NBA Saturday: Cleveland Cavaliers Making Big Strides

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Which NBA players seem poised to make their first All-Star appearance this season? Alex Kennedy, Steve Kyler, Jessica Camerato, Eric Pincus and Joel Brigham discuss in this video.

Cavaliers Making Big Strides

Less than two weeks ago, the basketball world was panicking about the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team that everyone expected to dominate the Eastern Conference was just 5-7 and in the midst of a four-game losing streak that caused them to drop in the standings (and nearly out of the playoff picture).

Cleveland was clearly struggling, particularly on the defensive end (ranking in the bottom five in points allowed per 100 possessions). David Griffin said that no player on the roster is untouchable. LeBron James displayed some of the worst body language of his career, and took some subtle shots at Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters that suggested they have bad habits from losing and playing selfish basketball in recent years. Kevin Love seemed unhappy, which led to rumors that he could bolt as a free agent after this season.

Things weren’t looking good for the Cavaliers, and some people were already comparing them to 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers that failed to live up to expectations with Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol (and subsequently lost Howard after one season in L.A.).

However, the Cavaliers have silenced many of their critics and are playing much better lately. Cleveland has won six straight games, thanks to an improved defense that is now ranked in the top 15 and an elite offense that is sixth-best in the league. James, Love and Irving seem to be jelling and the team is doing a better job of executing head coach David Blatt’s system on both ends of the floor.

After a recent Cavs win, Blatt summed up what’s different about his team:

“We became the aggressors and we became the attackers as opposed to being attacked,” Blatt said. “We’ve been defending and we’re not giving away opportunities and giving away points. We’re defending as well as we’ve defended the whole season.”

After their four consecutive losses to the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, Cleveland rattled off wins against the Orlando Magic, Wizards, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks and Raptors to gain confidence and momentum. The revenge wins against Toronto and Washington were impressive, since they are the top two teams in the East.

LeBronJamesInside1The winning also takes Cleveland out from under the microscope at least in the short-term, since every mistake, facial expression and quote had been over-analyzed after their early-season losses. Some of their wins haven’t been pretty, but Blatt couldn’t care less because a win is a win.

“I got a great friend who coached with me at Maccabi Tel-Aviv for a couple of years and he once told me, ‘Never underestimate a win,’” Blatt said. “I don’t know what ugly means and I don’t know what not pretty means.”

James said that it’s not just the winning streak that has created optimism; he’s just as excited about the fact that the team seems to be getting more comfortable as a group and, most importantly, playing unselfish basketball.

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“Wins help,” James said. “I think more than that, [it’s] the way we won. We played basketball the right way. We shared the ball, we defended, we sustained effort for as close to 48 minutes as possible.

“I think offensively, we’re starting to understand how fun it is to share the ball. When you get the ball moving from side to side, everyone feels a good rhythm. I think that’s very important.”

James has also loved his team’s defensive effort, which wasn’t always there earlier in the season.

“I think we’re contesting more shots, we’re understanding what the teams are running and we’re just making a conscious effort of understanding how important every possession is defensively,” James said. “It’s a lot easier offensively when we defend, when you’re not taking the ball out of the net, and we’ve done that the last few games. … In order for us to be great we have to play defense and we have been doing that. I think defensively, [we’re] taking pride in it. Guys are taking their individual tasks very [seriously] and that’s helped us.”

Love has been making an effort to play better defense lately, and that has helped Cleveland. The All-Star power forward is the first person to admit that he’ll never be a great defender, but he wants to do his part and become more of a two-way contributor.

“[I’m] just understanding it better,” Love said when asked about his improved defense. “I’ve never been really known for that in my career. Being a lockdown defender is something that I know I’ll never be. But as far as being a team defender, being in the right spots… being physical, doing those things, I can get a lot better at that. [I’m] just continuing to break down film and seeing where I can get better out there. I think it’s something I can continue to buy into and get better at.”

While the Cavaliers are playing better, some of the early criticism directed at the team was an overreaction to a small sample size. Whenever a star-studded team is assembled, there tends to be an adjustment period where the players struggle. Those early issues were magnified for the Cavs since they are a team that is full of young players and have a first-time NBA head coach who has no experience with these individuals.

Yes, it was concerning that Cleveland looked horrendous on defense and that the team was playing selfish basketball and bickering at times. But the group seems to be coming together and playing much better recently, and they seem to think that the early panic was ridiculous. Irving was recently asked how he feels about his teammates now that the Cavs are winning, and he made it clear that his relationships with his teammates are strong and don’t change for better or worse based on wins and losses.

“My feelings haven’t changed – it’s not like one week I’m going to be mad at these guys and the next day I’m going to be okay with them,” Irving said. “We’re in the trenches together every single day. That’s what I love most about this team. We get a lot of veteran leadership that keeps everything cool, calm and collected. It really boils down to our veterans. They make my job a lot easier… When we’re in the trenches together, I’m ready to fight and I’m ready to do anything it takes to win.”

