CLEVELAND -- Somehow, amazingly, just two days after LeBron James dubbed himself the “sheriff” as part of a takedown of Charles Barkley so savage it dominated the sports news cycle during Super Bowl week, it was the Cleveland Cavaliers’ deputy that was the biggest story Wednesday.
The Wolves came into the night winners of eight out of their past 11 games while Cleveland had lost seven of its past 11. But Irving and the Cavs flipped the script on the entire narrative for both teams. Cleveland dished out a season-high 37 assists on 48 baskets for an assist rate of 77.1 percent (well above the 55.7 percent it averages for the season). Ironically, this came after the team held a rare midseason tryout, just a few hours prior to tipoff, to try to add a playmaker to the roster.
As for that workout between Mario Chalmers, Lance Stephenson, Jordan Farmar and Kirk Hinrich, a team source told ESPN it was “likely” the team would sign one of the four. However, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue opened the door to the possibility of Cleveland also working out free-agent big men to fill its 15th and final roster spot.
Irving was the spark on a night when he shot 5-for-18 from the floor, betraying his reputation as a player with “no offensive weakness,” as Lue likes to say. The guard showed the maturity to still be able to impact the game.
“It’s a win,” Irving said. “It’s a win for all of us. I’ll deal with the personal shooting woes by myself tomorrow. I’m already pissed off for the last two games that I’ve shot the ball, especially in Dallas the way we competed. But it really started on the defensive end. But tonight, when guys got it rolling, when guys are making shots, it makes it a lot easier.”
It made James’ job easier, as it was the most assists ever put up by a teammate of the four-time MVP, eclipsing the 13 Irving had put up earlier in the season, matching a total by Matthew Dellavedova and Eric Snow while playing alongside James, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“He just made all the reads,” James said. “He made all the reads tonight, and everybody benefited from that.”
"Everybody" is right. Eleven of Irving’s 14 assists went to someone other than James, as he found Channing Frye for four buckets, Tristan Thompson for four and Kyle Korver, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert one time apiece.
Meanwhile, James was his normal excellent self, scoring 27 points on 11-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds, two steals, a block and 12 assists, making him and Irving the first pair of teammates in the league in the past two seasons to both go for 12-plus assists in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They made everyone look good, with Korver going off for his highest-scoring game as a Cav (20 points), Thompson coming one shy of his season high (18) and Frye being three points off his season high (18).
It brought to mind general manager David Griffin’s message -- following James’ initial outburst calling for a “f---ing playmaker” -- about the real solution to Cleveland’s doldrums. “The thing we have to do the most is get better from within,” Griffin said.
The Wolves game, Cleveland’s third win in its past four, showed that that message from Griffin wasn’t just pie-in-the-sky talk. It is possible that the guys already on the Cavs roster will do much more toward getting this team on track than any addition.
“From my standpoint, my job is to take care of whoever is in this locker room,” Irving said. “And that’s where it stands.”
And maybe while everyone on the outside was reading into James’ attention-grabbing headlines, the team was able to get back to what it was supposed to be doing all the while.
“Everyone in the locker room has been really positive,” Korver said. “I know there’s a lot of noise on the outside, but you wouldn’t know that if you walk in the locker room. That’s what I’ve focused on. I feel like if they’re not panicking, I’m not going to panic. I’m the new guy. If they’re OK, I’m going to be OK too. That’s really what it’s felt like. My family or friends are worried about me, like, ‘Are you OK? There’s so much stuff being written.’ I’m like, 'It’s really fine. No one is that worried about it.'”
Guess there’s not just a new sheriff in town for the Cavs. There’s a new narrative as well.