Mike Prada takes us through their hot start from the good signs to the worrying trends.
BOSTON -- Less than a month into the season, the Cavaliers are an enigma. They’ve shown flashes of offensive brilliance but haven’t always functioned as a cohesive unit. They’ve also displayed maddening defensive tendencies that may be tougher to overcome given their personnel. All of this was predictable. So maybe a better question at this early stage is, should we make anything of them at all?
After losing three of their first four, they reeled off three straight wins including a 122-121 win over the Celtics where they rallied from a 17-point deficit to start the fourth quarter. The talent is obvious -- "undeniable," as C’s coach Brad Stevens said before the game. "They’re going to be in it when it’s all said and done," Stevens added. "We all know that."
That is the expectation. That at some point during the season, maybe after a month, or the new year or the All-Star break, the Cavs will bond offensively and figure out enough things on the defensive end to be a serious threat to come out of the East. A trip to the conference finals is the minimum requirement, which is a hell of a thing when you consider Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have never even tasted playoff basketball.
Is that enough, for us or for them?
"We’re a long ways away," Mike Miller was saying hours before the game while the media scrum hopped from LeBron James to Irving to Love. "But listen, there’s no substitute for talent. We have that. There’s no substitute for experience. We have that. There’s no substitute for youth and athleticism. We have that. So it’s a matter of things coming together. I tell people all the time, saying we’re going to sacrifice without knowing the outcome is very difficult to do. For the guys that have been through it and sacrificed and see what it’s worth, that’s where we can help. We’ll figure it out. Everybody wants it today. So do we. It’s just not going to be that easy."
There are comparisons to be made with other recent superstar alliances, but none seem apt.
The first point of reference is the 2008 Celtics, but Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce were at different periods in their career when they came together and their games uniquely complemented each other. The Celtics ruined it for everybody by setting such a high standard.
It seemed easy because it looked easy on the court, but behind the scenes there were small things and tiny details that needed to be addressed and ironed out during their entire run together. If there was one true lesson teams needed to take away from their experience, it’s that nothing is ever guaranteed and one key injury can change the equation dramatically.
The second point of reference is the 2011 Miami Heat, but everyone involved with that endeavor shoots that notion down almost immediately. "No team will ever go through what we went through my first year in Miami," James said. "Our expectation was win or bust, that was it."
Everyone around the Cavs contends that the environment is different because they’re building toward something rather than assuming belonged to them. Where the Heat were immediately cast as villains, the Cavs’ early-season controversies have been more playful, even silly.
This is the other side of the LeBron effect. His presence not only guarantees a shot at a championship and the promise of meaningful basketball, it also brings a horde of media attention and scrutiny. Everything they do is magnified, whether it’s a sidelines out of bounds play or a handshake routine.
"Any time you have expectations you’re going to have pitfalls and, ‘What the hell’s going on’ kind of deals," Miller said. "The one good thing about the whole Miami experience is even the media and fans realize that it isn’t going to be easy and it’s going to take time. When we started off 9-8 in Miami the world was coming to an end. We started off pretty slow this year in some aspects and it’s been, ‘Hey listen. It’s going to take time.’ We never had that in Miami.
"The expectations are still the same and there’s going to be the criticisms, that’s all going to be there. We understand it. But there’s also a little bit of an understanding about the process and there was no understanding of the process the first go around. Not even the players. The players didn’t know either."
A few feet away from where Miller was talking, Love was explaining the infamous moustache sharpening routine with Irving and the unsourced speculation that he was already thinking about opting out and signing with the Lakers.
"Whatever people assumed we were doing with our hands was about as true as me going to the Lakers next year," Love said. "I mean, I don't know why it was so hard for people to realize that we were actually curling our mustache. I guess because I had my fingers in the wrong place. Looking at the tape, film don't lie. It looks like we are doing something bad, but that wasn't the case. Going to the Lakers, I don’t know where somebody got that."
Love is great at this sort of thing. He has an easygoing way with the press that defuses moments rather than exacerbate tension. In a sense, it’s a positive sign that Love and Irving didn’t get defensive about the reaction to their handshake. The uproar -- if there really was any -- was good-natured and just another Internet moment.
There will be many more such moments throughout the season that will become things that will have to be dealt with and addressed. Some will be real distractions, others will be frivolous but that’s the world they’re in now. Nothing will escape notice.
The real underlying tension at the heart of the Cavaliers’ existence is the push and pull between James and his younger teammates. LeBron has cast himself as the wizened elder and the season has already provided teaching moments, such as their loss to Portland when he went scoreless in the second half and made a point of calling out the "bad habits" that have built up over the years.
The Celtics game provided another. After a dreadful third quarter in which they allowed the C’s to score 42 points -- a performance LeBron labeled "unacceptable" -- James let Irving go to work to start the fourth. Kyrie scored the Cavs’ first 12 points and got them in the bonus with more than eight minutes left.
"He’s a special guy, a special talent," James said. "He can do that at any time."
Then, something important happened. Irving went to James and told him that he needed to be aggressive. LeBron agreed and took over down the stretch, scoring eight straight points to give Cleveland the lead while guarding Rajon Rondo at the other end.
"He came to me and said be aggressive and make some plays," James said. "I told him all you’ve got to do is talk to me. And I answered."
As for the defense, well, they won the game.
"We have to see what we do well, what we don’t do so well," James said. "It’s easy to say it. I feel like the young guys are like my kids, they’re not accustomed to reading textbooks. They like diagrams and you’ve got to show them. That’s the process we’re in right now. You can’t just tell them, you’ve got to show it on film and see it. When they do it right, this is the result."
The next night the Cavs buried the Hawks by 33 points. They made 19-of-31 shots from behind the arc, racking up 39 assists on 49 makes and smothering Atlanta’s offense. If the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ game was a turning point, their performance on Saturday was a revelation.
Our notion of the Cavs will change and evolve as they do, in real time and with the knowledge that they are not ready now but may be when the time is right. The expectations will rise and fall with each step of their journey so we may as well enjoy the discovery process together.
"To me, where I’ll really enjoy is April, May, June," Miller said. "That’s why you make these sacrifices to do this. This process right here is fun, but the real fun is when it boils down to get down."