With a record of 22-20, the Cleveland Cavaliers need all the wins they can get. There is some added satisfaction, though, in a victory like their latest. With a 108-94 dismissal of the Chicago Bulls, the Cavs easily dispatched a direct competitor for the Eastern Conference crown.
Chicago has its own problems. Joakim Noah played broken, injured basketball before shutting down to recover, and missed Monday’s game. Also out of the lineup was starting wing Mike Dunleavy, still sidelined by an injured foot. The struggling Bulls had lost five of their previous seven games coming into Monday behind a regressing offense and substandard defense. They still project as one of the better teams in the East, but in the moment Chicago isn’t itself.
Of course, it’s all more or less the same to the Cavs. LeBron James and co. now undergo the arduous work of building something lasting. There might be more confidence to be gained in a single win over the Bulls at their absolute best, but what matters far more is a continuation of process. This marks the third game of a subtly different Cleveland team -- one that hasn't solved its big-picture problems, but making some needed headway. The effort level on defense is palpably different; James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love might not be All-NBA defenders at the moment, but they’ve been more reliable in coverage recently. The flow of the offense is changing, too; Love still doesn’t control tempo as often as James and Irving do, but he’s finding more touches and opportunity to facilitate.
On Monday, these slight shifts helped the Cavs sustain a lead throughout the game and push to a double-digit advantage. This is not unlike the way Cleveland has played all season. Those games that go well, go splendidly. Those with sloppy execution or lacking effort tend to tailspin out of control . There has been so little middle ground for this year’s Cavs, largely because of a shallow roster and lackluster team defense.
What’s changed of late is the personnel and how those players factor into the Cavs’ strategy. Timofey Mozgov is what he is: A competent starting center with the size and skill to play his part. With Cleveland, that makes all the difference. Starting Mozgov moves Tristan Thompson to a more fitting bench role, shields Irving and Love with interior defensive support, and bolsters the Cavs’ rebounding efforts. It doesn’t dramatically change the complexion of the team, but it offers a workable matchup for just this kind of game. Pau Gasol wound up shooting 4 of 14 from the field against a Cavs team he would have eaten alive just weeks ago. What a difference a reasonable matchup makes.
Without Gasol in a position to serve as an anchor to its offense, Chicago’s operations ground to a halt. The Bulls over-isolated and over-posted without much in the way of ball or player movement, a stale strategy that the Cavs managed easily. Defense will never be a quest for perfection in Cleveland’s case. It’s a matter of being solid: managing assignments, taking away easy opportunities in transition and committing to help. Mozgov bolsters that effort, and on Monday his on-court influence translated to miserable 31.4-percent shooting from the field for the Bulls.
J.R. Smith may not transform the Cavs, though in Monday’s game he played the part with 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting from three-point range. Former Cavalier Dion Waiters needed nine games (five of which were losses) and 248 minutes to hit six three-pointers in his final run with the team. The willingness to shoot was there with Waiters, but Smith is a more accomplished floor spacer. His arrival lessens the need for Cleveland to rely on 34-year-olds Mike Miller and James Jones for dependable shooting, juicing the spot-up role with a bit more dynamism.
Chicago couldn’t handle it. In the final balance, Cleveland didn’t need a huge performance from any of James, Love, or Irving -- all of whom were good but none dominant. The points flowed and the defense stood through the Cavs’ work as a collective. That already is more than could be said of many of Cleveland's earlier performances, and to make that recent development a genuine trend could reframe the Cavs entirely.