The big story in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 114-90 matinee win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday wasn't LeBron James scoring 27 points or Kevin Love looking more involved than usual. It wasn't J.R. Smith displaying sound shot selection. It wasn't Channing Frye burying catch-and-shoot treys or Kyrie Irving mixing facilitation in with his score-first instincts.
The big story was all of those things happening at once. It was about the Cavs' pieces fitting and, predictably, their resultant easy domination of a Clippers team that fancies itself a contender.
This big story is particularly big because having the talent to do all those things—to get myriad contributions from so many sources—has never been the issue in Cleveland. Instead, the source of the Cavs' woes—to the extent that a No. 1 seed has any—has been a pervasive sense of discomfort, a lack of harmony.
The pieces haven't fit for much of the season, but they fit on Sunday. We saw what looked like cohesive, role-filling team play. We saw harmony. We heard it hum.
And it sounded good.
James sought out Love early, involving him in the offense as more than a spot-up shooter. Six of the power forward's 11 shot attempts came in the first period, and Love finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes.
James' dedication to including Love may seem like a small thing, but it was the first of many "Oh, that's how a functional, like-minded team is supposed to operate" moments in the game.
James even shifted gears after Love took a seat, as J.A. Adande of ESPN.com noted:
Good game management by LeBron. He fed Kevin Love (6 FGA) while Love was in for 1st 9 minutes, now looking for his shot with Love out— J.A. Adande (@jadande) March 13, 2016
That only occurred after teaming with Love in a wildly effective (and agonizingly underused) pairing through stretches of that opening period.
Head coach Tyronn Lue gets a nod here, as he rolled out the James-Love 4-5 combination early. Defensive shortcomings are bound to arise with greater use of that unit, but the results were frighteningly good in that first half, per NBA gambler Haralabos Voulgaris:
17 possessions with that lineup this game - scored 1.5ppp gave up .44 (small sample of course) https://t.co/eb620NvLR2— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) March 13, 2016
Everything else worked almost as seamlessly.
Smith took only one or two questionable turnaround heaves and instead focused his energy on drilling uncontested threes. He hit five long balls on eight attempts.
Outside of a garbage-time eruption—which delighted teammates on the bench—Irving didn't over-dribble or hunt his own shot too egregiously. And even when he did, the better angels of his point guard nature intervened...and James benefited.
Frye continued to fit in perfectly, hitting his first three long-range attempts of the game and finishing with 15 points on eight shots. Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal had the numbers to show just how ideally the Cavs have been using their new floor-stretcher:
Before the game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers alluded to L.A. doing its job the previous evening, per the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch. He was talking about the allure of the city's nightlife potentially compromising the Cavs' play in an early game. It was only a joke, but Rivers should have known it wouldn't have taken a late night to scuttle Cleveland.
If any distractions were going to affect the Cavs, they would have been the ones that have cropped up on the court and in the locker room all season. They've been their own worst enemy for months.
Unfortunately for Rivers and the Clippers, the Cavs looked like friends—or at the very least amicable co-workers—on Sunday.
It's never been about personnel or talent for the Cavaliers. It's been about getting a ton of skill organized in a way that maximizes its potential. With a month left in the regular season, it sure looks like the Cavs are getting things in order.
The East Is Organizing
Chaos has been a big part of the Eastern Conference since the season began, as nearly a dozen teams mucked around beneath the Cavs for positioning through the All-Star break.
The loss was Indy's worst of the season, and it underscored Atlanta's defensive prowess. Boasting the league's second-best defensive rating (Indiana is tied for third), the Hawks held the Pacers to just 56 points through the first three quarters.
Indiana's offense has been a weakness all year, but it's clear the Hawks have the personnel and (occasionally overbearing) focus to shut down almost anyone.
Just look at head coach Mike Budenholzer laying into Kent Bazemore for a mistake...and then appreciate that Indiana would score only seven more points in the the ensuing nine minutes of that third period.
The result of Atlanta's blowout is a 2.5-game lead on the Pacers for the No. 6 spot in the East. The Hawks are now in a cluster including the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets. That quartet, ranging from the third seed to the sixth, is separated by a mere 1.5 games from top to bottom.
