So they won anyway.
And to the Cavs' credit, they at least tried to address some of the effort and selfishness issues that have been plaguing them lately.
It would have been nice if James' return from a one-game rest hadn't come in such desperate times. But that's where the Cavs were heading into their meeting with the Pacers.
"We can't play basketball like this going down the stretch," J.R. Smith, patron saint of NBA free-spiritedness and chief proponent of late shootaround arrivals, told reporters after an ugly loss to the Washington Wizards on Sunday. "There's 24, 25 games left in the year and you talk about contending, being a championship contender, and get blown out by a team. ... After losing a game to the No. 2 team in the East, then you come out and get thrashed and make it look good at the end. We can't do that. If we're serious about who we're supposed to be, then we can't do this."
Smith, of all people, was cracking the whip after rough losses to the Toronto Raptors and Wizards. It had come to that.
James understood the stakes and came out gunning. He scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the first quarter while no other Cavalier managed more than three points. Kyrie Irving, under serious fire lately for his inept defense and selfish scoring, didn't register a point in the opening period. He handed out two assists, though, so there was some progress in his effort to meet recent criticism.
"Kyrie Irving has to commit to sacrificing his scoring numbers to make his teammates better on a routine basis," Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com wrote after Sunday's blowout loss against the Wizards. "There's no beating around the bush."
Irving finished with 22 points on 5-of-13 shooting, second on the team to James' game-high 33 on 14-of-22 shooting. And though he looked occasionally out of sorts, visibly searching for passing angles he'd normally ignore, Irving did a better job balancing his scoring and distributing responsibilities. His attempts to facilitate didn't quite look like pulling teeth, but it was close.
This assist, one of his six on the night, was the product of exactly the kind of probe-and-dissect mindset so many of Irving's critics wish he'd embrace:
Best and Worst Moves of the NBA Offseason So Far
Winners and Losers of the 2017 NBA Draft
Jayson Tatum NBA Draft 2017: Scouting Report, Grade for Celtics Rookie
Grading the Jimmy Butler Trade for the Chicago Bulls
Josh Jackson NBA Draft 2017: Scouting Report, Grade for Suns Rookie
Lonzo Ball NBA Draft 2017: Scouting Report, Grade for Lakers Rookie
Pick 1: Markelle Fultz NBA Draft 2017: Scouting Report, Grade for Sixers Rookie
The Golden State Warriors Have Secured Their Place in NBA Finals History
Warriors and Cavaliers Scuffle
LeBron James Goes Off the Backboard and Slams It Down
Kevin Durant and Lebron James Jawing
Tristan Thompson Beautiful Assist to Kevin Love
Tristan Thompson No Look Assist to LeBron
LeBron Dunks on the Warriors
Indiana engaged in its typical late-game foul-ups on offense, going stagnant and looking a little panicky as Cleveland ratcheted up its defensive intensity. Even as we praise the Cavaliers for digging in on D, that's got to be mentioned.
So too does the obvious tension that cropped up in the Cleveland offense.
Kevin Love refused to shoot open corner threes on more than one occasion in the fourth quarter, holding the ball and allowing his defender to close out. It was uncomfortable to watch, and Love's hesitation wasn't the only worrying symptom. Throughout the game, the Cavs looked like a team without a plan. Their actions were basic, off-ball players simply stood around and there were almost never second or third options on sets—possibly because they rarely ran any.
After Matthew Dellavedova hit a top-of-the-arc three to tie the score at 94 with 1:13 remaining, James demonstratively shout-explained something to Irving during the timeout. If Irving appeared only mildly receptive, we should forgive him; it just didn't look like the Cleveland offense had any nuance to be communicated.
James controlled this game from the outset, and he helped the still-flawed Cavs end their two-game slide. Sure, Cleveland got an assist from an Indiana team known for fumbling away wins down the stretch. And yes, the Cavs' typical offensive gear-grinding persisted.
To hear Paul George tell it, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star, Cleveland even got a boost from the officials:
Candace Buckner @CandaceDBuckner
Paul George: "I get pushed in the back going for a layup, they come down on the other end and LeBron runs Stuckey over…"2016-3-1 03:14:42
All that aside, the Cavs gave a mostly good effort and defended well. But in a perfect world, they'd sustain that energy, operate more freely on offense and defend with consistency. Even if they never do those things, they've still got James.
There are worse fallback plans.
The NBA Schedule Needs Adjusting
Not because the season's too long (though it is), and not because there's information suggesting the schedule's current composition increases the risk of injury (though there is).
The Celtics prevailed in the rematch, notching a 100-95 win that made up for the first meeting, a loss head coach Brad Stevens summarized thusly: "I thought they hit us in the mouth and kept hitting us."
In one of the most sneakily entertaining games of the year, Jazz rookie Trey Lyles threw the first punch, going off for 12 points in four minutes to help Utah build a 13-point second-quarter lead and forcing Stevens to turn to rookie Jordan Mickey as a stopper. Mickey scored three points and stuffed Gordon Hayward at the rim—which drew raucous cheers—during an 11-0 run that got Boston back into the game.
The hustle that had defined the Celtics' efforts earlier this season returned, per the team's official Twitter feed:
Boston Celtics @celtics
Brad Stevens wants the C's to out-hustle their opponents night-in, night-out. Seems like they got the message: https://t.co/RcFb5LvmjB2016-3-1 01:25:42
And Isaiah Thomas turned in one of the highlights of his stellar season:
A closing sequence that featured Jae Crowder hitting a triple, Avery Bradley swatting Hayward's turnaround jumper and Amir Johnson grabbing an offensive board after Bradley missed a free throw left everyone involved breathless.
