DALLAS -- The night started off aesthetically disorienting. LeBron James took the court for tipoff without a headband for the first time in more than a decade -- since a preseason game against Detroit in his rookie season, to be precise. The night ended with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as a whole, having the familiar look of a James-led championship contender.
The regular season will be over before we know it, and Tuesday’s 127-94 shellacking of the Dallas Mavericks by the Cavs was as good an indicator as any that this team is ready for the playoffs.
There’s no doubt the Mavs are struggling -- they came into the game having lost four out of their past six, with each of those losses by double digits -- but Tuesday was just as much about Cleveland’s excellence as Dallas’ lack thereof.
The Cavs put all five starters in double digits, with only Timofey Mozgov (17 points) failing to top the 20-point plateau.
“We kind of made them pick their poison,” said Kevin Love, who finished with 21 points, which gave him 20 or more for the third time in the past six games.
Love looked like he was on his way to another underwhelming night -- he went 0-for-4 in the first quarter, with two of those attempts from beyond the arc, where he’s been spending a lot of time lately -- before he changed his approach.
“I just wanted to get inside, get myself going,” said Love, who logged 17 shots and only six from the outside.
“He was great in every aspect,” James said of Love, who also grabbed a game-high 14 boards. “In the post, rebounding the ball strong, finishing, shooting, everything. He was great.”
The same could be said of James, who finished with 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in just 29 minutes. He made 10 of his 14 attempts and only turned the ball over twice, which had been his bugaboo lately, in the same way a lack of inside touches was bogging Love down.
Kyrie Irving was equally spectacular. Cavs coach David Blatt called his point guard’s push-the-pace, 22-point, five-assist, five-rebound night “beautiful.”
“Coaches are always on me about that, especially in the film room,” Irving said of the increased tempo. “Different plays that can be made if I play with a better pace, especially in transition. We go to a quick pitch, we go to a quick drag. Getting downhill, the attention that I draw in the paint, the attention that 'Bron draws in the paint, it only sucks the defense in and gives guys wide-open shots, so it’s just a conscious effort on our end.”
“Somebody got to do it,” Shumpert said of his ability to impact the game with six assists while only taking six shots. “We got a lot of guys that can do a lot of things, and at times, you want to do other thing,s but you can’t do it because the game is just flowing. And sometimes you may not have the ball in your hands, so you got to find other things to do. I’m a young guy. I got a ton of energy, so I might as well use it, right?”
Said James: “I could care less about him scoring. I don’t care if he scores a bucket for the rest of the season. All I care about is how he defends, that aggressiveness, he being able to defend multiple positions, and he’s doing a great job of making the shots when they come to him ... For us, we’re happy to have him. We love him.”
How good are the Cavs when they execute the way they did against the Mavs?
“We’re practically unstoppable,” Irving said.
It was an encouraging start to a four-game road trip that continues through San Antonio, where the Spurs suddenly have their act together, and ends in Florida, with a back-to-back through Orlando and Miami.
As the sand slides down the hour glass on the regular season, this Cavs team is relishing nights such as Tuesday.
“Just the camaraderie that we have between all 15 people, including the coaching staff and the trainers and everybody,” Smith said in explaining why he said last week that this is the most fun he’s ever had playing basketball. “It’s a great combination.”
Tristan Thompson posted evidence of that combo on Instagram after the game, as all the Cavs gathered on the team plane for a group shot with smiles as wide as the margin of their victory (except for Kendrick Perkins, because, well, he’s Kendrick Perkins, and Brendan Haywood, who went for the studious pose).
There’s no doubt the Cavs have caught on to something. The playoffs can’t start soon enough.
“It’s a very exciting time,” James said, summing it up for everyone.