CLEVELAND -- LeBron James stalked off the court on Sunday, scowl firmly in place following the Cleveland Cavaliers' 99-94 win over the Chicago Bulls. No matter that James registered his first triple-double of the season with 20 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. There was no smile.
No matter that the Cavs won their 50th game of the season while increasing their lead for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference over the Bulls to four games with just five games remaining in the regular season, all but locking up the position over their Central Division rivals. There was no sigh of relief.
No matter that J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving hit a couple of instant-classic circus shots -- Smith from 41 feet to beat the halftime buzzer, Irving from 52 feet to beat the shot clock in the third quarter -- that sent the Quicken Loans Arena crowd into a tizzy as Cleveland went on to win its 18th straight home game.
There was no sense of satisfaction.
With two weeks until the NBA playoffs begin and fewer and fewer dress rehearsals remaining for James to direct his group into postseason form, he saw Sunday's win as somewhat hollow because of the shoddy way the Cavs closed things out.
Cleveland was ahead by 13 with 9:59 remaining, but ended up winning by just five as the Cavs had as many turnovers in the fourth quarter (five) as they had in the first three quarters combined and also attempted 12 of their 15 shots as a team from outside the paint.
"I think we turned the ball over and we got out of attack mode," James said. "I think we settled for a lot of jumpers in the fourth quarter. And those are things that we, as a young team, will have to just learn from and get better with it the next time. So, we controlled the game, but we allowed them to get back in the game because of what we did offensively and that's a very good team. You know a Thibs [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] team is never going to give up and we have to understand every single possession means everything and we can't take one off."
Rather than sending a message to the Bulls with a pull-away win, Chicago was left feeling emboldened by what went down, knowing that they were able to put a dent in the Cavs' seemingly impenetrable shield without the services of Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich.
"I think we're a confident group and it would be great to play them in the playoffs," Joakim Noah said afterward. "It would be very, very exciting. Something that I really hope happens."
For a Cavs team that has now won 31 of its past 38 games dating back nearly three months, it's natural for the winning to seem somewhat automatic by this point. But nothing comes that easy in the playoffs, something James knows all too well with three losses in five NBA Finals appearances thus far in his career.
Without demanding perfection from the group now, even if it is more of a manufactured disappointment than a true disgust, James is jumpstarting their playoff preparation and giving meaning to this final stretch of the regular season that otherwise could become simply a trap for the Cavs to rest on their laurels.
It's that same spirit that wouldn't allow anyone to really embrace the league record that Smith set on Sunday -- the most ever 3-point attempts (17) without a 2-point attempt -- because even though he made eight of them and made for good entertainment launching away out there, at some point Smith stopped caring to make sure his attempt was truly the best option for the Cavs.
"There's great shots and then there's good shots, and for a team like us that can move the ball and have so many options, we have to understand, let's try to get great shots," James said.
James was able to help salvage some momentum in the win. He found Kevin Love for an open 3-pointer in the corner that increased Cleveland's win from six to nine with 1:14 remaining. Not only did the shot salt things away, it should also give Love something positive to focus on after an uneven return to the lineup that saw him so perturbed late in the third quarter that he didn't receive a pass from Irving after sprinting up the court unabated that he threw his arms up in exasperation.
David Blatt, in what's certainly a good sign of the coach being on the same page as his superstar, was also measured in his praise of the win.
"I thought for good parts of the game we played very, very well. I thought and I believe that our fourth-quarter decision making, execution could have been better," Blatt said. "Much better. And that's on me. That's on me. And we got to improve that. Again, that's my responsibility."
The more urgent responsibility for both Blatt and James to shoulder is to get everyone in that Cavs' locker room to lock in as much as they have.
Hearing Irving assess where things stand with the Cavs right now was an indicator that sentiment shared by Blatt and James is not being lost on the rest of the roster.
"We're definitely happy, but not content or complacent with where we are," Irving said. "Obviously we want to continue to have consistency going into the playoffs and finish these games off the right way and take every game as serious as we can. We're still playing for something in this locker room and that's to continue to click."