NEW YORK -- LeBron James hustled through the tunnel, down a hallway and hooked into the only locker room at Madison Square Garden that the best player on the planet will ever run through. Four years ago the Garden faithful dreamed of James taking up residence in the home clubhouse, that he would take his talents not to South Beach, but to Broadway and resurrect a crumbling franchise. James passed, moved to Miami, and won two titles with the Heat before packing up and going back to Northern Ohio to a desperate city that was eager to re-embrace him. Thursday was a good example of why: Backed by James’s 19 points, 12 assists and five rebound -- which complemented a superb 37-point effort from Kyrie Irving -- the Cavaliers squeezed out a 90-87 win over the Knicks.
Just over a month into their second go-around with LeBron the Cavaliers are, as David Blatt said, “a work in progress.” They are, as Irving put it, “still figuring out [an identity].” Two weeks after calling the team “very fragile,” James says he “likes the direction we’re headed right now.” No one expected the uniting of James, Irving and Kevin Love to come together seamlessly, and it’s proving to be every bit as challenging as it could be.
“We’re getting better,” said Blatt. “There have been some good stretches and some less good stretches. That’s obvious to all. But I think we’re getting around to where I think we need to be. Hopefully we can keep up the kind of consistency we have seen in the last week.”
Indeed, there are signs -- strong signs -- that Cleveland is starting to round into something that resembles the dynamic super team they are expected to eventually become. Offensively, despite a few rough edges, the Cavs have always been pretty good. They are sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency (second in the conference) and are averaging a robust 102.9 points per game. The ball movement has been improving and Cleveland is entrenched in the top-ten in fast break points.
Any criticism of the Cavs' offense likely is pointed at two players: Irving and Dion Waiters. Irving is an easy target. He’s averaging a career-low 4.7 assists per game and has yet to figure out how to balance his scoring and playmaking responsibilities. It’s a basketball 180° for a player who spent last season trying to single-handedly will Cleveland into games, so early season struggles are understandable. But he remains a dynamic scorer who takes care of the ball and is draining three-pointers at a career-best clip.
Waiters is a little more complicated. He’s a bad fit as a starter -- Mike Miller or free agent Ray Allen are better fits for a role that requires a floor spacer -- and has yet to settle in to coming off the bench. Blatt says Waiters role is to bring energy, but he’s playing just 21 minutes per game as a sub (compared to 30 as a starter) and is shooting an ugly 23.1 percent from three-point range in games where he has come off the bench.
Still, it stands to reason that the Cavs will eventually figure out how to play frighteningly well together. James is a Swiss army knife on offense, capable of taking over as a primary scorer (as he did during a 41-point outburst in Boston last month) or as a facilitator, as he did against the Knicks. It’s only a matter of time before James molds Cleveland into a cohesive unit. Said Blatt, “LeBron is one of the smartest players I have ever seen.”
Defensively the Cavs have one glaring issue: Rim protection. Love, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are capable rebounders, but neither strike fear in the hearts of driving opponents, a big reason why Cleveland ranks in the bottom third of the league in allowing points in the paint. Barring Brendan Haywood time warping back to 2008, it’s a problem that isn’t going anywhere. Lately though, the Cavs have shown improvements. During this current five-game winning streak - -which includes wins over Orlando, Washington, Indiana, Milwaukee and New York -- Cleveland has slashed its points allowed by more than 10 per game and cutting opponents field goal percentage to 42.6.
Bad Boys Pistons defense? No. Playoff caliber? Most definitely.
“I think where our improvement has come -- and it has come, we have been much better defensively -- we have adhered to our basic principles,” Blatt said. “We have made adjustments when we have had to and we have made a wrinkle here or there but we are trying to get proficient at some basic things and then go from there.
“Pete Carrill once told me most people play defense facing their man. He said, ‘Personally I don’t care if you play with your back to your man, as long as you stay between him and the rim and you manage to raise your hand to contest his shot.’ That’s not what I teach, but his point was well made.”
