They climbed into the catbird’s seat after completing a superb West Coast trip that saw them dispatch two of the top three Western Conference teams with relative ease.
It would be easy to dismiss their current surge as a temporary hot streak, but that would be a mistake. This wasn’t a case of the Cavaliers picking on the weak of the world. In fact, Cleveland has played some of its best basketball this season against the best the league has to offer.
The Cavs have the appearance of a team that is slowly, but surely, working things out. Having undergone another fairly radical makeover during the offseason, the team is hitting its stride as January gets underway.
However, coach Mike Brown said this week that he’s been able to address two concerns he had at the beginning of the season: convincing the new players to buy into his defensive approach, and getting the entire team to develop what he calls the “bunker mentality” needed to advance deep into the playoffs.
So far, so good. The defense was never better than at the end of the Christmas Day blowout of the Lakers, or in the fourth quarter of the win in Atlanta later in the week. That was the night the Cavs held the Hawks scoreless for nearly nine minutes and reminded Atlanta, and the rest of the Eastern Conference, that they were still one of the league’s elite.
As good as Cleveland has been these past three weeks, Brown told the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently that the key point in the season was actually the sweep of Orlando and Miami on a Florida trip in mid-November. The Cavs were 4-3 before those two wins, but are 22-5 since.
Not coincidentally, it was the play of point guard Mo Williams in those back-to-back wins that signaled better things were ahead for Cleveland. Williams torched the Magic for 28 points and the Heat for 25, and has maintained his shooting touch during the Cavs’ hot streak.
Williams has scored 20 points or better 14 times this season, including five games in a row between Dec. 21 and 29. Never was he better than under the bright lights and intense scrutiny of the Christmas Day showdown with the Lakers, when he led the Cavs with 28 points in a 102-87 thrashing of the defending champs.
Williams says he’s a man on a mission , and the numbers support his claim. He’s averaging 17.8 points per game. More important, he’s contributing five assists a game against 2.6 turnovers, while adding better than a steal per contest.
All are serviceable numbers for a point guard on a team that features LeBron James. That’s because James, who often directs the offense, is sixth in the NBA in assists and has led all players in that category in 23 of Cleveland’s 34 games this season.
Williams was brought to Cleveland to bring stability to the point guard position (after years of Larry Hughes, Damon Jones and an aging Eric Snow) and score points. He’s succeeded on both counts.
That James is the focal point of the Cavaliers goes without saying. But it’s the blending of his new teammates with the old that has Brown thinking of championship possibilities.
Shaquille O’Neal is clearly not the Shaq of old, but he doesn’t need to be. As Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer so accurately put it , it’s not a choice between the Shaq of 1999 and the Shaq of 2009. It’s the choice of Shaq, right now, over Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, the two players Danny Ferry gave up to get O’Neal.
That trade has turned out just fine. O’Neal is averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds in just under 23 minutes a game. His value inside has been evident in bellwether wins over Dwight Howard and the Magic, Amare Stoudamire and the Suns, and Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and the Lakers.
O’Neal doesn’t dominate individual players or games. He doesn’t have to. He simply needs to impose his will on certain stretches of games, and that’s what he’s done against key opponents.
Add to that the adjustment of Zydrunas Ilgauskas as an effective reserve, combined with the energetic play of Anderson Varejao and the youthful zeal of J.J. Hickson, and Cleveland’s inside game demands attention and respect from opposing teams.
The other key off-season additions, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, have fit in as expected.
Parker was obtained to back up Williams and Delonte West at guard, but has assumed a starting role in light of West’s personal and legal problems. Although averaging just 7.2 points a game, he’s fourth in the league in three-point shooting percentage, making him a serious threat on the perimeter.
Moon, on the other hand, can be dangerous if taken lightly. He can stretch opposing defenses with his outside shooting or explode to the basket on offense, and his quickness on defense enables him to guard better players when needed, particularly when he’s giving James a rest.
Parker and Moon are major upgrades over Pavlovic and Wally Szczerbiak, Brown’s options a year ago.
Let’s not forget West, who can still change a game with his aggressiveness, and Daniel Gibson, a game-tested guard with exceptional three-point range. They, along with Williams and Parker, give Cleveland a rare quartet of backcourt talent.
The Cavs are not a perfect team, but they’re very, very good. They’ve also emerged from one of their toughest months of the season, one that featured back-to-back games four times. January, on the other hand, features only one back-to-back occurrence.
Meanwhile, Boston and Orlando, Cleveland’s main rivals in the East, face back-to-back games three and five times, respectively, during January.
O’Neal, James and Brown all have said recently that the Cavs have yet to peak and will continue to get better as the season rolls on.
If that’s true, there will be much more to cheer about in Cleveland this season. Bumps in the road are bound to occur, but the Cavaliers are showing the tenacity and experience required of a championship contender.