LeBron James-less Cavaliers pass test against Dallas

CLEVELAND -- When Dallas Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons looks at LeBron James on the bench and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers making up the second-highest payroll in league history take the floor, he still sees a formidable group.

“They have a talented roster that can pick up the slack when a guy like Bron goes out,” Parsons said after the James-less Cavs beat the Mavs 99-98 on Wednesday.

One would think that Parsons’ observation wouldn’t be putting himself out on a limb or anything, but his statement showed more faith in the Cavs sans James than they deserve, quite frankly.

Wednesday’s win brought Cleveland’s record without James to just 4-12 over the past two seasons. In their previous two games without James this season, the Cavs lost by a combined 29 points, which actually belies the 26 points they trailed Miami before losing by 15 and the 30 they trailed Washington before losing by 14.

“We definitely have to speak about that tonight, just being professional,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said before the game, after informing reporters that James would be getting the night off for rest. “We got to start playing better when LeBron doesn’t play. So, guys have to step up and be ready to play and take on this challenge.”

Lue went on to specifically name Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love as the two who “have to produce for us.” And they did, for the most part. Irving finished with a game-high 33 points and came up with a couple of late defensive stops with a block on Zaza Pachulia and a steal on a pass intended for Dirk Nowitzki with 2.9 seconds left. Meanwhile, Love put up 23 points, a game-high 18 rebounds and two blocks.

“Obviously, it was a personal challenge,” Irving said afterward. “We know what the record is [without James]. ... I know I for sure took it personally knowing that I have to lead the team whether he’s in or out.”

In the grand scheme of things, it was a solid win for the Cavs as they were able to boost their lead over Toronto back up to 2.5 games for first place in the Eastern Conference playoff standings while simultaneously preserving the legs of their 31-year-old leader who is trying to gear up for an exhaustion-inducing sixth straight trip to the NBA Finals.

Yet, keeping with the culture the Cavs have tried to promote since the season started, it’s hard to say Cleveland really got better on Wednesday. The Cavs blew two separate 20-point leads that Dallas was able to nearly erase completely.

Also, both Irving and Love flashed one of their signature weaknesses while being leaned upon to do more. For Irving, it was his measly total of one assist for the game. Nobody doubts his ability to score the ball, but he will not truly unlock his full potential to use that scoring threat to manipulate the defense and create open looks for others.

Lue absolved Irving of any blame for his shot/assist ratio of 28-to-1, saying, “I just told Ky, I need him to be aggressive.” Lue also correctly pointed out that Irving did set up teammates at times and that his assist total would look far less egregious had Cleveland not shot just 10-for-36 from 3-point territory as a team.

For Love, whose final shooting line of 8-for-19 wasn’t an embarrassment by any means, the critique comes from the empty possessions he had late in the game when the Cavs kept going to him on the block with the game getting tight. He was 0-for-3 in the fourth quarter. For someone who has sought a bigger role ever since he came to the Cavs, it would be nice to see him take advantage of it when he is thrust into the limelight on a night like Wednesday.

Nevertheless, the Cavs did win without James, proving Parsons right, that yes, they can.

They just hope that they don’t have to get too used to it.

“I don’t want to dig too deep into it because, at a certain point, it’s just, he’s on our team,” Irving said of James. “It’s not anything that like we don’t want him out there or what the record speaks for when he’s not playing.

“We just want to prepare for every game the same way and come out with the same mindset, stick to our game plan and just be aggressive defensively. There’s a few games going forward where a few guys will probably have to sit out to rest going forward and we just have to make adjustments. We never know what can happen in the playoffs. Obviously we want everyone to stay healthy but we’re just preparing for the long run. That’s it.”