This was fun, and these two teams—young, defensive-minded and consistently scrappy—make for compelling meetings.
More of this, please!
Some Wins Warrant Worry
It's not enough to beat the Philadelphia 76ers these days. You have to bury them.
If you don't, you risk incurring the wrath of unimpressed observers like SB Nation's Mike Prada and the Washington Post's Tim Bontemps:
Mike Prada @MikePradaSBN
Win or lose, teams with real aspirations of any kind don’t give up 24-4 runs at home to the 76ers.2016-3-1 01:47:00
Tim Bontemps @TimBontemps
This has been an embarrassing performance by the Wizards, win or lose.2016-3-1 02:33:45
None of that is unfair, by the way. The Wizards' 116-108 win featured an Ish Smith- and Nerlens Noel-led 26-4 run by the Sixers. Philly smashed Washington by a margin of 34-19 in the third quarter, and the Wizards actually had to rally from behind in the fourth period to win. So although John Wall stood out with 37 points and seven assists, it was hard to view their efforts in a positive light.
That's probably because Washington hasn't done much to earn the benefit of the doubt this season. The Wizards haven't been above .500 since late November, and their playoff dreams have faded in and out of focus all season. This three-game winning streak (two victories over the Sixers sandwiched around Sunday's triumph against the reeling Cavs without James) should inspire confidence.
But those watching didn't exactly come away believers.
Washington is 6-2 since the All-Star break, and it's now 1½ games out of the eighth spot in the East. Hopefully the players on the roster have faith in their ability to come through.
It sure doesn't seem like anyone else does.
One Team's Catastrophe Is Another's Celebration
The Houston Rockets failed to hold a lead at the end of the first quarter for the 10th straight game Monday, and things only got worse from there as the Milwaukee Bucks stat-stuffed their way to a 128-121 win.
The Rockets allowed the Bucks to shoot 59.3 percent from the field, which was effectively a death sentence, per Adam Wexler of KPRC-TV in Houston:
Adam Wexler @awexlerKPRC
#Rockets allow Bucks to shoot 59%, best by an oopt this season. 16th time HOU has allowed 50%+ in a game. HOU is 2-14 in those games.2016-3-1 03:41:37
Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com put the defeat in stark perspective:
Calvin Watkins @calvinwatkins
Rockets with 31 losses on the season. Most losses since the 2012-13 season.2016-3-1 03:41:27
This seems like a good time to mention more than a quarter of the season remains. Houston has a lot of time to pad that troublesome total.
Let's pivot, though. There were two teams involved in this game, and Milwaukee is the one most worth discussing. Jabari Parker posted a career-high 36 points, but one of his five assists stood out as a highlight:
The guy finishing that play was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who started at point guard for the Bucks. He ended up with his second career triple-double: 18 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists, plus four steals and two blocks. Khris Middleton scored 30 points on just 11 field-goal attempts, and he gets third billing. That's how gaudy Milwaukee's numbers were.
The Bucks have plenty of rough edges, but it's hard to conceive of anything more viscerally exciting than the 6'11" Antetokounmpo running the offense and, eventually, guarding five positions. Maybe that's a pipe dream, and maybe we shouldn't judge the efficacy of Milwaukee's unconventional lineup against the Rockets' checked-out defense.
But this is something head coach Jason Kidd has seemed committed to since the All-Star break, telling reporters (via Frank Madden of BrewHoop.com):
Giannis is playing at a very high level right now. After the break, we've made some changes, we've kind of given him the ball as the point guard. We haven't announced that he's the point guard, but we're letting him start the offense. On misses, we're trying to get the ball to him as quick as possible and have everybody else run. And he's made some incredible passes.
For the second time tonight: More of this, please.
Now the Kings Are Really Screwed
Way to go, Boogie.
DeMarcus Cousins and Durant made up at halftime, of course, and that little bout of handsiness won't factor into KD's looming free-agent decision. Mainly because Durant would never consider signing with an organization as dysfunctional as the Kings.
It's more likely he'll stay put with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he'll get to keep playing with Russell Westbrook, who headlined a 131-116 victory with 20 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds on a ridiculously efficient 6-of-8 shooting night. And from a team-chemistry perspective, we should expect KD to value Steven Adams' grimy, no-frills game over Cousins' volatility.
Big Cuz scored 35 points and appeared dominant at times, but Adams used up five fouls and clearly irritated Cousins from the opening tip. Adams is a guy superstars like Durant should relish playing with.
The tempting takeaway angle here is the one lauding OKC for its resiliency after that Saturday act of Stephen Curry thievery—the one that robbed the Thunder of a statement win. But Monday's victory came against the Kings, so it doesn't count.
Oklahoma City is still really good. We just can't use this game to prove it.
No. No, no, no, no, no.
Unmake this abomination, Steve Ballmer. Cast it back into the sulfurous, off-brand theme park reject morass from which it, wriggling, emerged.
Also, it's dumb. And the Los Angeles Clippers don't need a mascot that looks like Trigger...or Nutsy. I forget which.
i mean https://t.co/Tge5P6sisZ2016-3-1 05:00:49
Follow @gt_hughes on Twitter.