The Cleveland Cavaliers have been lacklustre for much of 2017.
Since the turn of the calendar, the Cavs have gone just 26-20, with the NBA’s third-best offence, but fifth-worst defence.
They have had a road-heavy, hectic schedule, with six back-to-backs since the All-Star break and have dealt with injuries to key players.
As they ceded the No. 1 seed in the East to the Boston Celtics, concerns about the Cavaliers grew — was this more than just a slump? Do they have real problems? Are they planning to simply turn it on when the postseason begins because they’re bored right now?
If Wednesday’s 114-91 beatdown over the Celtics with first place basically on the line was any indication, the Cavs probably can do the latter — turn it on when they want.
LeBron James down-played the significance of the game on Tuesday, saying he’s played in too many “big games” to get worked up about a regular-season game. Even if James was being honest, it didn’t necessarily mean that the duel against the Celtics was any less meaningful.
James’ performance on Wednesday didn’t suggest he was taking the game lightly. After going down 20-19 at the end of the first quarter, James took the floor for the start of the second quarter, with the Celtics’ leading scorer Isaiah Thomas on the bench. From there, James reminded everyone that he’s the best player on the team that has ruled the Eastern Conference for the past two-plus years without much challenge.
In the second frame, James scored 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with three rebounds, three assists, and two blocks, as the Cavs outscored the Celtics 38-22. It was James at his most dictatorial, ruling both ends of the court as he pleased.
For the game, James finished with 36 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. The Cavs outscored the Celtics by 32 when he was on the court.
The Cavs are stocked with shooters, explosive scorers, and capable play-makers. They may not always be engaged enough to play to their fullest potential, and they may not have enough pieces to be an elite defensive team. But on offence, when they want to get out and moving, they can fan the floor, with a single player drawing so much attention that another deadly shooter sits completely wide open.
Wednesday wasn’t the Celtics’ finest effort — their usual brand of feisty, team-oriented play on both ends seemed to be missing, odd considering the magnitude of the game. Perhaps their own lackadaisical effort was the result of having the previous two days off and not playing since Sunday. Regardless, it was hard not to take this as a message from the Cavs.
After the game, Kyrie Irving seemed to poke fun at how the Cavs’ win might be viewed.
“I’m pretty sure everybody is going to write about it, probably this drastic change, all of the sudden the Cavs are contenders again,” Irving said (via Cleveland.com). “But for us, it’s just really minimising the mistakes that we make down on the floor and what we’re doing offensively and defensively.”
Perhaps James’ comments on Tuesday were reflective of the Cavaliers’ mindset. James and company might struggle to get up for regular season games. Their third consecutive trip to the Finals has been discussed since they wrapped up their second trip with a championship.
That can be ill-advised, of course. The Cavs are not without their own problems — they can struggle rebounding, which is even more problematic if Tristan Thompson (out on Wednesday with a thumb injury) misses more time. They don’t have a ton of capable perimeter defenders or shot-blocking. LeBron James has carried an unearthly workload in his 14th season at 32 years old.
Yet, as we were reminded on Wednesday, if LeBron and the Cavs get up for a game, there still isn’t a better team in the East.
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