It's still way too early to crown the Cleveland Cavaliers as anything close to NBA title favorites, but if their latest trip across the 49th parallel was any indication, they're at least inching closer to contention.
Less than 24 hours after escaping Madison Square Garden with a three-point victory over the heartbreaking New York Knicks, the Cavs (11-7) went into the Air Canada Centre Friday night and came away with an impressive 105-91 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors (15-5). Better yet, the result extended Cleveland's current streak of success to a season-high six games.
LeBron James led the way with 24 points on 9-of-18 from the field to go along with seven rebounds and a season-high 13 assists.
Kevin Love got plenty of touches early, racking up 11 of his 15 points and nine of his 13 shot attempts in the first half, before coming through with eight of his 13 boards—all of the defensive variety, by the way—over the final two quarters. Kyrie Irving came on strong after the break as well, with 13 points and five assists in the second half.
But it was Tristan Thompson who stole the show from Cleveland's Big Three.
The Toronto native hustled and muscled his way to 21 points, 14 rebounds (nine of the offensive variety) and countless contests on drives and interior shot attempts by the Raptors' perimeter slashers, including Kyle Lowry (7-of-18 shooting, four turnovers), Greivis Vasquez (2-of-11 shooting, one turnover) and Lou Williams (2-of-7 shooting, three turnovers). Coach David Blatt commended Thompson on his performance on "both ends of the court" (via Travis MacKenzie):
The fourth-year forward out of Texas was so effective against his hometown, in fact, that he all but relegated Anderson Varejao to spectator status on the Cavs' bench. Cleveland's starting center logged a season-low 16:38, not a second of which came after the 7:35 mark of the third quarter. A mere two-and-a-half minutes later, the Cavs tipped off a 10-0 spurt that stretched their lead to 73-60.
All told, Thompson was the star of what was arguably the Cavs' best two-way effort of the 2014-15 season.
Offensively, Cleveland performed well in just about every phase. The Cavs hit 45 percent (9-of-20) of their threes, including a pair of treys from the scantly used James Jones, standing in for the concussed Mike Miller, in the second quarter.
Within the arc, the Cavs pounded Toronto for 54 points in the paint and edged the Raptors at the free-throw line, 21 attempts to 20. More importantly, they shared the ball, racking up 28 assists on 41 baskets for an assist rate of 68.3 percent—their fifth-best mark of the season.
But let's face it: Scoring was never going to be a long-term problem for these Cavs. They had too much offensive talent from the get-go—between James, Love, Irving and Dion Waiters, who managed just four points on 2-of-8 shooting but chipped in four assists—and too smart of an offensive coach, in David Blatt, to not figure it out at some point.
So far, they have. The Cavs now sport the league's sixth-most efficient attack, per NBA.com, in terms of both points per possession and effective field-goal percentage.
Where Cleveland can really take heart is in its team defense, and not just in Toronto. The Cavs held the Raptors, with the NBA's second-most efficient offense, to season lows in points and field-goal percentage (40.7 percent). They contained pick-and-rolls, rotated to Toronto's perimeter shooters (8-of-24 from three) and made life difficult for the Raptors in the lane.
Well, for most of them, anyway. Amir Johnson jostled his way to 27 points—his season high and the second-most of his career—on 11-of-15 shooting. Only six of Johnson's points, though, came after Thompson replaced Varejao in the middle for good.
If poking holes in Cleveland's defensive effort were the objective, DeMar DeRozan's absence on account of a groin injury would seem another glaring gap over which to obsess. After all, DeRozan's ability to attack off the bounce has long been a pivotal part of Toronto's game. According to NBA.com, he's accounted for about 28 percent of the Raptors' 27.1 drives per game and just under 27 percent of the team's 32 point off drives per game this season, second on Toronto in each category to only Lowry.
And with DeRozan around, the Raptors might not have been so dependent on Vasquez and Williams, both of whom registered subpar performances against the Cavs, to step up in support of the team's likely All-Star at point guard.
This wasn't Toronto's first rodeo without its bona fide All-Star, though. And the Raptors had not struggled to score while he was in street clothes. They averaged just under 121 points per game across their prior three outings sans DeRozan.
Take a peek at what Cleveland's done lately, though, and you'll see that the Cavs' performance north of the border was less one-game aberration and more extension of an ongoing trend. Cleveland had held four of its previous five opponents to fewer than 100 points and under 47 percent shooting from the field.
|The Cavaliers' Streak, By the Numbers|
|Off Rating||eFG%||Assist%||Def Rating||Opp eFG%||Record|
|First 12 Games||109.3||49.4||57.9||110.3||52.5||5-7|
|Last Six Games||112.4||54.9||60.9||96.6||46.2||6-0|
|NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com|
Granted, the Cavs haven't exactly have to fend off the '07 Suns (or the '14-15 Mavericks for that matter) to bolster their statistical credentials. In fact, none of Cleveland's previous five opponents featured a top-10 offense.
Still, the fact that the Cavs are finally getting stops against anyone, after struggling to do so against everyone in the early going, has been (and will be) crucial to this team's cause, especially when the offense inevitably sputters, as the Akron Beacon-Journal's Jason Lloyd reminded:
The Cavs didn’t really play well in recent wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and then Thursday against the New York Knicks. They gutted out victories those nights with superior talent and timely stops. But the tenacious defense returned against the Raptors.
There's no denying that the Cavs are starting to turn things around, caveats or no. The two most recent losses came on the road to the Washington Wizards by 13 points and home against the Raptors by 17, the latter of which saw Cleveland lead by as many as 18 points in the first quarter. Since then, the Cavs have blown out the Wizards—albeit without Nene—by 26 and have now fended off Toronto by 14. Thompson noted that the home loss to Toronto provided motivation for the Cavs to get the win Friday night (via Fox Sports' Sam Amico):
In truth, the turning point in Cleveland's campaign can be traced back to well before this current spurt of success began, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst pointed out:
Starting with a game in Denver on Nov. 7, tired of the lack of ball movement and a bunch of dribbling, James took the ball and starting controlling the team himself. This has continued and it isn't a fluke that James has won Player of the Week in two of the last three weeks and the Cavs have suddenly started playing much better as a team.
Again, we're not talking about a complete 180-degree turn here just yet. The Cavs will have to keep this roll going, preferably against tougher competition, before they can start so much as entertaining thoughts of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
They'll have their opportunities to do that soon enough.
Once the Cavs face the inconsistent Brooklyn Nets on Monday, they'll return home to host these same Raptors before hitting the road again for a tough back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who recently welcomed Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back into the fold, and the New Orleans Pelicans, whose emerging superstar (Anthony Davis) has been one of several studs to nudge LeBron to the fringes of the MVP conversation in the early going.
But every game, no matter the opponent, offers another chance for the Cavs to get better, to build on their slowly solidifying foundation.
To crawl, then walk, then (perhaps) run their way up the Eastern Conference standings and into title contention, right where any team with Cleveland's core talent belongs.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.