Last night’s Cavaliers victory over the Clippers offered a glimpse into something very special. Not that the mere act of pushing the win streak to 12 against a very good team wasn’t special, but there was a swagger and unity that signify great things.
It goes beyond the way they beat the Clippers like a prison-house snitch dropped into general population. It was something LeBron alluded to after practice the other day when he talked about team unity and the way they were drawing closer.
“It’s about a team and how we all fit together — how the five guys on the court fit together, how the eight guys or 10 guys on the bench all help the guys that’s on the floor,” he said. “The rest of the guys are starting to understand that. I think we’re getting it. I think we understand that, at the end of the day, no one individual has ever won a championship. It’s all about a team.”
If you didn’t want to take his word on it, their play against the Clippers certainly spoke loudly. “Don’t Believe Me. Just Watch.” (If there were noise cancellation headphones specifically tuned to that song, I’d buy them.) Check out the bench after T-Mo came back from fumbling a pick & roll pass to almost fumble away a fastbreak pass at halfcourt, recover and take it in for a decisive jam.
Basketball’s an extraordinary sport because of one person’s ability to impact so much of the action. Everyone’s essentially asked to do everything. There’s less specialization than other sports – no goalies, linemen, closers – and there aren’t any real hierarchies among the guards, forwards, and centers. Everyone’s tasks are equal (and not just important).
The best players contribute in every way, yet for all their ability to take over games, the ones that get to walk that biggest stage are those that learn to subordinate their ego to the team’s needs. At the very elite level, these players are like perfect spouses – there to highlight your strengths and cover your weaknesses.
At the core of it is this idea that however strong we are alone, we’re that much stronger as a team. But like any relationship these things are easier to say than accomplish. Resentments, insecurities, greed and envy build up on the court as in life, diminishing how close and good a team can get.
That in some sense is the joy of all team sports, a kind of voyeuristic intrigue watching the cohesion build or collapse. It’s that’s much more heightened in basketball because of the small five-team units, and the outsized role one person plays in that chemistry. Do you have Allen Iverson or Kevin Durant?
It’s not that any guys don’t try, but the way some guys try hard often means excluding others. It’s a malady called “hero ball.” Everyone needs to buy into their roles and trust everyone else to buy into theirs. When that fails, fingers point — something we saw a little of just 30 days ago on the part of the media, amidst the six-game losing streak that preceded the current win streak. My, how quickly the world turns, huh?
You can see these days the Cavs truly buying into their roles. (See ya, Dion Waiters.) It’s really pretty extraordinary to witness and the Cavs are even developing a kind of personality. The games begin with them going to Kevin Love. Sometimes it doesn’t work, like during Monday’s 1-7 first quarter performance against the 76ers.
Last night it worked as Love hit four of his first five shots, including a couple threes for 10 points.
LeBron mostly deferred the entire first quarter, going 1-4 but racking up 6 assists. As is the Cavs’ M.O. since LeBron’s return, he comes out with the second team to start the second in attack mode. James scored 13 points in the quarter on 6 of 8 shooting, and added two more assists
The guy who I credit most for the team’s turnaround is Kyrie Irving. He’s supposedly someone that bought in from the start and was allegedly an early fan of Coach David Blatt, who himself played point guard. Whatever their relationship, Irving’s game up to now has been sterling other than two warts – he’s never played D and he looks too much for his own shot. Those two things are no longer an issue.
A week or so after going for 55, Kyrie had as many first half assists as he did shots. When needed, he will score, but Kyrie has dialed down the offense to surprising degree, and that sudden surplus of offensive oxygen seems to be feeding everyone. JR Smith for one seems to really benefit, giving the team its first serious scoring threat from the two guard since Waiters went to the bench.
Indeed, JR Smith’s active hands have made a difference on defense somewhat unexpectedly. He had 5 steals last night, the fifth time in sixteen games that he’s had 3 steals or more. Iman Shumpert may find it tough to carve out minutes if Smith keeps playing like this.
That said, Shump has been the defender that was advertised, holding opponents to 11.3% lower FG% from outside 16 ft in his 8 Cavs games. He’s also averaging 2.4 steals per 36 minutes.
You could see almost from the beginning how this game was going to go. The Cavaliers were moving the ball as well as they have all year, and tallied assists on 18 of their first 25 baskets. Here the ball reaches four players before ending in LeBron’s hand for a slam off a cut.
When the Cavs play like this it’s visual poetry. The selfless actions – giving up your shot to help another guy get a better shot or consciously looking for opportunities to get a guy going by getting them easy hoops – are just so cool to watch. Inside ourselves we know how difficult it is to figuratively pass up our wide-open jumper to afford someone else a chance, but in the case of basketball, at least, it makes things markedly better for everyone.
Yet, where it all begins for this team is on the defensive end and the Cavaliers played hard-nosed defense – Clips shot 40.5% prior to last stanza — until the scrubs came in. The defense continually created opportunities (18 points off 11 opportunities entering 4th), as on this play, as the team showed the same defensive intensity in the third quarter as the first.
This too is something that LeBron alluded to yesterday: “We've bought in to what the coaching staff wanted us to do. Our mindset is this is what we're going to do defensively every single time down, no matter the mistakes, we're going to do it every single time, and I think that's resulted in us being more consistent defensively.”
It’s sort of entertaining to watch a clusterfuck like the Knicks or the Kings play out in the same way some enjoy eavesdropping on bickering couples one table over. It’s sort of a seedy illicit thrill watching it all implode, but what’s even more satisfying is to see what we’re witnessing with this Cavaliers team, a growing cohesion and identity for doing the hard work (see defense and rebounding) that wins championships and forsaking personal stats for a potential shared prosperity.
Only that prosperity seems nowhere as speculative anymore. It took a couple savvy personnel moves but we’re seeing exactly the Finals contender we expected, and they’re doing it with defense. At this point, even the vaunted West Conference doesn’t look to imposing for the Cavaliers to cut down to size.
Tonight it’s on to Indianapolis for a game against the Pacers. I’ll be tweeting and posting live video tonight. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my column Saturday in the Cleveland Scene blog.