The Cleveland Cavaliers (34-12) have been attempting to modify their identity ever since naming Tyronn Lue their head coach last week, and they took a big step toward achieving that goal with a 117-103 statement win over the San Antonio Spurs (39-8) on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
A week after slogging through a 96-83 loss to the Chicago Bulls at home, the Cavaliers looked like a rejuvenated side that's capable of maintaining a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed.
All of Cleveland's stars came to play, and Lue's offense was rolling from the jump as Kevin Love spaced the floor, per ESPN Stats & Info:
2nd straight game that LeBron, Love and Kyrie all score 20.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 31, 2016
Didn't happen a single time in the 1st 18 games they played together this year.
Love finished with 21 points—including 14 in the first quarter—and 11 rebounds while shooting 8-of-13 from the field and 3-of-6 from three-point range.
ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin broke down how crucial Love's success in the scoring column has been to the Cavaliers over the past 16 months:
Kevin Love has 21p tonight, marking the 3rd time as a Cav he's had 3 straight 20p games. So far, CLE is 6-2 in those stretches— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 31, 2016
Love—who struggled to find a rhythm early in the season under former head coach David Blatt—could be the Cavaliers' X-factor as Lue seeks to reform the team's practices on offense, as Yahoo Sports' Michael Lee explained:
If Tyronn Lue has figured out how to get that tricky Kevin Love machine working, he's enhanced the #cavs' chances of doing damage in June— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) January 31, 2016
LeBron James was similarly sensational on a night when the Cavaliers blitzed the league's top-ranked defense to the tune of 54.9 percent shooting from the field and 39.1 percent shooting from three. In 34 minutes, James tallied 29 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
With his sixth straight 20-point performance, James has now tallied at least 20 points on 36 separate occasions this season, tying him with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook for No. 4 among all players. According to Basketball-Reference.com, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry occupy the top three spots on that list.
But the King's contributions weren't limited to the offensive end.
He also flexed his muscles on defense with a chase-down block on Manu Ginobili in the third quarter:
Kyrie Irving didn't dominate early like James and Love, but he salted things away with several spectacular finishes around the rim throughout the fourth quarter en route to a 21-point evening.
According to Rotoworld's Michael Gallagher, Irving has been prolific inside the arc over the past two games:
Kyrie’s shot chart in his last two since Lue told him to be aggressive. Killer at the rim & lots in the paint. pic.twitter.com/26u8HujexP— Michael Gallagher (@MikeSGallagher) January 31, 2016
Playing without the injured Tim Duncan (knee) for their third straight game, the Spurs had few viable alternatives when it came to rim protection.
The Cavaliers had no trouble penetrating San Antonio's vaunted defense, and LaMarcus Aldridge didn't offer much resistance as a shot-blocker. To put things into perspective, Aldridge entered Saturday night allowing opponents to shoot 50.4 percent at the rim, while Duncan allowed just 46.7 percent of opponents' point-blank attempts to find twine, per NBA.com's SportVU player-tracking data.
Since Cleveland imposed its will on offense throughout, the Spurs were left to play catch-up.
Kawhi Leonard loaded up the stat sheet with 24 points, six rebounds and two assists, while Aldridge scored 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, but all five members of San Antonio's starting five posted a negative plus-minus rating.
It was also telling that Matthew Dellavedova poured in 15 points off the bench—more than every Spurs player not named Aldridge or Leonard.
The Spurs have now lost two of their last three in blowout fashion after a 30-point loss to the Golden State Warriors snapped the team's 13-game winning streak Monday.
And while Saturday's game may have been a run-of-the-mill regular-season loss for the Spurs, it represented a step forward for the Cavs after they ran roughshod over inferior competition earlier in the week.
Thanks to the win over San Antonio, Cleveland has now won four straight and amassed at least 114 points in each game. For a team that looked deflated a week ago against the Bulls, that's impressive.
If the Cavaliers can replicate the formula that has allowed them to shred opponents and maximize the talents of their superstar collective, you can count on the chatter regarding their status as title pretenders to die down.
Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News captured video of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich dissecting his team's shortcomings:
"They pushed the ball," Spurs point guard Tony Parker said, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "They were still a very good team before. It's one of those games where our defense just wasn't there. We made too many mistakes and against a good team you can't do that."
For the Cavaliers, it was all about getting into sets early—something Lue has stressed—and sharing the rock effectively.
"We definitely played good basketball tonight on both sides of the floor," said James, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com) "We pushed the tempo offensively and did everything coach wanted us to do against a great team."
"We’ve got to keep it going,” Lue said, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. “We don’t want to go back to [where] we were before. I’m happy with the success we’ve had so far."