Things aren’t perfect, but they are far from what they were a few weeks back. Questions about Blatt -- whose decorated international career make any questions about his competency to coach the Cavs painfully misguided -- have dissipated, and while Love will have to face questions about his future all season, his consistently strong commitment to Cleveland should eventually discourage many of them, too. As Love told SI.com, “I plan on being a Cavalier for a long time.” If Cleveland continues this upward arc, Love will have every reason to.
Scout Take: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The second-year forward is averaging 11.6 points and 5.9 rebounds this season for the 10-10 Bucks.
"Physically he looks like a different player from last season. His body has filled out and if you look at how it’s filling out, you can see he can get even bigger. He’s long, but not Kevin Durant long. He can pack a lot of muscle on that frame. The size makes him really hard to guard. Jason Kidd did a smart thing putting the ball in his hands more. It’s made him more comfortable playing off the dribble. He’s quick, and if he gets that quarter step on you on the dribble drive he is going to score because with his length he can get to the rim in a couple of steps. When he gets consistent with his jump shot, I don’t know how you guard him. I’d love to coach him. Think about the potential he has as a post player. He’s not even scratching the surface. I don’t know what his long-term position is, but it doesn’t matter because he can defend several of them. I love Jabari Parker, but to me Antetokounmpo has the higher ceiling. They have two cornerstone pieces there."
Next page: Steady Spurs, one-on-one with Chris Paul and Thunder's chances
Steady as they go in San Antonio
Interviews with Gregg Popovich are often an adventure. Ask a smart, insightful question and you are likely to get a similar answer. Ask a vague or loaded questions -- or one Popovich deems vague or loaded -- and you will get something similar to the first few questions Popovich fielded before the Spurs' game against the Nets on Wednesday.
• Asked about going up against Lionel Hollins, Popovich said: “I’m not playing Lionel Hollins. He was a heck of a player, but I’m not playing him.”
• Asked about the challenges Phil Jackson faces as the Knicks president, Popovich said: “That’s his problem. I will spend no time thinking or wondering about it. I have a job. What do I care about his job?”
• Asked about backup center Aron Baynes, Popovich said: “He’s big. Big guy.”
• Asked about the development of rookie guard Kyle Anderson, Popovich said: “He’s played about a minute and half. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for development.”
It’s the hazardous -- and often hilarious -- life of reporters who cover the Spurs regularly. Popovich is consistent, much like the team he leads on the floor. A few months after raising the fifth banner of the Popovich/Duncan era, the Spurs are well positioned to chase No. 6. At 13-5 San Antonio is firmly in playoff position and, equally importantly, healthy at nearly every position. With a veteran roster -- when have the Spurs not been wily vets? -- Popovich continues to closely monitor the minutes of the 30-something trio of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
“Really [resting players] started way back in 1999, when we won it,” Popovich said. “The next year I thought we still had the best team in the league. But Timmy had a tweak in his knee going into the playoffs. [Doctors] said he could probably play. I didn’t let him. I sat him out then. That was the first year the Lakers won. I always look back and say ‘Should I have played him?’ But we sat and talked and opted for whatever we could do to ensure longer careers. From that point on we did the minutes thing with guys.”
For Popovich, the benefit goes beyond keeping the first team fresh. By reducing the starters' workload (or in some cases, sitting them entirely), the Spurs are able to develop a strong second unit. Last season, San Antonio had the top scoring bench in the league, a fact that Popovich directly connects to the minutes reduction.
“Every year in the playoffs guys step up and do things you don’t expect,” Popovich said. “Developing a bench is important and they don’t develop unless they play.”
Praising the Spurs is practically a national pastime. Opposing coaches laud San Antonio’s execution, its teamwork, its willingness to sacrifice individual goals for team success. “Pop doesn’t get the credit he deserves for sustaining that culture,” said Nets coach Lionel Hollins. “Along with credit to Pop, you have to credit Duncan for, one, to be coached and, two, to submerge his ego to allow young players to come up and take charge. It’s not about him being the No. 1 scorer. It’s about him going out and winning.”
