CLEVELAND -- As he gathered his teammates just outside the locker room for his customary pregame huddle, LeBron James looked at a circle that suddenly was much larger than he'd become accustomed to.
For the first time in six months, Kyrie Irving was in it as he made his season debut after a long recovery from left knee surgery. So was Iman Shumpert for just the third time this season after he came back from a groin injury only after recovering from wrist surgery. As was Kevin Love, the first time Love, Irving and James had been in uniform together since late April when a sweep of the Boston Celtics was marred by Love's horrific shoulder injury.
It was not a surprise the Cleveland Cavaliers then went out and crushed the Philadelphia 76ers 108-86. First, because everyone gets healthy against the Sixers, who are now 1-28 and getting worse. Second, because for the past 11 months the Cavs have been nearly unbeatable when James, Irving and Love play together.
Since January, when James returned from a two-week injury sabbatical, the Cavs are now 34-3 with their $250 million trio of All-Stars suit up together. Sunday was not a clinic, Love took only four shots and scored just 10 points and Irving had a rusty first half before finishing with 12 points and four assists.
But the basis of the Cavs' confidence is that finishing kick they had last season, a rhythm they are hoping to recreate.
"I saw so many familiar faces," James said. "We almost have a full group, it just feels good."
The Cavs are still waiting for Mo Williams, who has missed two games with a sprained thumb to come back, to have their full roster for the first time in months. With Timofey Mozgov finally starting to put some solid games together as he recovers from knee and shoulder injuries, there is a sense the team is beginning to get some traction.
It is reasonable to expect the Cavs to deal with some discombobulation issues as they put out new lineups and adjust some roles. Playing against the Sixers, who were just atrocious execution-wise for much of this contest, was hardly a realistic test. Supposedly, the Cavs want to make Love more of a focal point but he was a third wheel again in this one, for example.
The Cavs, who have been so thin in their backcourt all season, may have to massage some egos with minutes now because Matthew Dellavedova is playing the best basketball of his career. He carved up the woeful Sixers guards for 20 points, one off his career high, in just 23 minutes. He entered the weekend first in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio and is in the top five in 3-point percentage. On some nights this season Dellavedova has been the starting point guard with no backup -- now someone may end up as the odd man out.
But for the moment, those issues could be moved to the background. The team has not played perfectly and a three-week span in which they went 5-6 was not inspiring, but for the Cavs to be sitting at 18-7 and dreaming of a whole Christmas in Oakland is something for them to savor a tad.
"You could see that the team has been anxious and wants to see Kyrie out there and giving us the things he can give us," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "He had a serious injury, had serious surgery and went through a long, long process of rehabilitating. And you see a guy every day just fighting his way back and working and going through stages. I think the guys felt good seeing him out there professionally and on a human level. I know I did."
Attempts to get the Cavs to look forward to Friday's return to the Bay Area for a NBA Finals rematch have been fruitless. For the time being, they're remaining politically correct in front of microphones. Blatt, James and Irving all passed on chances to elaborate on the team's true feelings about seeing the Warriors again, defaulting to the "not looking ahead" clichés as the New York Knicks will be in town Wednesday. Also the Warriors, especially Draymond Green, are known for prowling for motivation.
Instead they focused on Irving as James acted as his personal DJ in the locker room, taking Irving's song requests as he and Shumpert swayed in unison in front of their lockers. Festive was the word of the moment.
"It felt great," Irving said. "It had kind of been a long road. Getting back out there with my teammates was a real pleasure."