The Cleveland Cavaliers are starting to look like a team to beat in the East. If it weren’t for the Atlanta Hawks 19-game win streak and their 40-8 record, most eyes would be focused on the team playing their home games at Quicken Loans arena.
The Cavaliers sport a 10-game win streak of their own, and thanks to some fantastic trades pulled off over the past month by general manager David Griffin, the team is finally starting to mesh together.
On Wednesday night, the LeBron-less Cavs won a huge game against the Portland Trail Blazers with Kyrie Irving’s historic performance. His three-pointer with six-seconds left gave the Cavs a 97-94 lead, and gave Irving an NBA leading 55-points this season.
For the first time in his young career, the 22-year old grabbed the team but the scruff of their neck, and dragged them to the win-column. It was something to behold, and a long time coming.
For the past four years, fans in Cleveland have been patiently waiting for “Uncle Drew” to finally become a leader. In years’ past, Irving has struggled taking on this leadership role, and it showed both on and off the court. While this is Irving’s fourth season, as EHC’s Steve Orbanek often mentions, he’s still 5 1/2 months younger than Michael Carter-Williams, last season’s NBA rookie of the year.
While many have pointed to his relationship with LeBron James as the lightning rod to his advanced play both offensively and defensively this season, Irving has been the one player that continually credits David Blatt for his improved play offensively.
While Irving isn’t a great defender, he’s trying, and with his athleticism, that is often good enough to make a difference, especially when LeBron is out of “Chill Mode,” and with the additions of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert.
Since LeBron has returned from his two-week break, he’s averaged 29.6 points per game, with 6.2 boards and 6.4 assists. While LeBron has turned back into the Beast of the East, what’s been most encouraging is that he’s routinely putting in an MVP performance without looking like it. Against Minnesota on Saturday night, LeBron poured in 37 points, including 16 in the fourth quarter, and barely broke a sweat.
His 40 minute-game was only his second since returning from injury, and his 36.3 minutes per game average over his last ten games played is three minutes below his career average. While many were slamming Blatt for his usage of James early in the year, it’s clear that this new roster has allowed Blatt to rest his star player.
The most worrisome player on the Cavs’ roster has been Kevin Love, who has clearly struggled over the past several months trying to fit into Blatt’s offense, while finding touches with LeBron and Kyrie on the court.
His stats, across the board, have taken a big hit, and his shooting percentage overall (45%-to-43%), as well as his three-point percentage (36%-to-33%) are showcasing a player that just can’t hit his spot.
It’s true that his back has been bothering him over the past several weeks, and that’s clearly been an issue, but there have been times this season that he’s really looked aimless on the court.
Yet there are glimpses. In 29 minutes on Friday night, Love scored 23 points with ten boards, leading the Cavs to a moderately easy 101-90 victory over the Sacramento Kings. The win never seemed in doubt, and Love looked a lot like his old self in the win.
There are clearly holes in his game right now, but in his last eight games, there are signs that parts of his game are starting to improve. Over that stretch, he’s had games of 12, 13, 13, 12, 10 and 17 rebounds. If the scoring returns, the East will be in a slew of trouble.
It’s clear that the additions of J.R. Smith (13.5, 2.9 and 2.3), Mozgov (9.8, 8.5 and 1.3 blocks), and Shumpert (10.9, 4.8 and 1.3) have complimented this team well, and that Blatt has been able to give the appropriate rotations the appropriate minutes.
Join the EverybodyHatesCleveland.com crew of Michael Hattery, Steve Orbanek and Jim Pete as they take a look at Irving and his big night, as well as chat about how this Cavs’ team has improved, and how they’ll continue to morph as the season progresses.
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