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Cleveland Cavaliers Destroy Magic in 'Must-Win' Game, and Monday NBA Takeaways

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 25, 2014

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

For LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, this was how things were supposed to go.

James got in, dominated and got out early in a 106-74 victory over the Orlando Magic on Monday, giving the Cavs a win they desperately needed—according to Kevin Love's comments ahead of the pivotal contest, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin:

Dave McMenamin @mcten

Kevin Love: "Tonight is a game that we must win"

Now, to be fair, it's difficult to assign any real significance to an NBA game in November. But the Cavs came into this one reeling. They were disjointed, lethargic, stagnant and, most worryingly of all, losers of four straight. At home, against a young Magic team, the Cavs had to win—convincingly.

Win they did, and convincing it was.

LeBron got off to a tone-setting start in the first quarter, looking bouncier than he had in weeks and breathing life into a Cavaliers team that needed a little resuscitation. Sometimes, we exaggerate by saying a player "carried" his squad, but James really did toss his teammates on his back in the first quarter against Orlando, according to the stat sheet, at least, recap courtesy of Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

Josh Robbins @JoshuaBRobbins

The Cavaliers made 8 baskets in the first quarter. LeBron James scored or assisted on every one of them.

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Cleveland ended that first period with a 10-point lead and won the next two quarters by eight and five points, respectively. The resulting 23-point advantage after three periods allowed James to sit out the entire fourth quarter.

The Cavs needed this result, and they needed it to happen just like this—with James responding to his own toughest critic in regal fashion, via comments shared by Fox Sports' Sam Amico:

Sam Amico @AmicoHoops

LeBron James from shootaround Monday: "We've got a four-game losing streak, so I stink. I'm not doing my job." #cavs

LBJ's 29 points, 11 assists, four rebounds and three steals on 9-of-17 shooting looked more like a stat line from his Miami Heat days than any he's posted to this point in Cleveland. It was James being James, and it seemed to put things in order for the Cavs.

Kyrie Irving scored 12 points on an efficient 5-of-9 effort from the floor. Love added 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 32 minutes.

As a team, Cleveland shot 51.9 percent from the field and registered 30 assists against just 12 turnovers. In short, it was the Cavs' best, most fluid offensive performance in weeks.

James' activity and confidence had an effect on Cleveland's defense as well. Yes, the Magic are a shaky offensive team that lacks perimeter shooters. But the Cavaliers were active, attentive and more eager to help than they'd been in recent games. It looked suspiciously like James and friends were actually trying on D.

One game does not a season save, but we were reminded of something about the Cavaliers on Wednesday: When motivated, they can overwhelm teams with their athleticism, skill and passing. That's hardly a newsflash; it's what everyone expected when the roster came together.

Nov 24, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) catches a pass while defended by Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo (5) in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The real test will be maintaining the urgency that spurred this effort. The temptation to coast will continue to be there. And there are still very real issues—pertaining to ball movement, defense and chemistry—that we can't pretend are gone after one solid effort.

James' return to form was the most encouraging aspect of the Cavs' thorough win, but it's unrealistic for Cleveland to rely on superhuman performances from him on a nightly basis.

That sounds blasphemous ("LeBron is superhuman," some of you are shouting), but as he nears his 30th birthday in a body that has officially lost some of its fast-twitch dominance, the rest of the Cavaliers must find a way to mimic James' effort—not just fall in line behind it.

Coach David Blatt, despite the "gloomy days," remains optimistic about the Cavs' ability to get back on track, per Amico:

Sam Amico @AmicoHoops

Cavs coach David Blatt: "It's early and there were a few gloomy days. We're trying to fight our way out of it. This is a good small step."

The Washington Wizards are up next on the schedule, and it'll be telling if the Cavs don't come out with the same intensity they showed on Monday. Remember, Washington handed LeBron and Co. a 91-78 thumping on Nov. 21.

If the Cavs can't get up for two games in a row (with a score to settle, no less), there'll be just as much cause for concern as there was before James' big night against the Magic.

Around the Association

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Marvin Williams Almost Did It

A power forward's trip to the free-throw line isn't normally newsworthy, but when Marvin Williams stood at the stripe midway through the second quarter of the Charlotte Hornets' 113-92 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, he was making history.

Well, avoiding history, actually.

Williams hadn't been to the line in his first 360 minutes this year, and he needed to play just five more to pass Luke Walton for the most single-season minutes in NBA history without a foul shot, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Walton's record remains intact, and Williams, despite a lack of practice, made both.

Unfortunately, the Hornets dumped their sixth straight game, falling to a Clippers team that got 22 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists from Blake Griffin and 22 points, 15 assists and five rebounds from Chris Paul.

