CLEVELAND – For the first time this year, you could really smell the flavors coming together in what the coach David Blatt and the Cleveland Cavaliers hope is a championship dish. The aroma of a full roster has permeated their present seven- game win streak, highlighted by three straight games with 120+ points against playoff teams like the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.
The wins were keyed by the return mid-December of fireplug defensive wing Iman Shumpert and a week or so later of Kyrie Irving. After nine games back, the minutes-restriction is coming off Irving, who celebrated by scoring 25 and 32 in the two games while making more than 60% of his shots against the Raptors and Wizards. Yeah, he looks back.
It was the culmination of an up-and-down stretch beginning with Cleveland’s only home loss of the year, to the Washington Wizards 97-85 on December first. The Cavaliers got revenge by way of a 121-115 victory on the Wizards’ home court to open a six-game road trip.
Irving and Shumpert’s returns had downstream effects on the whole rotation, as roles were upset and minutes surrendered.
Before December was done, Blatt had made a bold lineup change, while LeBron James addressed his shooting woes.
Those two factors along with the return of Irving and the underrated Shumpert, helped spark the current win streak.
It all sort of began with an emotional 89-83 loss to the Golden State Warriors in a televised Christmas Day rematch of the NBA Finals. The Warriors have been a yardstick for the Cavaliers. Not only did Golden State deny King James his championship crown, but they haven’t let up since.
Most champions endure beginning of the season doldrums as engines warm to the season’s long grind, fully aware the 82 games are simply a prelude to the playoffs. Not the Warriors.
Golden State’s players have expressed bitterness that they didn’t get their due, amidst suggestions their run benefit from crippling playoff injuries endured by each of their opponents, not to mention the elimination of their two greatest rivals (San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers) in prior rounds.
Whether inspired, or simply incredibly talented, the Warriors ran off 24 straight wins to begin the season. Counting wins from last season, they would’ve faced off against the Cavaliers with the record for longest regular season win streak (33 games) in history on the line.
It was not to be, the Warriors lost two weeks before meeting the Cavaliers.
The close loss – which saw the Cavaliers cut the deficit to three with 67 seconds left on a J.R. Smith three-pointer – was followed with a letdown loss to the Portland Trailblazers the next night at the butt end of the back-to-back.
But Blatt and company recovered, and used those back-to-back losses as a springboard for the current win streak.New Year’s Resolutions
They bounced back from the losses to the Warriors and Blazers with wins in Phoenix and Denver to square the four-game road trip. Sometime between the road trip’s end and the game at home against Orlando on January 2, the Cavaliers got together and made their own sort of team-wide resolutions.
We weren’t privy to the specifics, but the guys made several references to it after the 104-79 win over the Magic. Kyrie spoke specifically about it and seemed to reference a comment or feeling LeBron James had after the Warriors game. James had credited Golden State’s defense and blamed their own “lack of detail.”
“Before the New Year we had a great team meeting. Basically the entire team including our staff and talked about getting back in the swing of things and really locking in on what we have to do in order to be a better team,” Irving said. “Our attention to detail is getting better. We’re preaching it every day at practice.”
Teams have team meetings and such all the time. It’s hard to put too much stock in them. So much of sports happens on the court not in conference room. What happens off it can be synonymous with lip service. As Magic coach Scott Skiles noted for his team, it’s not so much getting the players to believe what you’re preaching, or simply, talk is cheap.
(And even more so in sports.) “If you went and interviewed 25 people and asked them if hard work pays off, everybody would say, ‘Of course.’ ‘Do you work hard?’ ‘Yes, I work hard.’ But it doesn’t mean all 25 do,” Skiles said. “So, I don’t think guys have any trouble understanding the message. We can’t just talk about it, we have to go out and do it.”
So we only mention it because sure enough the Cavaliers seem suddenly focused and committed to the idea of moving the ball and making the extra pass. The timing is probably coincidental, but given the subject matter and subsequent outcomes, it bears note.
