This first appeared in the Feb. 5 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
The new-look Cleveland Cavaliers demolished the Boston Celtics on Sunday afternoon, a 121-99 win that was notable for all kinds of reasons. Let’s dive right into them:
1. The Cavaliers have rediscovered their identity
The decision to trade Kyrie Irving to the Celtics was the obvious thing people pointed to in talking about Cleveland’s offseason overhaul when this regular season began in October. But the larger issue for the Cavaliers wasn’t the departure of Irving (though it obviously hurt). It was Cleveland deciding to go away from the very thing that made the Cavaliers into the team that dominated the Eastern Conference over the past three years and won a championship in 2016: Surrounding LeBron James with shooters, giving him the ball and letting him go to work.
With the new additions on hand in Boston, the Cavaliers looked like themselves again right from the start of Sunday’s game, and their rotation again makes sense. The two main groups — George Hill, J.R. Smith, Cedi Osman, James and Tristan Thompson starting; Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Larry Nance as the second unit — feature four perimeter players surrounding a big (either Thompson or Nance), who can then serve as a pick-and-roll partner offensively and provide energy defensively.
Cleveland couldn’t do that with non-shooters such as Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade, or with Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas having down seasons. Now they can — and, as they showed Sunday, they can have a lot of success doing it. And, in doing so . . .
2. The East, once again, goes through Cleveland
It didn’t look like the Cavaliers were going to find their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs and back to the NBA Finals after the way the past few months had gone. Cleveland kept getting blown out, the team’s defense was wretched, and its chemistry was even worse.
But after a trade-deadline transformation, the Cavaliers again look like the dominant force in the East. Sure, Sunday’s game was only one of 82, and there’s still plenty of work to be done between now and the East playoffs in April and May. But after watching Cleveland demolish Boston on Sunday, it’s hard not to think that this year looks like it will go just like the previous three: The Cavaliers will get on a roll in the second half of the season, go into the East playoffs and cruise to the NBA Finals.
Their ultimate goal — winning another championship — remains out of reach, just as it does for the other 28 teams not called the Golden State Warriors. But given where the Cavaliers were a week ago, looking like the favorites to get back to that matchup again is a significant step in the right direction.
3. LeBron James is happy again
It only took watching the Cavaliers for a few minutes in January to see that James was miserable. His stats were down across the board, the team was getting drilled repeatedly, and his frustration with the whole situation was clear — to say nothing of the very obvious off-court chemistry issues that were repeatedly bubbling to the surface.
That was what made James’s performance — and his attitude — Sunday against the Celtics so striking. He was flying off the bench to celebrate the performances of his teammates — most notably on some late three-pointers by Jordan Clarkson to put the game out of reach. He followed up recording triple-doubles in his previous two games with 24 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists in 28 minutes as Cleveland won handily and allowed him to rest in the fourth quarter.
And when asked about his new teammates after the game on ABC’s telecast, he was effusive in what they can bring to his team.
“I think the IQ and the passion they played with,” James said. “You look at Larry, you look at Jordan, they haven’t played in a playoff game, and they’re hungry for that. George Hill was in Sacramento, and he’s ready to get back to the playoffs. . . . Rodney Hood got a taste of it last year in Utah.
“We got some hungry guys, and we’ve got guys here that have been there before. . . . It’s going to be something special.”
That’s just slightly different than the mood James had about his teammates a few days ago — and that his teammates had about him. For as much as Cleveland needed to change its mix on the court, it needed to change it off the court as well. In doing so, the Cavaliers have gotten James back to being happy and motivated again — and succeeding in that gives Cleveland a bigger win than any other team in the NBA at the deadline.
4. Cleveland actually has athletes now
While the Cavaliers now have a roster and rotation that makes sense in the context of what works best for James, the moves they made also gave this team a desperately needed shot in the arm of youth and athleticism.
By giving Osman, 22, a starting spot and bringing in Clarkson, Hood and Nance (each of whom are 25) via trade, the Cavaliers now have four rotations players who are 25 or younger – after having none before the trade. A week ago, the Cavaliers looked like a slow, lethargic team that was unable to guard anyone. Now Cleveland has a team that’s capable of at least getting in the way defensively — which, with how prolific the Cavaliers can be offensively, is all they need to be able to do against the vast majority of opponents.
This was exemplified in back-to-back steals by Clarkson and Osman in the third quarter — one that led to a dunk by Clarkson and the other that should have by Osman, only he missed it. But both moments were the kind of athletic plays that Cleveland just wasn’t making before the trade. Now, they could become a regular occurrence.
5. The Celtics still can’t score
Boston is, objectively, a very good team. The Celtics have the best defense in the NBA this season by more than a full point per 100 possessions and have the fourth-best net rating in the NBA. But Sunday’s game was the latest example of a glaring problem that’s facing them moving forward: Boston simply can’t score enough points to stick with the league’s elite teams.
On the season, Boston is 21st in the NBA in offensive efficiency, scoring at a clip of 104.2 points per 100 possessions — a number that is only one-tenth of a point better than the Atlanta Hawks, one of the league’s worst teams. Since Jan. 1, though, the Celtics are 29th in the NBA in offensive efficiency — and are only three-tenths of a point ahead of the woeful Phoenix Suns for dead last in the NBA.
The Celtics have managed to stay afloat because they have continued to have the NBA’s best defense during that time. But this past week has seen Celtics get routed by both the Toronto Raptors and the Cavaliers — their two biggest competitors in the Eastern Conference. And if they fail to make a deep playoff run, it’s safe to assume the offense — or lack thereof — will wind up being the reason.
It’s also why they might regret not making a bigger push at the trade deadline for a piece like Memphis’s Tyreke Evans — the exact kind of creating guard Boston’s roster currently lacks.
Are you interested in smart, thoughtful analysis of the NBA from The Washington Post and around the Web delivered to your inbox every Monday morning? If so, sign up for the Monday Morning Post Up, The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter.