MILWAUKEE -- The one thing missing from a Cleveland Cavaliers season that has seemingly had it all so far has been a collective confidence shared by the team’s key components in where they all believed everything was moving in the right direction.
There are various reasons for this phenomenon existing on a squad that now is a 56-22 team after Tuesday’s 109-80 dismantling of the Milwaukee Bucks: Early season injuries, warped expectations caused by the Golden State Warriors' unprecedented success, David Blatt’s firing and LeBron James' sometimes distracting social media habits all receive check marks. But finally, with just four games remaining before the playoffs begin, that confidence is unmistakably present.
“We’ve had some ups and downs, but for the most part, we’ve had way more ups, and for our team, we’re in a good place right now with a week and a half left in the regular season,” said James after putting up 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting, nine assists and five rebounds in just three quarters. “It’s a perfect time to be clicking, and we’re clicking right now, so it’s perfect for our team, and everyone feels in a good rhythm offensively and defensively. We know what we want to do, and we can go out and execute that.”
There are three numbers that stick out the most about the win in Milwaukee, and they all tell a different story about why the Cavs feel good about themselves right now: 197, 30 and 40.
The 197 signifies J.R. Smith's number of 3-point field goals this season after he hit 7-of-11 from deep against the Bucks. He came into the game needing to hit three 3s to pass Wesley Person’s franchise record of 192 made 3s in the season. He set the record with ease.
“Coming into the game, we talked about him breaking the single-season record for the Cavs,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said. “That was on everyone’s mind, and LeBron said, ‘I’m going to come out and I’m going to get it to you in the first quarter,’ and he got it in the first quarter. So, that’s what great teammates do. Everyone was happy for him, and he shot the ball great tonight.”
The Smith record is significant because not only did it give the Cavs a game within the game to concentrate on against the type of inferior opponent that they have failed to get up for in the past, but it also was another example of Lue imploring his team to celebrate the little victories over the course of the 82-game grind in order to bring levity to the process.
The next number, 30, represents the Cavs’ assist total for the night, on 41 buckets. Seven players took five or more shots and no one took more than 12, and the ball zipped around the court from side to side, creating open opportunities all night.
“I mean, it’s my type of basketball,” said James, who had fewer than 10 attempts for just the second time this season. “I love when the ball is moving. I couldn’t care less about how many shots I get as long as the ball is moving and everybody is in a good rhythm and guys feel good about the offensive end. It definitely shows up on the defensive end, as well.”
Which brings us to the final number, 40, representing the field goal percentage the Cavs were able to hold the Bucks under, as Milwaukee shot just 39.8 percent from the field.
That type of defensive and offensive output makes the Cavs virtually unbeatable. They are now 16-0 this season when holding their opponent under 40 percent shooting and 6-0 this season when handing out 30 assists or more.
“I thought this was like one of our most complete games of the season for us -- offense and defense and having both of them for the whole game,” Lue said.
When informed of Lue’s comment, Kyrie Irving -- who finished with 15 points and six assists and didn’t even attempt a shot in the first quarter as Cleveland jumped out to a 33-19 lead -- said, “That’s a bold statement for us.”
Irving's insinuation was: It’s about damn time. The NBA season is a long one. Probably too long. To get too caught up in one’s momentum, or lack thereof, with the playoffs still months away is folly.
All a team can ask for is to be playing the right way when it’s time to be the first team to 16 postseason wins. From James to Irving to Smith to Kevin Love continuing his recent strong play with 17 points and nine rebounds in just 25 minutes in Milwaukee, the Cavaliers clearly can claim that.
“It’s all about us,” Lue said. “I think when we have the right approach coming into the game both offensively and defensively, wanting to move the ball, share the ball, I think we’re tough to beat. So I just think it’s us, mentally, having to come in with that approach.”