Surprising facet of play fueling Cavs streak
Most expected the Cleveland Cavaliers to be an offensive juggernaut once they united three of the league's best scorers. But it's what the Cavaliers are doing defensively that continues to fuel their winning streak.
They'll look to match a franchise record by winning their 13th straight Friday night when they visit the Indiana Pacers.
Cleveland (31-20) defeated the Clippers 105-94 on Thursday in a game that wasn't as competitive as the final margin indicated. The Cavaliers, who took a half-game lead over Chicago for first place in the Central Division, led by as many as 32 points in the third quarter.
Kyrie Irving had an underwhelming 10 points on 1-of-5 shooting, but was boosted by 24 points from Kevin Love while LeBron James added 23 points and nine assists. Cleveland improved to 7-2 when Love and James each score at least 20.
Though Irving, James and Love each ranked among the league's top 12 in scoring average over the past three seasons, defensive improvement has enabled the Cavaliers' recent surge. They've held their last 10 opponents to 92.1 points per game on 40.4 percent shooting after previously giving up 100.7 per game on 47.2 percent shooting, which was the second-worst mark in the NBA.
"We're hanging our hats on being a defensive ballclub right now," Irving said. "We're holding teams under a certain amount of points every single game and that's the goal going into the game."
The Cavaliers have won 13 in a row twice before, most recently from Jan. 16-Feb. 11, 2010, James' final season of his first stint in Cleveland.
The Pacers (18-32), who have won eight straight home matchups, have won three of five but still haven't defeated a team with a winning record since a 94-91 victory over Milwaukee on Jan. 2. They're 6-19 against such opponents.
Indiana set a season high for points in Wednesday's 114-109 win over Detroit, with point guard George Hill seemingly the biggest difference maker in his first start since returning on Jan. 23 from a groin injury. He scored 20 on 8-of-12 shooting and recorded six assists with one turnover in 26 minutes. He had played fewer than 22 minutes in four of his first five games since coming back.
The Pacers are 3-1 when Hill starts and 6-5 when he plays while averaging 100.5 points. They've averaged 93.9 points while going 12-27 without him.
"Certainly George leading the way is a big difference for us," coach Frank Vogel said. "He creates things for others and get us organized. He is great playing with the basketball and without the basketball."
Hill, who had missed a total of 12 games over the last two seasons, also sat out the first 28 contests with a knee injury.
"My conditioning is at an all-time low," he said. "But I felt fine physically. It is still going to take a couple game to get my legs back under me."
Indiana's front line figures to be stretched thin without Lavoy Allen and Ian Mahinmi. Allen is missing his third game with a sore right knee while Mahinmi sprained his right ankle Wednesday.
The Cavaliers had dropped 15 of 16 regular-season meetings before winning the last two, including a 109-97 home win on Nov. 29. Love scored 28 while Irving had 24. Hill was inactive.
James is averaging 33.0 points in the second game of his last four back-to-backs, and should be well rested after sitting out the entire fourth quarter in Thursday's blowout.