Halfway There, Sixers

Nov 24, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams (1) goes up for a shot past Portland Trail Blazers center Chris Kaman (35) during the second half at the Wells Fargo Center. The Trail Blazers defeated the 76ers 114-104
USA TODAY Sports

For just the fifth time all season, the Philadelphia 76ers took a lead into halftime. Up 52-50 over the Portland Trail Blazers, who kindly offered up 14 turnovers in the first half, Philly was in unfamiliar waters.

As you'd expect, Portland woke up after the break, blitzing the Sixers with a 39-point third quarter. The Blazers turned the ball over just once in the entire second half, and LaMarcus Aldridge finished with a game-high 33 points.

To put it mildly, Philly's defensive effort was a little disjointed in that decisive third period. Example: Damian Lillard was so open for so long that he didn't quite know what to do with himself:

The Sixers are now 0-14 after the 114-104 loss. Moving on.

Trouble in Dallas?

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

The Dallas Mavericks could be forgiven for a three-point defeat to the Houston Rockets on Nov. 22. It was a road contest, the second in a back-to-back set, and James Harden got loose for 32 points. The game could have gone either way; it's a long season, etc.

No worries.

But a 111-100 loss to an Indiana Pacers team missing Roy Hibbert (ankle sprain)—at home, on regular rest, in a game that saw the immortal Donald Sloan erupt for 29 points—is different. Coach Rick Carlisle described his team's defeat as "a physical demolition," per Bryan Gutierrez of MavsOutsider.com:

Bryan Gutierrez @BallinWithBryan

Carlisle: "It was a physical demolition."

Worries.

Dallas still leads the universe in offensive rating with a cool 115.2, according to NBA.com. But getting stops has been a real issue, as evidenced by Indy's 48.1 percent accuracy rate from the field and its red-hot 50.0 percent from long range. Eddie Sefko of The Dallas Morning News noted the Mavs' concerns on the defensive side of the ball:

Eddie Sefko @ESefko

For the second game in a row, the Mavericks checked their defense at the door and are paying the price for it with a second consecutive L.

Going forward, head coach Rick Carlisle will have to transfer some of his strategic offensive magic to the other end of the floor. Otherwise, Dallas may find itself too unbalanced to profile as a real contender.

Bulls Get Rose Back...for Now

Nov 24, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) is introduced prior to the game against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls' 97-95 win over the Utah Jazz was just so...Bulls.

Despite Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol returning, Chicago found itself engaged in a sloppy slugfest against a Jazz team that held a four-point advantage with under four minutes to play. Mike Dunleavy's layup with 22 seconds left gave the Bulls a lead that would stick, but the game was an either-way affair throughout the final period.

Nov 24, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors (15) defends against Chicago Bulls forward Pau Gasol (16) during the second half at EnergySolutions Arena. Chicago won 97-95. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Credit Utah's 36-22 advantage in the third quarter for breathing life back into this one.

Rose finished with 18 points and five assists on a tidy 5-of-10 from the floor in 25 minutes, while Gasol chipped in 23 points and nine boards in 37 minutes.

Jimmy Butler, because he's Jimmy Butler, played a grueling 44 minutes and contributed 25 points.

The Bulls got healthier, but they only narrowly defeated a Jazz team that now sits at 5-10. And we're going to need to see Rose and friends stay on the floor for more than one game before buying in completely.

Same goes for head coach Tom Thibodeau, per his comments, via ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell:

Nick Friedell @NickFriedell

Thibs: "When Derrick strings some games together he's going to take off. He's got to go. That's the bottom line. He's got to go."

Nick Friedell @NickFriedell

Thibs, on if he thought Rose was fatigued in the 2nd half: "Oh I don't know. Jesus. He's got to get out there and play ..."

Melo's Injury Takes Knicks From Bad to Worse

Carmelo Anthony played just 18 minutes in the New York Knicks' 91-86 loss to the Houston Rockets on Monday, and his early exit, noted by Tina Cervasio, should be cause for concern:

Tina Cervasio @TinaCervasio

UPDATE: I've been told through the #Knicks Carmelo is doubtful to return with ongoing back spasms.

The Knicks don't need this. Not after dropping to 4-11 and surrendering 36 points to James Harden. Not at the outset of a three-game road trip out west. Not after watching Melo struggle with knee pain, noted by the New York Post's Marc Berman, for much of the season:

Marc Berman @NYPost_Berman

Melo won't be talking to media. In a lot pain. Knicks will soon update situation.

And, because this is how cruel the NBA can be, New York gets what'll surely be a laser-focused Mavs club in Dallas on Wednesday. Save a little time: Mark the Knicks down for 4-12 now.

Lou Williams Cannot Be Stopped

Reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Lou Williams kept rolling in the Toronto Raptors' 104-100 win over the Phoenix Suns. His 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting helped Toronto get out to an early lead before the team rode Jonas Valanciunas' 27 points and 11 boards home.

The Raps are 12-2, thanks largely to Williams looking very much like the bench dynamo he was a couple of years ago.

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