Spurred by return of Irving & Smith's hot shooting, offense clicking for Cavs
With a healthy Kyrie Irving rounding into form, the Cleveland Cavaliers have looked nearly unstoppable at the outset of 2016.
That could mean another rough night for the Minnesota Timberwolves and their scuffling offense.
The Cavaliers enter Friday night's matchup having won five straight and they've been particularly impressive in their three games to open January. After blowing out Orlando and Toronto at home by a combined 47 points, Cleveland (24-9) had its offense clicking again in Wednesday's 121-115 at Washington that began a season-high six-game trip.
Irving showed he's fully over the fractured kneecap he suffered in last June's NBA Finals by playing a major role in the last two wins. The star point guard amassed 32 points on 14-of-22 shooting against the Wizards after scoring 25 with eight assists in Monday's 122-100 rout of Toronto.
Those games are the Cavaliers' two highest scoring efforts of the season. They're 6-1 when Irving's played since his Dec. 20 return.
"The first few games were just being able to solidify myself back in the league and being an elite athlete and get around guards," Irving said. "That was the hump I needed to get over, and now I think I'm starting to get over it going from game to game going against great matchups, great players every single night, great teams."
Cleveland, winners of 11 of 13, has also received a boost from J.R. Smith during the new year. The streaky guard has recorded 49 points while going 13 of 27 from 3-point range over the last two wins.
The Cavaliers may not need such precision to handle Minnesota (12-24), which has failed to reach 100 points during a 1-8 stretch. The Timberwolves have lost four straight following Wednesday's 78-74 defeat to visiting Denver, their lowest point total since an 87-72 setback to Milwaukee on Nov. 6, 2009.
Minnesota was 2 for 20 from the field during a nine-point fourth quarter, 12 less than Irving tallied during the final period against Washington.
The Timberwolves' struggles have coincided with slumps from their two young stars. Andrew Wiggins was 4 of 14 on Wednesday and is shooting 39.0 percent from the floor and 59.6 percent on free throws over his last eight. Rookie Karl-Anthony Towns is averaging 10.0 points on 35.9 percent shooting over the past three games after scoring 20.0 per game over his previous nine.
"I'm pressing, I don't know if anyone else is, but I am," Towns said. "We've got to change the talk, we can't keep losing these games. It's this theme that we are commonly giving up games that are very close."
Minnesota did receive a spark from Nikola Pekovic's season debut. The powerful center, returning from offseason surgeries to his ankle and Achilles', had 12 points in 16 minutes off the bench.
"I thought his 15 minutes were very productive," coach Sam Mitchell said. "I think without Pek, with the way we shot the ball (Wednesday), it would have been a tougher game."
Wiggins tied a career high with 33 points during Cleveland's visit to the Target Center last season, but the Cavaliers got 36 from LeBron James in a 106-90 win that swept the two-game season series. Kevin Love added 14 points and 17 rebounds in the former Timberwolves star's first game in Minneapolis since being traded to Cleveland in a deal that included Wiggins' draft rights.
The Cavaliers have won 11 straight from Minnesota with James on the roster, with the four-time MVP averaging 30.1 points during the streak. The Timberwolves' last victory over a Cleveland team that included James occurred on Nov. 26, 2005.