Culture changing, ball moving, Cavs cruising
CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers are doing just enough to make sure you keep paying attention.
A win over the top team in the Eastern Conference will do that. So will winning four of five games. The Cavs reached both benchmarks Sunday, when they controlled their way to a 90-76 win over the visiting Indiana Pacers.
Suddenly, the postseason doesn’t sound so silly.
Now, the light isn’t shining bright, but it is flickering and offering hope that, hey, this thing may illuminate yet. With seven games to go, the Cavs (30-45) trail Atlanta by just 2.5 for the East’s final playoff spot.
How about that, kids?
Or how about this: Of those seven games, only one comes against a team with a winning record. And that’s the final game of the regular season, at home, against Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, the Hawks’ final 10 opponents include the Pacers, Nets, Chicago and Miami. Oh, and the Cavs on Friday.
The Hawks own the tiebreaker and will continue to do so regardless of what happens Friday. The teams meet three times and the Hawks won the first two. But let’s deal with that later.
Right now, the Cavs only need to focus on what they’ve been doing lately. "Our guys just keep fighting," was how coach Mike Brown explained it.
Brown was mostly talking about how the Cavs are managing to stay in the race without star guard Kyrie Irving. But you certainly saw signs of good things when Irving was healthy and playing. He’s missed eight games with a strained biceps in this stretch, and the Cavs are 4-4.
With or without Irving, the ball is just moving better and the defense is making strides. It’s been a slow go, yes, but it’s been a go.
"Don’t go find the ball," Brown tells his team. "Let the ball find you."
Clearly, the coach has gotten through to his players in recent weeks. Part of that is likely a result of a culture change at the top — as the Cavs improved to 14-12 since acting general manager David Griffin took office. Griffin was in the locker room after the Cavs’ big last-second win at Detroit last week, congratulating the team and adding positive vibes. That sort of thing, even at this level, can go a long way.
As for Sunday’s victory, the Cavs are getting a feel for what the playoffs are all about. It’s not like the Pacers are mailing it in. Just the opposite. They own the top seed in the East (barely), and home-court counts for a lot when you plan to go deep into the postseason.
"It’s playoff basketball," said Cavs guard Dion Waiters. "They’re fighting for seeding and we’re still trying to get in the playoffs."
Waiters scored a team-high 19, and he’s been fantastic for a good three weeks. But this was a balanced effort in the truest sense. Luol Deng (15 points), Tristan Thompson (12 points, 16 rebounds), Spencer Hawes (13 points), and Matthew Dellavedova and Jarrett Jack (11 apiece) all made obvious contributions in their own way. And that’s been the theme in recent weeks.
"Different guys stepped up at different times," Brown said. "I thought everyone who played, played well for us."
Jack has been particularly steady during this Kyrie-less stretch, bringing the type of big-game mentality the Cavs had hoped for all along.
"(Jack’s) leadership on the floor and off the floor has been terrific," Brown said. "At times in the past, when we’re down, we’d rush. We go too fast. â¦ Jack has done a terrific job, no matter what the score is, of understanding and having a feel for the game."
On the down side, the Cavs may have to deal with another major injury, and again, it’s to the best player in their frontcourt. That’s because Anderson Varejao suffered a right shoulder strain late in the first half and did not return. All we know is he will be re-evaluated Monday.
As for Irving, Monday is the two-week mark in which he was initially diagnosed with his injured biceps. So announcements on the availability of two vital pieces are likely coming in the next few days.
Until then, all the Cavs can do is continue to show the fight they’ve displayed in four of the previous five. And if so, you simply will not be able to look away.