Even though LeBron James still has moments of no effort on defense which people love to point out, his return from injury has completely galvanized the Cleveland Cavaliers (and maybe saved David Blatt’s job), pulling off a 108-94 win over the sliding Chicago Bulls, making it three victories in a row.
The Cavs are still quite far away from looking like a threat to leaders in the East, but things are coming together. Not just on offense, as they score over 100 points for the fourth consecutive game, but maybe on defense as well, holding the Bulls to just 37.5% from the field and giving up less than 100 points for the first time since the 95-92 loss to the 76ers on January 5, seven games ago. The Cavaliers allowed just eight open jump shots for the Bulls (missed all of them) compared to 34 (15-of-34) when the two teams met at the beginning of the season.
James scored 26 points, his lowest output since his return, scoring 14 of them in the paint. He has scored in double figure paint points since his return, making 73% of his shots when playing near the rim. He did turn the ball over six times, but a lot of those came from feeling a bit overconfident, with the game wrapped up way before the closing minutes. The Cavaliers as a team felt quite happy and loose with their passing.
The most surprising factor in this game was their offensive rebounds, especially against a team like the Bulls, although they have their own issues with injuries and effort at the moment. The Cavaliers grabbed 20 offensive rebounds, five for both Timofey Mozgov and Kevin Love, both finishing with point-rebound double doubles. Kyrie Irving also added a double double, finding it quite easy to blow by Derrick Rose and either score or set up open players, scoring 18 points to go with 12 assists.
So are the Cavaliers a threat again? A team worthy of considering to end up playing in the conference finals? For the NBA title? If this ability holds up and the alleged problems between players and coach are gone, if they ever existed, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t end that way. No team in the NBA has three players in the lineup such as what the Cavaliers put on the floor each night, without forgetting someone like J.R. Smith who can go off for 20 points easily each night, hopefully without it hurting the team’s efforts.
Defense and effort will be the key to the Cavaliers putting the disappointing first half of the season behind them, although being able to score 105-110 points each night doesn’t hurt. Maybe they simply have the Bulls’ number this season, beating them for a second consecutive time, averaging 111 points in both wins. But it feels like something more, like something different this time. LeBron James is fresh, the rest of the team is coming together, and no one is talking anymore about Mark Jackson hovering above Blatt’s rocking seat. It’s all about whether they can catch up with the rest of the East and live up to preseason expectations.