Though the Cleveland Cavaliers were amassing wins at a better-than-last-season pace, the giant elephant in the room continued to be the winning percentage of the Wine and Gold opponents. Prior to Saturday evening’s win over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, the Cavs had not topped an opponent that had been among the better teams in their respective division.
Cavs head coach Bryon Scott likened it to finally winning the second of a back-to-back slate, something that his team finally accomplished in their 10-point win over the Knicks in late January. His team had long been in games against formidable opponents, but the ever-popular knowledge surrounding ‘how to’ when it came to winning simply was not there with the young, spry Cavaliers. The overtime loss against the Indiana Pacers served as a trope for this belief; the fact that Kyrie Irving — the team’s hopeful leader for the next decade, under the microscope of “was he the right pick?” — missed the game-winning lay-up only helped to cement this belief.
Fast forward to a point in the season where Irving has played in more contests as a professional than he did as a collegiate ammeter and fans have a reason to believe, despite the team’s sub-.500 schedule. The rookie point guard is splitting fourth-quarter defenses as if every single opponent is the 2005-06 Washington Wizards. It’s nearly impossible to blame the Cavaliers for not having beaten a top-tier opponent heading into Saturday’s contest as the happenstance of the schedule merely provided the team with some regional opponents (the Detoits and Charlottes of the world). Once the more-renowned teams rolled into Quicken Loans Arena and the team subsequently took off for an all-too-long road trip, the dust has finally started to settle. And the standing image: one that can’t help but convey the idea that this team is one scoring threat away from becoming a playoff contender.
The Cavs topped the Mavericks despite shooting 39 percent from the floor. The Boston Celtics shot over 50 percent from the floor a few nights earlier and barely escaped Cleveland with a three-point win. It took 16 three-pointers (at a 76 percent conversion rate) for the Nets to top the Cavs by the same three-point margin. If Antawn Jamison hits one of his 12 missed field goals against the Lakers, and Daniel Gibson and Anthony Parker don’t combine for 5-for-17 from the floor, Mike Brown gets the loss against his former team.
A lot of what-ifs to be sure, but these what-ifs are easily fixed by an infusion of talent. The hustle and determination and know-how is already there. This Cavaliers team is working, earning additional possessions, keeping things close and interesting enough for Irving to work his magic yet again. It is these elements that were missing one season ago when the team was bruised and battered and barely winning 19 games. You can’t teach will, and as Doc Rivers said about Irving roughly one week ago, he wills this Cavaliers team to wins.
The upcoming schedule brings a battery of high-octane foes in Miami, the Los Angeles Clippers, your eight-seed Milwaukee Bucks and the Atlantic Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers. What the end result of these games are remains to be seen, but if the last two weeks of play are any indication, the win total may not be the deciding factor when giving this current Cavaliers team a year-end grade. Reading between the lines, it’s tough to argue that this team has not only turned things around faster than anyone deemed possible, but that Chris Grant and his litany of assets can only make things better.