Cavaliers Showing How Good They Can Be
Playing for a contender that’s led by LeBron James can be tough at times, since everything (on and off the court) is over-analyzed and anything short of a championship is considered a failure. Some drama is inevitable, and James and his teammates will be put under the microscope. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have experienced that this season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and this campaign is very different from their first few years in the NBA (since neither has made the playoffs, much less been on a contender with a target on their back). They’ve also had to adapt their games and make sacrifices for the good of the team.
With that said, playing for a LeBron-led team can also be an amazing experience. He’s arguably the best basketball player on the planet and he makes everyone around him better. Also, any team with James will have a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
After a rough start to the season that featured a lot of losses and criticism, Cleveland recently won 12 straight games (including wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Chicago Bulls among others). The Cavs have had a target on their back for much of the season and dealt with a lot of negativity, but it all seemed worth it during the winning streak. The group showed how good they can be when they play to their full potential, and they seemed to really enjoy playing together.
“I think the biggest thing for me is just how fun it is out there,” Irving said. “The game is so easy. Guys are scoring points seamlessly. Efficiency is a big thing for our team, it helps our offense. But more importantly, our defense is leading to our offense. We’re getting on out on the break and making the right plays.”
When asked how dangerous the Cavaliers can be when they’re playing that way and getting huge contributions from each member of their Big Three, Irving didn’t hesitate.
“Very [dangerous], especially if we’re all clicking on all cylinders like that – me, LeBron and Kevin – and everyone was contributing,” Irving said. “It just makes the game so much easier for everyone around us.”
“We have a lot better players [this season]; I can definitely take [a] back seat when I need to. The trust of my teammates and the guys on this team, and having the luxury of having guys like that who can make shots, means [there are times] when all that is needed from me is to swing the basketball. We just have to continue to share the basketball and get open shots.”
After the Cavs beat the Los Angeles Lakers to start their 12-game winning streak, L.A. swingman Nick Young described how difficult it is to slow down Cleveland when James, Irving and Love are rolling.
“It felt like they were just taking turns shooting threes,” Young said. “K-Love started off, then LeBron and then it went to Kyrie. They were just passing the torch.”
Cleveland really seems to be coming together now, with their core players jelling and the team receiving significant contributions from their new additions Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
They have been playing much better lately, especially on the defensive end. Their offense has been dominant for most of the year, but now they are showing significant improvement defensively, which is a huge step forward for them. During their winning streak, the Cavs held opposing teams below 100 points in 10 of their 12 victories and, as Irving said, they were focusing primarily on defense and using that to start their offense.
“Defensively, we’re very, very good right now,” James said. “We understand what we want to do, what we want to accomplish every night on the floor. When you have that type of mind frame and guys know where guys need to be and guys trust the guys behind them, it definitely helps.”
“Without question, our defense has triggered a new feeling and a new kind of hope in the team that we can stop people and we can do things as a result of our defense more so than us being initiative and motivated through our offense,” head coach David Blatt said. “That’s really a good thing because that you can do every night.”
“Our offense is not necessarily dictating our defense – it’s the other way around,” Irving said. “That’s the way it has to be, especially if we want to win ball games. Our defensive intensity is keeping us ahead or within reach of teams and we close out the game.”
Even with their recent winning streak and improved play, the Cavs are still just the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, behind the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. With that said, they’re only one game back from the third seed and three and a half games back from the second seed. James made it clear that the Cavs need to focus on themselves and not watch the standings.
“We can’t worry about what every other team is doing,” James said. “We have to continue to build what we’re doing right now. We’re playing some really good basketball, we’re defending at a high level, we’re sharing the ball and it’s good for us. Whatever every other team does, we can’t play for them; we play for ourselves and [try to] get better.”
While Cleveland is a relatively young team with a seemingly wide window to contend (assuming they’re able to keep James and Love long-term, as expected), there is a sense of urgency and James has made it clear that the goal is to win a title this year. Any team with James is going to have championship-or-bust expectations and this year’s Cavs squad is no different. The fact that James is 30 years old and has played over 41,500 minutes in the NBA could also be a reason for this sense of urgency. He knew there would be growing pains in Cleveland since he was leaving a veteran-laden team for a much younger group, but he expects to contend and for everyone in the organization to be professional and contribute to Cleveland building a winning culture.
“There’s no time to wait,” James said. “When I decided to come back, I wanted to change the culture back to where it was when I left – get back to the winning ways, but also just get back to being professionals. The teams that I played on when I was here, we were professionals. We got to the Finals once, got to the Eastern Conference Finals a few times, put some banners up in the arena. More than anything, we were professionals. You never heard anything about us off the court. We all took care of business, came to practice every day, came to work every day as professionals. More than anything, you come and be professional. That’s all you can ask. It’s a game, you’re going to win, you’re going to lose, but how you carry yourself off the floor is what matters most.”
That culture change is in progress and Cleveland is making huge strides on the floor. The Cavs are realizing their full potential and come playoff time they should be even more comfortable together on the floor, which is a scary thought for the rest of the teams around the NBA.
Beal Has Mild Stress Reaction in Leg
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal will miss tonight’s game against the Toronto Raptors, the team announced today.
This will be the third game in a row that Beal has sat out. He missed the last two games (against the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic) with a sore right big toe and subsequent examinations revealed a mild stress reaction in his lower right fibula.
Beal will be re-evaluated following the All-Star break, and then the team will likely announce a timetable for his return. The fact that the All-Star break is longer this year will help Beal, giving him more time to recover.
This is his third time that Beal has dealt with a stress reaction in his leg since entering the NBA. He missed a few weeks dealing with one last season and his 2012-13 season ended prematurely due to a stress reaction.
Beal has averaged 15 points, 3.8 rebounds and three assists while shooting 43.6 percent from three-point range in 42 games for the Wizards this season.
The 21-year-old shooting guard missed the first nine games of the season due to a wrist injury, but Washington managed to stay afloat during this stretch (going 7-2). Garrett Temple and Rasual Butler stepped up in Beal’s absence last time and will likely be called upon to do so once again.
The Wizards have considered adding a free agent guard to improve their backcourt depth. The team has aggressively pursued Ray Allen, as I recently reported. Other free agent possibilities include Will Bynum, Bobby Brown, Dominique Jones and Toure’ Murry, according to CSN Washington.
Washington is currently 33-20, which is the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
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