That's your clear middle tier. There's no hope for the top two spots—those belong to the Cavs and Toronto Raptors—and little chance of slipping out of the postseason altogether.
At this point, the Pacers should be a little worried about hanging around in that lower tier. Things ahead are going to be tough, per CBSSports.com's Matt Moore:
Indiana’s ahead in the loss column by just one game over Detroit. They’re in a tight race and their next three are Celtics-Raptors-Thunder.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 14, 2016
This Is the New Normal
Three coast-to-coast dribbles, with the third being picked up behind the three-point line, a ball fake and a dunk.
This is a generationally significant play—a seemingly impossible athletic feat. Or at least it would be if Giannis Antetokounmpo didn't do something similar every other day.
I mean, look. Same game:
Antetokounmpo secured his fourth triple-double of the season, finishing with 28 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds in the Milwaukee Bucks' 109-100 win against the Brooklyn Nets. He added four steals and two blocks, becoming the first player in Basketball-Reference.com's database (since the 1983-84 season) to post those five-category totals in one game.
The Bucks aren't especially good, but legitimately unprecedented "I'll dunk from absolutely anywhere" forays like these point to greatness in the future.
And the longer head coach Jason Kidd persists with his Giannis-as-point-guard experiment, the easier it is to see it eventually working.
Together, Kidd and Antetokounmpo have solved the riddle of a multiskilled, superhuman specimen previously deemed guardable because he couldn't shoot. Kidd putting the ball in Antetokounmpo's hands makes it impossible to ignore him, and Giannis' decision to just dunk everything he touches really hamstrings opponents who try to force him to shoot jumpers.
These things Antetokounmpo does are ridiculous, fun and, remarkably, no longer unusual.
The only thing he could do to surprise us now is fail to become a star.
Everything’s Fine in Sacramento! Version 638,714
DeMarcus Cousins returned from his one-game suspension for yelling at head coach George Karl to post 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the Sacramento Kings’ 108-99 loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
The defeat was unremarkable, as the Kings fell behind by 18 points after the first quarter and only mustered enough effort for cosmetic but meaningless improvement on the final margin.
Typical Kings stuff, really.
Though Cousins was productive, and though he flashed his usual overpowering game against one of the league’s best defensive frontcourts, he also (as usual) did little to suggest he was happy about any of it, per James Ham of CSN California:
"That wasn't a suspension from the organization, that was a suspension from the head coach. "-DeMarcus Cousins— James Ham (@James_Ham) March 14, 2016
We all know the Kings are in a complicated mess with ownership, coach and players all sharing the blame. But we've also now reached a juncture where even the most drastic fix—moving on from Cousins—might not be so easy.
When fan blogs associated with the most oft-rumored Cousins trade partner are shying away, it's a good sign Boogie has torpedoed his value irreparably:
Regarding Cousins: At what point do we switch from saying "this could be our chance!" to saying "umm, maybe we don't want him?" #deepthought— CelticsBlog (@celticsblog) March 14, 2016
Only 17 more games of this circus, Kings fans.
1 Was Probably Enough
We got a double dip at the Staples Center on Sunday, with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers following the afternoon meeting between the Cavs and Clippers.
And, uh, maybe we didn't need that second game, a 90-87 Knicks win.
This was ugly, as both teams struggled to score early, and the Lakers trailed 18-11 after the first 12 minutes, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
The Lakers are on pace for 44 points. The first quarter just ended.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) March 14, 2016
Even worse, Kristaps Porzingis sat out with a stomach bug. There would be no unicorn sightings to redeem this one.
Phil Jackson was in attendance for Kobe Bryant's last meeting with the Knicks, and he got a nice ovation when he showed up on the video board. So that was nice. And it was kind of fun to watch the game seesaw back and forth with Bryant and Carmelo Anthony trading buckets during the last three minutes.
But it was Jose Calderon, of all people, who hit the game-winner on a badly broken play—which was only possible because Bryant went way too early on the Lakers' final possession, giving the Knicks nine seconds they never should have had.
Less is sometimes more, I guess.
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Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com. Accurate through games played March 13.