Remember four months ago? That was when we were already anointing the Cleveland Cavaliers as Eastern Conference champions, after they had a doozy of a summer by bringing back LeBron James and trading for three-time All-Star Kevin Love.
That was before James became a coach-killer, Love lost his mojo, and the most hyped team of the decade got buried under a barrage of hysteria and dysfunction caused by unmet expectations.
Good thing for the Cavs: The season is long. Mediocrity in early January means little in a league where the stakes don’t rise until April, and Cleveland has swiftly improved after trading Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson and some draft picks for Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
The new-look Cavaliers spanked one of their top conference rivals, the Chicago Bulls, last night. Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving tallied 18 points and 12 assists as his team prevailed, 108-94. This one was a quick knockout, as the Cavs amassed a 14-point lead in the second quarter and never really looked back.
The Bulls, to their credit, are in a bad way. Losers of six of their last eight contests, they’re without 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, and starting small forward Mike Dunleavy. But what Cleveland did last night was a statement game nonetheless; they may not put together the perfect season, but they have more than enough talent to scare the rest of the sport.
The Cavs still have a lot of work to do if they’re to be championship contenders this spring. A three-game winning streak is nice (especially if two of the wins are against elite teams) but it doesn’t put you into the rare air of squads like the Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks — who, combined, have less than half of Cleveland’s losses. With LeBron leading the way, though, such company seems inevitable these days.
— John Wilmes