Beating the Orlando Magic doesn’t end the problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it stops the losing streak, and hopefully puts LeBron James in a leader role for everyone to follow as this team once again tries to realize its potential following their 106-74 win.
James had one of his best performances this season, scoring 29 points to go with 11 assists. It wasn’t just the offense that made a difference, but it was also his defense, helping out on the Cavs’ best defensive effort of the season. The held the Magic to 74 points and 36.3% from the field, both season-bests for the Cavs. They also set season highs in steals (14) and blocked shots (9). James had three steals, and so did Kyrie Irving.
What changed? A weak opponent is part of the story. but the Cavaliers looked a lot more aggressive. Not just in the start, but all throughout the game. They never hit that roadblock they constantly run into later in games. With the Magic not really up for the part of slowing them down, the Cavaliers never had that shutting down moment that keeps happening to them when they face adversity. When you’re this good from start to finish, you don’t have to find out if that part of your mentality has changed.
It wasn’t just James that looked great, although no one else cam close to him in scoring. Maybe that’s a good thing, as much as it might hurt the statistics of Kevin Love and Irving. Irving scored 12 points on 5-of-9 from the field and Kevin Love also had 12, grabbing 8 rebounds and adding five assists. His positioning on the floor was a bit more flexible than in recent games, and one of the challenges Blatt has facing him that he still hasn’t figured out yet is getting a lot more out of Love, and making him feel a lot more comfortable on the floor.
Despite facing Nikola Vucevic (18 points, 13 rebounds) it was a very good game for Anderson Varejao with 14 points and also Tristan Thompson off the bench, scoring 9. Their ability to protect the rim which has been questionable throughout this season was never really tested, not to a point to which it actually mattered, but excellent rim protection usually begins with the perimeter players doing their job. The Cavaliers forced bad shots, 17 turnovers and never looked confused and lost on switches and when the ball moved.
David Blatt didn’t seem to euphoric when the game ended. He knows that at 6-7, this team is still very far from it should be, where it’s expected to be. While the focus is often on his stars, Blatt knows that the more these losses pile up, the more question will appear about his relevancy and ability to coach a team of stars. When a defense and offense look as smooth as they did in the win, it’s a lot easier to look great as a head coach.
James is still the face of this team, for better and worse. When they do badly it often goes with a bad game from him. He has been reluctant most of the time from taking the game on his shoulders and trying to carry the wagon out of the mud on his own. Maybe he can’t do it as often as he used to, which is also a question worth asking. When playing next to All-Stars like Irving and Love, he really shouldn’t have to take so much of the offense on his back.
The important foundations that will help the Cavaliers start moving up the Eastern charts were all there to see in the win over the Magic: Fast ball movement, aggressive defense, focused defending and simply smart decision with and without the ball. It they can make it work against teams that are a little bit better than the usually fun to watch Magic, we’ll know that the crisis is over and the Cavaliers are finally worth being afraid of.