CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers won big on Tuesday, beating the Boston Celtics 110-79 to account for their eighth win by 20 or more points this season and their third by such a margin in their past nine games.
They did it against a Celtics team that had been surging of late, averaging 108.2 points in the six games they played since acquiring Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline. And they did it on a night when two of their big three were less than 100 percent, as Kyrie Irving made his return after a two-game absence from a left shoulder strain he revealed had been bothering him even before he jammed it while fighting through a Draymond Green screen and Kevin Love was so ill from suspected food poisoning that he missed shootaround and required an IV injection of fluids after the game.
Even though Boston is lurking around the Eastern Conference's eighth seed in the playoff standings, the fact that Cleveland led by as many as 44 points even with the circumstances the last paragraph laid out is mostly inconsequential.
There are 20 more games left in the regular season for these Cavs, starting with a two-game road trip through Toronto and Atlanta -- two of the teams ahead of them in the standings -- and LeBron James is continuing to tighten the strings on his squad.
“We’re not there,” James said when asked if the Cavs were already prepared for the playoffs with six weeks remaining in the regular season. “We still got a lot of room to improve. We’re still trying to get better. We got a lot of games to play. We’re not playoff ready right now.”
Part of that preparation process is using this time to fine tune the offense to the point that Cleveland can switch its style, depending on the opponent.
For instance, the Cavs scored 110 points in each of their past two wins against Boston and Golden State. Yet against the Celtics, they racked up 28 assists on 43 field goals, while against the Warriors they had just 15 assists on 36 field goals.
Cavs coach David Blatt will tell you that was by design.
“We played and I coached a very particular game against Golden State to take advantage of what I thought we needed to do to beat Golden State, and that seemed to work out pretty good,” Blatt said. Indeed, the Cavs pounded the Warriors inside and went 29-for-35 on free throws as a result. “Now the fact that we had fewer assists isn’t of that much concern when you’re winning by 15 or so against the best team, arguably, in the league.
“We played a specific type of basketball in that game and that is why there were fewer assists. Today we played another kind of offensive game and obviously scoring the same amount of points, we had 28 assists. That speaks a little bit to the maturity of our team, I think. We knew how to play those games.”
“It was a different approach, and we know that. ... Our game plan was different,” he said. “It’s great to know that you can go to different styles in different games, and how every game dictates itself, be able to approach it and be successful. And we did that tonight.”
When training camp opened up, much was made about the versatility of these Cavs and how they could go with different looks depending on matchups -- from Love at the 5 and James at the 4 when going small, to James at the 1, Tristan Thompson at the 4 and Anderson Varejao (now Timofey Mozgov) at the 5 when going big.
After an up-and-down season in which Cleveland had to learn how to win one way, let alone through nuanced lineup shifts, the Cavs are finally starting to explore those permutations in the final fourth of the season.
“We have different guys that can give us a completely new dynamic and I think that changed when we made the trade,” Love said. “I think Perk [Kendrick Perkins] helps us as well, just giving us a veteran leader and a different dynamic on and off the floor. So, it’s just something that we’re going to continue to improve upon especially in these next six weeks here before it starts getting serious.”
And serious it will get, with playoff series often boiling down to veritable chess matches between coaches and every little move causing a ripple effect to the complexion of what occurs on the court.
That’s why it’s right to ask now, even though the Cavs have won 19 out of 23 games, things like: Are they taking too many 3-pointers?
“Well, we acquired some more shooting and we’ve also increased, I believe, our number of shots overall, and that of course is going to lend itself to some more opportunities from 3,” Blatt said. “The 3-point shot is a valuable weapon, particularly when you’re making it. When you go 12-for-40, it’s not a particularly efficient way to attack, in my opinion.”
At the team's shootaround Tuesday, James said that “3s and layups is a great way to win basketball games.” He added that the paint points ideally outweigh those from the perimeter and that “in-between shots is a low-percentage shot in our league.”
But against the Celtics, 11 of James’ 23 shots were from midrange. He made five.
“I was saying as far as team,” James clarified after the Boston game. “For me, I can shoot whatever. I can take any shot and be effective. But as far as teams, 3s and layups. Whatever groove I’m in, I can go. I can go midrange, I can go in the post, I can go shoot 3s if need be. Obviously, what’s better for our team is when I’m attacking, when I’m putting pressure on the rim, I’m getting my guys opportunities. But when I’m flowing, it doesn’t matter.”
For the most part, he’s right. He is a four-time MVP for a reason. But even he can continue to optimize his offense with the Cavs down the stretch. Especially within the context of how he plays with his teammates.
After James’ particularly ball-dominant 15-for-35 shooting performance in Sunday’s overtime loss in Houston when Irving was sidelined, Fear the Sword blogger David Zavac pointed out that James has used 41.5 percent of the Cavs’ possessions this season when Irving is out, with a true shooting percentage of 53.3. When he has played with Irving, however, James' usage rate drops to 30.6 while his true shooting percentage grows to 59.9.
Meaning, they are better when they’re together. Which is a great thing. Now the Cavs want all their guys to be better at blending their games no matter which approach they employ for the night.
“I think we’re learning now we have the ability to adjust in terms of the flow of the game and seeing how teams are playing us,” Irving said. “Some teams will have two guards back all the time and stop our transition, so our half-court offense and execution has to be that much better.”
It helps explain why James has balked at any questions about the Cavs’ climb up the Eastern Conference standings as the season comes to a close, saying that they are simply “competing against ourselves” and got as far on Tuesday to say all the Cavs need is a “top eight” seed at the end of the day. “Put me in the playoffs, I’m all right,” he said. “Once I get in the playoffs, I’m confident against anybody.”
This is the time for Cleveland to work in-house before the doors to the postseason are sprung open.
“We’re building,” James reiterated. “We’re getting there. But we’re not there yet and every game will continue to help us grow -- win, lose or draw. And you just come out and compete, compete at a high level, you play the right way, you build a game plan that the coaches give you, you go out and try to execute it and see where you go.”