Irving has been a big part of Cleveland’s recent success, averaging 22.3 points, 4.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and just 1.1 turnovers during their winning streak. He has also shot 55.5 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range over those six games. In the Cavs’ win over the Knicks, Irving had 37 points on 12-18 shooting including a clutch teardrop that sealed the win for Cleveland.

“What I really like is that he’s been playing both ends of the court,” Blatt said of Irving. “He’s consistently played as a high-level, two-way player and that’s what you want from one of your lead guys.”

LeBronKyrieInside2It seems that Irving and James are figuring out how to best co-exist. Irving can run the offense and be the team’s facilitator while James attacks, but the two All-Stars have shown that they can also switch roles if necessary. At times, such as the game against the Knicks, James has gone into playmaker mode and Irving has gone into scorer mode. These two are figuring how to complement one another, which sometimes means taking on different responsibilities depending on who is hot and who has the best matchup.

“It’s more of just a feeling – whatever coach calls and whatever I feel out there as well,” Irving explained when asked how he decides to attack or facilitate. “If I have something quick in transition or within the pick-and-roll, I have all the freedom and all the trust from my teammates to go do that.”

“I took over the point guard duties as far as distributing the ball and he took over the scoring,” James said after the Cavs’ win over the Knicks. “We needed it. I read the game. I saw Kyrie got it going. You feed the hot hand and you make sure everyone else gets involved.”

Irving has been sacrificing shots, making smart plays, moving the ball and playing team-first basketball, which is impressive to see from a 22-year-old player who’s never been to the postseason. Irving has also been playing better on defense, stepping up and giving significantly more effort on that end of the court.

There have been times during the last few contests when Cleveland has played closer to their full potential, which can be a nightmare for opposing teams. After their double-digit win over the Pacers, David West praised the Cavaliers and suggested that it’s only a matter of time until they’re a juggernaut.

“They’re just tough, man,” West said of the Cavs. “They spread you out and they’ve got a bunch of ways they can attack you. They had us on our heels. We know they’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of [talented] guys over there. It’s just a matter of them getting their chemistry.”

With each passing game, Cleveland should continue to improve in all facets. While they have looked better lately, James isn’t satisfied and he has stressed to his teammates that they still have a long way to go before they can be content with their play.

“We have to continue to get better,” James said, even though the team has won several games in a row. “It is a process for us. We are a young group as far as our experience together. We will continue to build.”

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Wizards Emerging As Contender Behind Elite Defense

The Washington Wizards are currently 13-5, which is the second best record in the Eastern Conference behind only the Toronto Raptors. They have won four straight games and six of their last eight contests, with wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Miami HEAT, L.A. Lakers and Denver Nuggets.

This season, Washington’s biggest strength is their defense, which is ranked fourth in the NBA. During their last six wins, the Wizards have allowed just 88 points per game. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman has described his team’s defense as “phenomenal” since the group is shutting down their opponents by pressuring them and playing very physical basketball.

“That is what we hang our hat on every night,” Paul Pierce said of the team’s defense. “Right now, I think we are starting to put both together – we are scoring the ball really well and playing well defensively. That is why we are showing the results that we are getting.”

“I think [teams] are trying to think of ways to get into a secondary play and backdoor us, and then try and figure out something to get toward the basket, but I think we’re doing a great job denying everything and pressuring the ball,” Bradley Beal said. “We’re making it tough on them.”

Pierce has been on some excellent teams, since he went on deep playoff runs with the Boston Celtics and won the championship in 2008. He believes that the Wizards have the makeup of a championship team.

“This team definitely shares a lot of those qualities,” Pierce said. “I was telling Brad on the bench in the fourth quarter that when I look at this team from top to bottom, our depth, when guys get hurt, you see similarities to teams that have made long playoff runs and made it to the Finals. We just have to keep building on what we have and continue to get better. We are a work in progress. We know it is early in the season. We know we have to go out west and take on those teams, but we like where we are at right now.”

While the Wizards have gotten off to an excellent start, the team believes they still have a lot of room for improvement and that they aren’t playing anywhere near their best basketball, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

“We know we’re a pretty good team, and we know that we can be an even better team,” Beal said. “That’s what makes us a good team, because we want to get better each and every game. We still play with that chip on our shoulder like we have something to prove. We’re going to continue to do that and continue to play the way [Coach] Witt wants us to play. It starts with our defense. As long as we continue to defend all of these teams, we’re definitely going to be in the running for one of the best teams in the league.”

“I focus one day at a time,” Wittman said. “We will take the good out of this and I think there are some things we need to work on. We will just keep building. I think that’s the main thing. You don’t want get satisfied. You just want to keep building. I don’t think we are near as good as we can be if we keep believing in this and keep working the way we are. It’s hard. It’s not easy to do, but that’s what they are doing right now from a defense standpoint.”

Four years ago, the Wizards had one of the worst defenses in the NBA and were a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference. Now, they are an elite team with a smothering defense that could make a lot of noise come playoff time if everything goes their way and they continue to play this style of basketball.