For Popovich, the Spurs success boils down to something a little more simple.
“It doesn’t matter who you play,” Popovich said. “If you do the basic things that win basketball games, you are going to be alright most of the time. If there is something special about another team, you can worry about it. But unless I have been sleeping I haven’t seen any magic plays, I haven’t seen any new pick and roll defenses, I haven’t seen anything different than what anyone else has done. We copy from each other, we steal from each other. It’s basketball.”
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Next page: Chris Paul on evolution of point guards, OKC's outlook and more
Five Questions with... Chris Paul
SI.com: Point guard is generally considered the toughest position for a young player to learn. What was your early experience like?
Chris Paul: "You learn the terminology pretty quick. All the teams in the NBA have similar plays. The calls are what are different. Pop [Gregg Popovich] has bred a lot of coaches. Those coaches have similar calls. Two coaches that used to coach together, they have some of the similar plays. Byron [Scott] was my coach [in New Orleans]. When Lawrence Frank was coaching the Nets, I remember thinking ‘Hold up, they are running the same stuff.’
"I had some doubts about myself. You want to be the best. I had some really good games my rookie year, then I had some tough games. You learn about consistency. You learn how hard it is in the league to be consistent. My second year I started feeling good and by my third year I realized I knew this position better than anybody.”
SI.com: What’s something you have learned from another player?
CP: “Sam Cassell taught me that I’m not a shot blocker. One game early in my career he (drew) three fouls dribbling and pump faking. Ever since then, I know I’m not a shot blocker. You learn how competitive everyone is, too. When I was trying to make a decision to go to the pros, Baron Davis gave me a call. He was like a big brother. Then, when he was in Golden State, we almost got into it one time on the floor. When you are out there on the court, it’s all business.”
SI.com: Is the position different from when you first came into the league?
CP: "It’s even deeper than it was when I came in. Just about every night, the point guard is the go-to guy. It’s the guy on 90-95 percent of the teams in the league. It’s getting tougher that way. Guys are getting a lot better."
SI.com: There are a lot of big point guards nowadays...
CP: "But there were a lot of big guards 10 years ago, too. I had to go up against guys like BD and Chauncey Billups. The difference today is that many teams have strong defenders that they put on another teams top guard. You don’t have those individual matchups early in the game as much as you used to."
SI.com: Doc Rivers is a former point guard. Have you learned anything about the position playing from him?
CP: "The importance of execution. That’s something I have always prided myself on. It’s great to play for someone else who thinks its just as important. We’re constantly talking about that.”
Oklahoma City had to be thrilled to get Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back in the lineup together just 17 games into the season. The Thunder not only have enough time to claw back into the playoff race -- they are currently 5 ½ games back of Phoenix for the No. 8 spot -- but could climb anywhere from 5 to 7. It will be interesting to see how the top four teams treat the finals games of the regular season. No one is going to want that first-round matchup ... The biggest detriment to Anthony Davis’ development might be his own teammates. The Pelicans simply don’t get Davis the ball enough ... Andrei Kirilenko has drawn interest from several teams, per a source, but as Yahoo! Sports reported Kirilenko won’t be traded until a family situation is resolved ... How many losses can Michael Carter-Williams endure before the failures leave permanent damage? You can’t tell me the staggering failure of the Sixers won’t have an impact ... Should have ponied up the extra cash for Jimmy Butler over the summer, Chicago. Butler is playing his way towards a near max deal. The most startling statistic: After shooting 39.7 percent last season, Butler is up to 49 percent this year ... The Lakers have the sixth-worst record in the NBA. If they wind up with the sixth pick in the draft, Phoenix -- which owns LA’s first round pick next season if it falls outside the top five -- is going to get a nice player ... Boston has lost eight of its last ten, can’t hold on to double-digit leads and All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo is having breakfast with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, a longtime admirer of Rondo. It’s been a rough first month of the season in Beantown.