen.
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