They did what they said.Rotational Roulette
The loss to the Wizards at the beginning of December was followed by road losses to the New Orleans Pelicans (in overtime) and the Miami Heat (in which LeBron didn’t play to rest).
During this time, Blatt began fiddling with the lineups. It began with sitting Mo Williams, who started at point guard in the first Wizards game. The 33-year old Williams is a fan favorite from his prior run on the team during LeBron’s first reign.
He’s still a very adept scorer and ball-handler, though not so much of a distributor.
He’s also a very poor defender, especially guarding other point guards.
(The Cavs have had some success hiding him when someone else can guard the opposing point.) Williams had proved such a sieve on defense that Blatt gave his spot to scrappy Australian Olympian Matthew Dellavedova.
When Shumpert returned, Richard Jefferson also saw his minutes decline.
The 35-year old Jefferson was once a big-time scorer and rim-rattler with the Nets, but that was eight years ago.
His length allows him to still defend 2s, 3s and 4s, but he’s below average.
He makes up for it with a sweet three stroke, the ability to put it on the deck and still elevate at the rim.
After the Christmas Day loss, James lamented to the media about the changing squads and lost continuity.
“We’ve got to play some games where we know what we want to do, what lineups we want to play out there,” James said after the game. He leveled a similar complaint the next night after the loss to the Blazers: “For eight weeks we build chemistry with who was playing, everyone taking coach’s rotations down. Now we have to get back to that; we have no rhythm.”
Blatt acknowledged the issue after that game and noted it was something he’d raised before, in expressing a bit of incredulity at how well things had gone since training camp. Despite injuries up and down the lineup even outside Irving and Shump’s season-long absence, the team had compiled the Eastern Conference’s best record. That didn’t mean they were ready for prime time. The Warriors loss proved that.
“I remember talking in preseason and saying it’s going to be tough in the beginning without all our guys or when guys are coming in and out. And we’re going to go through some adjustments,” Blatt said. “Now we’re kind of going through what we might’ve gone through in the preseason and we just have to fight through it.”
Some of the beat media stirred the pot noting that unnamed players were upset that Richard Jefferson hadn’t made it off the bench in one of the games.
A few days later another reporter noted Mo Williams’ arrival and hour before the game and commented that he didn’t show much emotion on the bench establishing a firm inference. A couple days later Williams denied his arrival was late, citing a different schedule related to treatment, and that he never shows emotion on the bench.
Another media-spun theory shot to shit.
Seeds of discord are much harder to sow or sell when the team’s in the midst of a win streak, even if Blatt did noticeably shorten the rotation in recent games. We suspect he wants to tighten Irving’s chemistry with the core seven or eight (depending on Mozzy’s fate).
LeBron & His Jumper On the other hand, things that are broken require constant tinkering, such as LeBron James’s jump shot. It’s been an intermittent guest since James’ return and completely abandoned him during the NBA Finals.
In a nod to its diminishment and the odds, James has been going to the bucket at the greatest rate in his career.
His average shot distance has move almost three feet closer. It’s not gone unnoted, as opponents have begun loading the lane, having defenders drop off their man to guard the lane against James’ drives.
The result has been one of his worst shooting percentages at the rim in his career. It’s been accompanied by the lowest free-throw shooting rate since his rookie season. He’s driving more and getting less calls.
“I’ve tried to get my rhythm back on my jump shot,” he said after a 34-point outburst against the Nuggets a day before his 31st birthday. “I haven’t been shooting it like I’m capable of shooting. The work pays off and tonight was an example of that.”
The same could be said of the Cavaliers who have shot at the 17th-best league rate on wide-open jumpers.
They’ve nearly shot better on those where they’re open. (Open is defined as a defender 4’-6’ away; wide-open is when defender is 6’+ away.) During this six-game win streak, their shooting percentage on those shots has jumped from around 54% to over 60%.
Not only is LeBron hitting his midrange shots, but the team’s hitting its open shots in general, and that makes live much easier in the NBA.
If James can keep his jumper in this kind of shape, the Cavaliers will start to resemble a bullet train bound for the NBA Finals once again.