There may be something to the idea of heading West to find yourself, even if you’re an entire NBA team in search of its identity.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, just over a week removed from documented internal strife surrounding star forward LeBron James’ travel habits on off days, and point guard Kyrie Irving’s possible desire to play elsewhere, away from James’ 6-foot-9 shadow, took a four-game sojourn into California and Utah, and may have discovered the type of desired play—and more importantly, chemistry needed to make a strong push into the playoffs—during a 3-1 run that concluded with a 94-85 loss to the Jazz Monday night.
The setback at Utah stands out as a reason for some to pump the brakes on the successful road trip, but the second night of back-to-back games, especially against a young, athletic and defensively-tough Jazz team, doesn’t carry the same sting as, say, a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers would have the day before.
What stood out on this trip, as well as two prior decisive home victories over Washington and Boston on back-to-back nights March 4-5, was a more polished and unselfish offense, spearheaded by James and a gradually-improving Irving, and a bench that steadily became more productive. Head coach Tyronn Lue’s ever-changing lineups were able to maintain their spacing and sped-up style, and the team scored 120, 120 and 114 points in three wins over Sacramento, the L.A. Lakers and L.A. Clippers.
Against the Kings, the Cavs shot 43 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range, but all five starters scored in double-figures, led by 30 from Irving and 25 from James. The bench was outscored 29-15 by the Kings, but would improve two days later in a 120-108 thumping of the Lakers. Six players scored in double-figures, led again by Irving’s 26 and James’ 24. Channing Frye started in place of a resting Kevin Love and scored 21 points, while backup point guard Matthew Dellavedova had 11 off the bench. The offense scored 30 or more points in all but one quarter, and shot 52 percent from the field (45 percent from three).
The 114-90 win over the playoff-bound Clippers Sunday afternoon may have been the Cavs’ most impressive in weeks. After falling behind by 10 points early, they rebounded by outscoring the Clippers 70-49 between the second and third quarters, and shot 48 percent as a team. Six players scored in double-figures, led by James’ 27.
Not only did the team’s shooting improve, but so did the factors leading to a number of those shots. Namely, the Cavs got back to sharing the ball, a recurring issue the past two seasons that was addressed during a 35-7 sprint into the 2015 playoffs, and may have been addressed again in the last two weeks. After a 17-assist night at Sacramento, they put together assist totals of 22 and 23 against the two L.A. teams. In the Lakers win, Irving (9) and James (7) contributed more than half of the team total, with Irving putting forth one of the best passing games of his injury-shortened season.
Then there was the bench, which was outscored in two of the three wins, but got better each night. After scoring 15 against the Kings, the second unit had 22 against the Lakers and a whopping 39 against the Clippers. Depth and bench scoring were glaring issues for the Cavs in last season’s run to the Finals, where a rash of injuries conspired with a historically-good Golden State Warriors team to crush their title hopes. The addition of Frye, who scored 46 points over the four games, and the all-around improvement of Dellavedova, who played between 16 and 24 minutes per game and committed just two turnovers in the four games combined, may serve as the remedy.
The Cavs also showed some improvement defensively over the course of the trip, holding the Clippers and Jazz under 100 points, though the Jazz still pulled out the win. This season, the Cavs are 26-9 in games in which they hold opponents under 100 points, and rank third in the league in opposing points per game (97.4).
Now 47-19, the Cavs will find out just how much the West Coast trip mattered in the grand scheme of their season, as they will host the 34-33 Dallas Mavericks at Quicken Loans Arena tonight before embarking on a trip further east to face Orlando and Miami. There is at least precedent for what successful West trips can bring down the line.
The team was in a similar funk last December, with a 19-20 record and a lack of trust between James, Irving, Love and head coach David Blatt. Players were in and out of the lineup with ailments, James took two weeks off to rest his back and left knee, general manager David Griffin made a pair of trades to bring in center Timofey Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and the Cavs eventually became whole and rallied around a 2-3 West trip to finish the year 35-7. They took back-to-back games over the Lakers and Clippers (109-102, 126-121), and went on to win 12 games in a row and 14 of 15.
Did the team find its groove again? Or is this recent stretch of good play (6-2 over their last eight games) just a mirage? If the Cavs found themselves out West, the rest of March will provide the answer.