Even when slowed by early season injuries and the absent urgency of a team told all summer it wouldn't face a threat in conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers played well enough to keep doubts about their East supremacy to a minimum.
On Monday, the fully healthy Cavs took another step toward erasing such skepticism altogether.
A 122-100 win over the Toronto Raptors—who were competitive early but faded late on the second night of a back-to-back set—signaled Cleveland's growing strength, pushing its record to 23-9 on the year and putting it three games ahead of the No. 2 Chicago Bulls in the loss column.
Kyrie Irving played his best game in months, buckling leg joints with his handle, scoring a game-high 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting and generally looking like the terrifying difference-maker Cleveland's offense has been waiting for.
The rest of the Cavs had his back against Toronto.
LeBron James scored 20 on 7-of-11 shooting, J.R. Smith buried eight triples and Tristan Thompson put up 14 points and 11 rebounds in his fourth straight start at center. And though Irving's vintage play will deservedly get the most attention, it's no coincidence the Cavs have won all four games since slotting Thompson in at the 5 for Timofey Mozgov.
Quicker, more mobile and dramatically better at handling switches onto guards in the pick-and-roll, Thompson gives the Cavaliers dimensions Mozgov simply can't.
You might think Cleveland's defense would suffer without Mozgov's hulking presence in the middle, but the Cavaliers have defended far better this year with Thompson on the floor, per NBA.com. And the team's rebound rate coming into Monday's contest was higher with Thompson on the court (54 percent) than it was with Mozgov (49.6 percent).
Mozgov still protects the rim more effectively, but the difference is marginal.
With Irving returning to form, the Cavaliers now transition into a different portion of their season, and new challenges await—even if it already feels like they've conquered some big ones.
Injuries are healed; the excuses are gone. And viewers around the league will expect a surge.
Cleveland will want to give them one, though balancing that instinct against the need to preserve itself for the games that matter in June will be tricky.
The longest road trip of the season looms ahead, and the Cavs will look to prove their play can travel. They're just 8-8 away from home this year.
It's strange to talk about stakes with this team—now more than ever—because there hasn't been any question about the Cavs' conference supremacy all year. It's always been about getting healthy, finding the right rotations and hitting the playoffs as the best version of themselves they can be.
We may have seen that version on Monday.
Dwyane Wade Aging in Reverse
You have to start with the lob. You just have to.
Dwyane Wade isn't supposed to go up and get that perfect pass from Goran Dragic—not at age 33 (34 on Jan. 17), not on the second night of a back-to-back, and for Pete's sake, not with his left hand. But Wade got it, all right.
Without Hassan Whiteside, the Heat limited the Pacers to 39.4 percent shooting but connected on only 37.8 percent of their own attempts. Indiana didn't have George Hill, and it lost C.J. Miles to a shoulder injury early, so both squads did their best to slog through an ugly, short-handed affair.
Wade put up 27 points and eight rebounds in 38 minutes. His lefty layup completed a fourth-quarter rally that forced overtime:
And it looked painfully familiar to Pacers fans:
Miami plays one more home contest before hitting the road for 14 of its next 16. Normally, you'd worry about the aging Wade wearing down during such a grueling stretch.
But after the way he played Monday, maybe we should rethink that.
Draymond Green Can't Stop
The Golden State Warriors got Harrison Barnes back for the first time in over a month, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry both went for 30 points and the fans at Oracle got to celebrate a 35th consecutive win at home during the regular season.
But Draymond Green's stat line in the 111-101 victory was the biggest deal of all.
With 13 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, Green earned his third straight triple-double, a feat just 14 players in league history have ever accomplished.
The fans loved it, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle:
DJ Khaled approved it:
And Curry made it happen:
The Dubs are getting healthy, Green is playing the best ball of his career and there won't be any shortage of delirious excitement in Oakland as the Warriors' streak extends.
We Know Who Boston's Leader Is Now
The Boston Celtics had to have this one. Had to.
Jae Crowder made sure they didn't.
Boston came out looking serious in the first quarter, and Crowder was the tone-setter, attacking the bucket with straight-line drives and punishing Nets defenders with physical play. His aggression prompted some deserved hyperbole from B/R's Brian Robb:
Crowder's ferocity seeped into his teammates, and Boston forced eight Nets turnovers (while avoiding a single giveaway itself) in building a 37-22 first-quarter advantage. And when the Celtics got a little too comfortable with their lead in the fourth, it was a big three from Crowder that secured the 103-94 win.
The knock on Boston all year has been its lack of a superstar presence. Great teams need hierarchies to keep everything in line, and it's been evident this season that the Celtics simply don't have one of those.
At least we know they've got a leader now. That ought to do until the Celtics cash in all those draft picks and all that cap flexibility for a true stud this summer.
Pop and the Spurs Give the People What They Want
So...do you want to hear about one of the best teams in league history predictably smashing a bunch of kids by 25 points?
Or would you rather enjoy San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich explore the psychology of awards and the value of deeper statistical study in basketball?
The second thing, right?
Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News captured two gems from Pop before the Spurs tipped off their inevitable 123-98 win over the Milwaukee Bucks:
With the Spurs destroying everyone in their path, we have to find ways to talk about them without succumbing to the monotony.
Pop makes that easier than you'd think.
Kings, Karl, History
Oh, and George Karl passed some guy on the all-time coaching wins list:
It's tough to get too carried away with the far-reaching impact of this particular game, as Kevin Durant (sprained right big toe) wasn't on the floor for the Thunder. But DeMarcus Cousins' 33 points and 19 rebounds highlighted just how vulnerable OKC's interior could look against a forceful post presence—especially with Enes Kanter in for Steven Adams because of foul trouble.
Fortunately, there's only one Cousins. And even if the Kings have looked more like a functional NBA team in winning two straight, it's still hard to see them holding together long enough to meet OKC in the playoffs.
Not a lot to draw from in this one, I guess. Just enjoy the history.
Mike D'Antoni Is a Fixer*
*As long as he's got a lightning-fast, ball-dominant point guard.
Three. And. Three.
Smith has been a true catalyst since coming over from the New Orleans Pelicans for a pair of second-round picks, charging up an offense that needed a boost (or a defibrillator) and dramatically changing the vibe in Philly.
He scored 21 points and handed out 11 assists in the win, and as long as he's sprinting around in a D'Antoni-influenced scheme, he'll get numbers and keep things interesting. It was never going to take much, but Smith and D'Antoni have the Sixers playing watchable basketball again.
Let's check in with NBA analyst Britt Robson for a report on the reeling Timberwolves:
Presented Without Comment
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Stats courtesy of NBA.com. Current through games played Jan. 4.