Following no pattern, Cavaliers stake out a winning path

BOSTON -- If one were asked to name what has been consistent in a Cleveland Cavaliers season that has been anything but, two things would stand out:

1. Tristan Thompson was always in the lineup, stretching his league-leading consecutive-games-played streak to 447 straight heading into Wednesday.

2. On the second night of back-to-backs on the road, they stunk worse than an unwashed yoga mat, going 1-9, with the lone win coming against the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers.

Then Thompson sprained his right thumb against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday so severely that team officials are privately comparing it to the thumb injury that LaMarcus Aldridge suffered a couple of seasons ago that required surgery. The injury has ruled him out for two games at least because the thumb was so swollen it couldn't even be fitted for a proper brace yet.

And the Cavs came out on the second night of a back-to-back -- in Boston no less -- against a Celtics team (on three days' rest), with the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on the line, and they obliterated them, 114-91.

This isn't meant to correlate Thompson's absence with the Cavs' sudden resurgence -- the win over Boston makes it four in a row after that dreadful 7-10 showing in March -- but rather to illustrate that as much as anyone wants to say they know any absolutes about this Cleveland team, it's foolhardy to try to define them based on what we've seen thus far.

"We don't know what we can be," LeBron James told ESPN after Wednesday's win. "We just don't. But we know we played damn good tonight."

It was mostly fueled by James, as he erupted for 15 of his game-high 36 points in the second quarter and added a pair of momentum-fueling blocked shots as the Cavs outscored the Celtics 38-22 in the period to break open the game.

"When you have LeBron playing like a madman like that in the second quarter, it's tough for anyone to stop," said Kyrie Irving, no slouch himself with 19 points, 5 assists and 2 steals. "We just all just wanted to pile on and keep piling on, being aggressive and never stopping."

That's the goal, of course. To keep going until they collect 16 more wins once the postseason begins and make the regular season's ups and downs a mere memory.

The question is whether a team can find the type of trust and rhythm it takes to achieve greatness this late in the process. Are the Cavs destined to be a sieve on defense, or with fresh legs from the games being spaced out in the playoffs, a renewed focus and some schematic tweaks by coach Tyronn Lue, can they transform themselves?

On Wednesday, it certainly appeared so, as they held the Celtics to 40.7 percent shooting (including 21.2 percent from 3) and Lue worked in some of the defense he hopes to implement down the line, not revealing the changes other than to hint at the pick-and-roll coverage.

If they can sustain that type of defense, the conversation around the Cavs will change as well. Their struggles in March will be framed as boredom or the pitfalls of a road-heavy schedule against opponents who care more about the regular season than they do. If they can get all the way to where they want to be, they can go full Rudy T mode and remind the doubters to "never underestimate the heart of a champion."

In a way, the Cavs' potential from here mirrors that of backup big man Larry Sanders. He was once one of the league's top shot-blockers, but having left the NBA for two years, no one knows if he still has that in him. If Thompson misses extended time, he'll get a legitimate chance to show if he can do it or not.

Just as his new team is gearing up for the chance to show if it has enough to repeat as champion.

"I'm pretty sure everybody is going to write about it, probably this drastic change, all of the sudden the Cavs are contenders again," Irving said when asked what was the difference for the Cavs. "But for us, it's just really minimizing the mistakes that we make down on the floor and what we're doing offensively and defensively and then as one of the leaders on the team, bringing guys along as best we can.

"And it hasn't been easy, and it still won't be easy, but we need these games to finish out the season. This tonight was a great test for us, and we needed it. It was just a great regular-season game and however you want to put it, it was great to go out there and compete against a great team like the Celtics."