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Have the Cavaliers Flipped the Switch?

Are the Cavs flipping the switch much like the early-2000s Lakers?

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During the Los Angeles Lakers’ three-peat years from 2000-2002, the team often talked about “flipping the switch.” During the regular season, they sometimes appeared bored or disinterested and routinely found themselves in tight games against lottery teams, even losing some of those games. The basketball world would then wonder if the team had run its course; if the tension between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant was too much; if other teams had caught up with them.

But when the Sacramento Kings or San Antonio Spurs came to town, we would see a completely different team — team that looked like they wanted to remind the entire NBA just who they were. And then everyone from Phil Jackson to Shaq to Kobe and on down would talk about “flipping the switch,” and how they knew they’d show up when necessary.

The rest of the league seemed to understand that as well. Each year it seemed as if some pseudo-contender would sprout up only to buckle under the might of Shaq and Kobe in the playoffs, arguably the top two players in the league during that time span.

It appears as if the same thing might be happening with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Sure, the situations are a little bit different. The Cavaliers have been without their second-best player in Isaiah Thomas as he recovers from a hip injury. The Lakers were just bored. But since the season began, despite the Cavs struggles, they’ve gotten up when they’ve needed to.

In the season opener in Kyrie Irving’s return to Cleveland with the Boston Celtics, a team that many have predicted to be a legit threat to the Cavs for Eastern Conference supremacy, they were impressive as they sent an early message in a 102-99 win. Later on that week, in the second game of the season against the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, another team some have thought could challenge Cleveland, the Cavs took care of business in a blowout road win.

It was then that the struggles really started to hit. Cleveland went on a stretch that saw them lose five out of the next six games, including a four-game losing streak. However, taking a look at some of those teams they lost to, they will not see the New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets in the playoffs. Despite the current standings, it’s just as likely the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks miss the playoffs than make it.

Right after that stretch, prior to a highly publicized matchup between the Cavs and the Washington Wizards, John Wall talked about smelling blood when asked about Cleveland’s struggles. The Wizards were another team that some thought could give the Cavs a legitimate challenge in the East. By the time the game was over, the Wizards never knew what hit them. Lebron James went off for a season-high 57 points in another Cavs statement win.

Since then, they’ve looked like they might be turning the corner a little bit. In their most recent win on Monday night against the Detroit Pistons, a team that coming into the game was tied for the second-best record in the East, the Cavs put on a dominating performance as they cruised to what might have been their most impressive win of the season.

There is a bit of a lesson here, however, a warning so to speak from the same Lakers team. During the 2002-03 season, immediately preceding the three-peat, Shaq missed the first 12 games of the season after delaying foot surgery in the offseason. The team struggled mightily without him, getting off to a 3-9 start. When he returned, they continued to struggle and didn’t end up turning things around until the new year. They didn’t have a record over .500 until Feb. 6, 2003.

They did eventually win 50 games and get into the playoffs, but they struggled there as well. They needed six grueling games to put away the Minnesota Timberwolves before having their title run ended by the Spurs in the second round.

At this point, the Cavaliers have shown up for every statement game this season. They’ve sent the message that no matter what kind of turmoil they might be going through, there isn’t a single team in the East that can beat them in a seven-game series. Once they get Thomas back, they’ll be that much stronger. It’s still extremely hard to see any team in the East actually mounting a real challenge to Cleveland.

They can’t get too complacent, however, lest they end up like the 2002-03 Lakers.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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