CLEVELAND -- Shot after shot went down for the Cavaliers, and for a while you forgot the record (3-3), the issues (Kyrie Irving’s passing, Dion Waiters' fit) and the melodrama that has surrounded this team throughout a ragged start to the season. This was what LeBron 2.0 was supposed to look like: Kevin Love making three-pointers, Irving dominating for stretches and James firing up a raucous, sold-out crowd while racking up gaudy numbers in a Cleveland win.
Make no mistake: That is a good New Orleans team the Cavaliers dropped the hammer on, 118-111, on Monday night. The Pelicans have an MVP-in-waiting in Anthony Davis, a former All-Star point guard in Jrue Holiday and one of the league’s best perimeter-scoring big men in Ryan Anderson. They clipped the Spurs in San Antonio on Saturday and built a 12-point first half lead against Cleveland. But the second half featured too much James, too much Irving, too much Love and too much firepower from the NBA’s most star-studded roster.
James and the Cavaliers have preached patience throughout this tumultuous two-week stretch, and anyone with any sense knows they are right. Sure, Boston slapped together some stars in 2007 and immediately began obliterating the competition, but those Celtics were the exception, not the rule. Chemistry takes time to develop, as the 2010-11 Miami Heat learned and this Cavaliers team has quickly found out.
The Cavs hung 118 points on the Pelicans and dished out 27 assists, yet it was far from a flawless night. The first half was a disjointed collection of isolation plays, with James and Irving careening into the paint, kicking it out to a teammate and hoping a three-pointer would go down. This team still makes head-scratching decisions. It's unclear why Irving keeps looking off open shooters, why Love isn’t getting more touches in the post and why the 6-foot-8, 250-pound James doesn't root himself to the block when he's defended by players like 6-foot-6, 220-pound Tyreke Evans.
Yet when the Cavs individual talent gets going, those flaws aren’t fatal. When James, Love and Irving are determined to dominate, they can run anyone off the Q Arena floor.
“We were pretty active on offense,” said coach David Blatt. “We did play target basketball at some points, but understand with the type of players we have on this team you almost have to for certain points of the game. I’ve coached teams that didn’t have this type of talent and we did it all through motion and equal opportunity offense. We can play that way but we also have to recognize we have a few guys who need to be in certain situations. Perhaps at times that changes the flow, but when you are doing it efficiently you still get the same result.”
There is a bullseye on Blatt, just like there was on Miami counterpart Erik Spoelstra, yet Blatt has handled criticism with poise. In some ways Blatt’s challenge is greater than Spoelstra’s. His Big Three had spent years tasting playoff defeat and made the calculated decision to join forces with the understanding that each would have to make sacrifices. Blatt’s group is younger, more inexperienced and cobbled together through the draft, trades and free agency. Theirs was formed more by collision than design.
Yet Blatt, one of the world’s most successful international coaches, has never looked rattled. “We’re getting closer,” Blatt said. He knows this team is a work in progress. In time, James and Love will eventually form a dynamic pick-and-roll combination and Irving will find a balance between scoring and playmaking, proving that the second half against New Orleans is just a taste of what’s to come.
Still, Blatt will need James and his leadership, because there is only so much that can come from the sideline. James has been surprisingly pointed with his criticisms lately, targeting his team’s low assist totals and subpar defense. The Cavaliers don’t have established rim protectors -- New Orleans fearlessly attacked off the dribble en route to 38 points in the paint -- which will likely be a season-long problem. You can’t turn Anderson Varejao into a shot blocker and, for now, Brendan Haywood isn’t an option. Cleveland will need to play relentless team defense to compete with Chicago in the postseason, and it will need James’s push as much as Blatt’s schemes to do it.
"It's a process, even for me," James said. "We're trying to build something here. We're trying to build a winning franchise [with] a winning attitude in the locker room every day. We want to build it from the ground up [so] everyone feels like they are part of something special."
The city celebrated a home win for the first time since James’ return on Monday, and no one was happier than him. "I owed them one," James said. The opening night debacle against New York felt more like an event than a game, with the pressure of LeBron-mania undoubtedly contributing to a lackluster performance.
This night felt different.
Indeed, the Cavs have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but on this night, those concerns seemed secondary. On this night, everything just felt right.