The Cleveland Cavaliers either evidenced their great vulnerability or proved just how helpless the rest of the Eastern Conference will be in the playoffs, depending on which part of their win over the New York Knicks you watched. For three quarters, the Cavaliers looked like the sluggish, disinterested team that got off to a 6-7 start with a minus-3.2 net rating. But in the final frame, the unstoppable offense that rampaged its way to the NBA Finals last season came to bear. The Knicks led by 15 heading into the final quarter. Minutes later, the Knicks were toast.
It was a perfect test case for what makes these Cavaliers so difficult to peg early in the season. So many things are obviously awry with this bunch; they owned the league’s worst defense heading into Monday’s action and nearly everyone aside from LeBron James has been a net negative. But given their ability to erupt at a moment’s notice, that may hardly matter until their inevitable clash with the Golden State Warriors in June.
The Cavaliers attempted 45 3-pointers against the Knicks, tied for the second-most this season among teams not based in Houston. They made 16 of them, a good but not great percentage. Kevin Love struggled from the field, going just 2-of-9 for six points, while Iman Shumpert sabotaged the offense with zero points and five turnovers. Jae Crowder hasn’t looked right all year and only played 22 minutes.
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Nine of the Cavaliers’ triples came in a 43-point fourth-quarter barrage for which the Knicks had no answer. In those final 12 minutes, we saw once again the profits of surrounding James with shooting, punting on defense and betting big on offense. Kyle Korver and Channing Frye both logged crunch-time minutes in place of the struggling Iman Shumpert and Kevin Love. The two combined for seven triples in the quarter and a tidy plus-28 in the game.
James was his normal self, throwing up a casual 23/9/12 line in addition to three blocks. He shot 50 percent from the field and hit the go-ahead shot in the fourth quarter to give the Cavaliers the lead for good. Dwyane Wade had a delightful throwback game in which he tallied 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists to go with a plus-13 while he was on the floor. The Cavaliers probably can’t count on that kind of production every night, but anything resembling it would be acceptable given their horrendous guard play.
Those backcourt struggles may persist until January, when the Cavaliers hope to get Isaiah Thomas back. Even then, it will take time to fully integrate Thomas into what will be a completely LeBron-centric offense. This team is playing for May and June, though, not January and February. Tread water until Thomas returns and make it through the ensuing growing pains, and the Cavaliers will be a markedly better team four months from now.
For now they sit at .500, with wins over Milwaukee (twice), Boston and Washington, to name a few. On Monday night, with their backs against the MSG wall, they delivered again with yet another offensive eruption against (right now) one of the East’s best teams. Record be damned, this team still gets up for important games.
The red flags are glaring, and they will continue to pop up throughout the season. But James has yet to give us reason to doubt his ability to turn it on when necessary. His teams have proven time and again that they need adversity and drama not just to succeed, but to survive. Monday night was just more evidence of that phenomenon.