The last time LeBron James squared off against the Oklahoma City Thunder, he wound up on the receiving end of an embarrassing 24-point blowout that further clarified just how badly the Cleveland Cavaliers needed a change. That change came — in a major way — last Thursday, so when LeBron renewed pleasantries with Russell Westbrook, Paul George, old friend Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Thunder on Tuesday night, he rolled into Chesapeake Energy Arena with a new squad.
Through two games, it sure looks like it’s some bleepin’ squad.
Cleveland flexed muscles new and old in Oklahoma on Tuesday. Behind quality contributions from trade-deadline acquisitions Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Rodney Hood, another strong game from the suddenly red-hot J.R. Smith, and a heaping helping of LeBron’s all-court brilliance, the Cavs established double-digit leads in the second and third quarters, held off a late-third OKC run and controlled the final frame en route to a 120-112 win.
After dropping 13 of 20 heading into last Thursday’s deadline, Cleveland has won two straight on the road in impressive fashion, dumping the Boston Celtics by 22 on Sunday and following it up with Tuesday’s professional pummeling of a Thunder team that, a scant week ago, beat the brakes off the defending NBA champions. The Cavs shot 51 percent as a team, went 16-for-36 from 3-point land and committed just seven turnovers; even better, they held Oklahoma City to 44 percent shooting, with Westbrook (7-for-19), George (8-for-19) and Anthony (10-for-22) all needing plenty of shots to do their damage.
Cleveland’s still short a rim protector, and decidedly did not have an answer for marauding center Steven Adams, who scored 22 points on 8-for-12 shooting and pulverized the Cavs on the glass to the tune of 12 offensive rebounds, and a career-high 17 overall. But when you’re not making unforced errors on the offensive end, and you’re pinging the ball around to find open shots, and you’ve got shooters who can make those, you can live with some light pulverizing.
Clarkson (14 points on 6-for-10 shooting), Hood (14 points, 4-for-8 from 3-point range) and the suddenly resurrected Smith (18 points, 6-for-9 from deep) are all spreading out and getting ready to bomb away, and LeBron’s taking screens from Tristan Thompson and the supremely energetic Nance (13 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two assists and a steal), reading the defense like it’s some light Puzo, and finding them in rhythm and in their shooting pockets.
He’s finding everything now:
Thirty-seven points on 14-for-23 shooting, with 17 coming in the third quarter alone — he had the jumper going, and when that’s going, I don’t really know what to tell you — to go with eight rebounds, eight assists and a block in 40 minutes. After spending the better part of a month looking like he kind of didn’t really want to show up for work anymore, LeBron’s clearly enjoying the problem-solving exercise of getting what’s ostensibly a brand new team on the same page in less than 30 games … to the point that it’s looking like he might’ve only needed two.
“We’re just flying around, continuing to help each other,” James told TNT’s Dennis Scott after the game. “Even when it doesn’t look like it’s going as great for us, we’re still figuring it out on the fly, and that helps out a lot.”
As much as anything schematic or tactical, it’s that uptick in energy and effort that’s been the most glaring shift for Cleveland. A team that looked positively funereal a week ago now seems downright festive:
Got to see Cavs play and lose to a Griffin-less DET team and show no pulse to witnessing the dynamic energetic play of athletic players willing to push roles that they already do well with to compliment an invigorated all time great-amazing what playing hard can reap
— Brent Barry (@Barryathree) February 14, 2018
The extra juice is palpable. James is clearly looking for every opportunity he can find to get his new buddies rolling — skipping cross-court lasers to find George Hill in the corner, one-touch-redirect extra passes to get Hood a wide-open look in rhythm — and to feed Smith, who has finally thawed after a frigid start to the season and is now shooting 50 percent from 3 on nearly seven attempts per game over his last 10 outings. The sharing’s been infectious, too:
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) February 14, 2018
— NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2018
The new starting lineup — LeBron, Hill, Smith, Thompson and rookie spark plug Cedi Osman — isn’t necessarily world-beating, but it’s been positive. Ty Lue’s new bench unit, though — veteran sniper Kyle Korver alongside Clarkson in the backcourt, with Hood and Jeff Green on the wings and Nance up front — has looked excellent in limited run, outscoring Boston and Oklahoma City by 12 points in 19 minutes. The Cavs actually extended their lead in the fourth quarter on Tuesday while LeBron rested, as Clarkson, Hood, Green and Nance outscored Oklahoma City 9-3 to put Cleveland up 10 when LeBron came back in.
We’re talking about 96 minutes of basketball; naturally, it’d be irresponsible to draw any hard-and-fast conclusions from two games. So far, though, the on-court impact looks to be about what the on-paper calculus suggested. Cleveland’s more athletic, with more depth on the wing and a greater capacity for throwing out lineups that can switch screens without conceding glaring defensive mismatches, and can more comfortably surround LeBron with complementary pieces who can shoot, dribble and pass than they were before last Thursday. This feels natural, in a way the IT/D-Wade/D-Rose collective didn’t. This feels like it makes sense.
That Clarkson, Hood and Nance, and to a lesser extent Hill, have all hit the ground running also seems to have had the knock-on effect of energizing both James and Smith. On one hand, it’s somewhat trite to say that sometimes the best addition you can make at the trade deadline is getting your existing players to play better. On the other, it seems a little less hoary when the improving dudes in question are one of the most notoriously streaky gunners in the league and the literal best player in the world.
Seven days ago, the Cavs looked like a team in need of a blood transfusion, an exorcism, or both. Now, they look like a team ready to rip off one hell of a run … only they’re going to have to wait nine days to get back to work.
“I think the worst thing right now is us going into this break,” James told TNT’s Scott on the court after the win.
Even as he said it, though, James was smiling. Whether Koby Altman’s midseason shuffle dealt the Cavs a hand good enough to win when the stakes get high remains to be seen. For now, though, LeBron sure seems to like the hand he’s holding … and that sure seems like bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
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