Don’t look now, but Cavs getting bullish
CLEVELAND — Random dribbles from the Cavaliers’ fairly easy 108-94 win over the visiting Chicago Bulls on Monday:
1. Shawn Marion and Iman Shumpert laughed and danced on the bench, and the game hadn’t even ended. That’s how great things went for the Cavs — and how well things seem to be going these days, as the Cavs have won three straight.
2. It’s hard to know where to begin in a game like this, as the Cavs led from start to finish. They built that lead to 25 points and only relented briefly when they seemed to get bored. But as soon as the Bulls cut the deficit to 12, the Cavs turned it on again. Let’s face it, this is something closer to what most followers of the NBA figured the Cavs would be all along.
3. And it’s only been four games since LeBron James returned, but he looks like a different man. LeBron himself admits as much, repeatedly saying how much better he feels after resting his strained knee/back for eight games. The Cavs went 1-7 in those games. They’re 3-1 since, with James averaging 31.8 points in that span.
4. More than that, a simple eye test tells you LeBron is healthy and considerably more explosive these days. "It’s the product of a lot of things," he said after scoring a team-high 26 points against the Bulls. "But I’m feeling good right now."
5. Mostly, though, this was a team-wide rout in every sense of the word. New guard J.R. Smith scored 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting (including 6-of-9 on 3-pointers). Kyrie Irving scored 18 and passed for a game-high 12 assists. Kevin Love went for 16 points and 12 rebounds. And while Tristan Thompson probably got his shot blocked too much, he did hustle his way to 10 boards in reserve.
6. Of course, no one may have been bigger than 7-foot newcomer Timofey Mozgov. He played his best game since coming to the Cavaliers (from the Nuggets) a couple weeks back. Mozgov scored 15 points, pulled down 15 rebounds, blocked two shots and altered countless others. The Cavs wanted a guy to defend the paint and send opposing guards who entered to the ground. Mozgov, clearly, is their man.
7. Cavs coach David Blatt on Mozgov: "Moz has applied himself since he came here. His skill-set and his activity level is just a great fit for our team."
8. Both Blatt and Kyrie Irving talked about how the Cavs have altered their defensive schemes, and both credited Mozgov as the reason why they were able to do so. As Irving pointed out, it helps when opponents have to "try and shift around a 7-footer."
9. By the way, Kyrie blocked two shots, too. That included one from behind on Bulls 7-footer Pau Gasol. Irving also played a major role in Bulls star Derrick Rose shooting a miserable 1-of-9 in the first half. Rose eventually rebounded to finish 5-of-14 for 18 points, but that damage was done.
10. As Blatt pointed out: "Kyrie Irving is having a great defensive season. We’ve asked a lot of him at that end of the court and he has been giving us a lot."
11. Irving added: "Our offense is dictated by our defense. Every single day we watch film, we have open dialogue with one another. I think that’s the best thing about this team. When someone sees something, we’re not afraid to talk to one another if it’s for the betterment of the team."
12. All the noise surrounding the Cavs seems to be wearing on Blatt a little. I give the guy credit, because he’s refrained from mentioning it until recently — and it’s been going on since early November. Some of it has been a downright unfair, as the Cavs are 21-12 when LeBron plays.
13. When you think of all the new bodies (including Blatt’s), all the players needing to adapt to each other, and the fact LeBron spent the first part of the season on one good leg … well, it’s a wonder things aren’t worse. Instead, the Cavs are a combined 6-4 against the Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks. That’s not awesome. But given the narrative of most of the season, it sure ain’t awful.
14. Blatt said the team used the trip through the West as sort of a "mid-season camp" to get the newer players adjusted and to give the holdovers a chance to sort of regroup. "In spite of all the crap that’s been written, we’ve stayed focused on basketball," he said. "We have a long way to go, but feel that ship is sailing in the right direction."
15. The Cavs (22-20) now sit 4.5 games behind the Bulls (27-16) in the Central Division. Blatt, in particular, addressed the fact that the Eastern Conference has no one outside the Hawks that seems overly dominant. "There are still a lot of possibilities in the East," Blatt said.
16. LeBron weighed in on catching the Bulls, too. "We don’t need to catch another team," he said. "We need to catch ourselves."
17. As for the Bulls, it’s true they’ve really struggled defensively lately. But they shouldn’t worry too much. At least, not until after center Joakim Noah (ankle) returns and is healthy. He gives them a major lift that they were clearly missing on this night. Veteran swingman Mike Dunleavy (ankle) was also out.
18. Rose on that very subject: "No matter who is on the floor, who’s coming back or who’s out, we’ve got to compete and make sure we let the opponent know that we came to play."
19. The Cavs still have three straight (quite winnable) home games approaching — Utah, Charlotte and Oklahoma City, respectively. That’s right. Old friend Dion Waiters returns Sunday with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder. It will be interesting to see the crowd’s reaction.
Follow on Twitter @SamAmicoFSO