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Hello, exciting, aggressive, impressive basketball.. we’ve missed you!
The Cleveland Cavaliers served notice across the NBA landscape with their 121-99 boat-racing of the Boston Celtics on Sunday at TD Garden that word of their death among the league’s elite was not only exaggerated, but downright incorrect.
And that pit in the stomaches of the Eastern Conference leaders — Toronto and Boston — that had been salved by their own fine play and the woebegone, non-efforts by the Cavaliers since Christmas Day, almost assuredly reemerged, bigger than ever.
The Cavaliers (33-22) did whatever they wanted against the overmatched Celtics (40-18), and looked downright giddy while putting together their most spirited, most intense, most aggressive game of the season.
Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue attempted to put words to what transpired.
“It wasn’t because of the guys,” he said. “From losing, your spirits are always going to be down. But, tonight I thought our spirits were great. We were playing hard and we competed. And that’s what we had to see from this team.
“It wasn’t about the other guys, it was about we’re losing, so, everyone’s spirits were down, including mine.”
Not anymore though.
The “other guys” reference was toward the players the Cavaliers shipped out at the trade deadline — Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade in return for George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Perhaps Lue is correct, but the only evidence we have at this point — Sunday’s destruction of the second seed in the East, on their home floor, on Paul Pierce Night — says otherwise.
The New 4 combined to shoot 9-of-15 from deep, a big portion of the Cavaliers’ 16-of-30 performance from deep. Clarkson went 3-for-4, Hood went 3-for-6 and Hill went 3-of-4, with Nance missing his only attempt.
Add in J.R. Smith ( 3 of 4), rookie Cedi Osman (2 of 3), LeBron James (2 of 5) and Kyle Korver (1 of 2) and the Cavaliers simply bombarded the league’s best defensive team from long range.
James was engaged from pregame, when he was singing in the locker room, then from wire to wire once the ball was tossed for the opening tip. He finished with 24 points, eight rebounds, 10 assists, one steals and one block in only 28 minutes. He shot 9-of-20 and did not get off the bench in the fourth quarter.
“At the end of the day, I just like being around guys who want to play and work hard,” he said. “I know I demand a lot of excellence out of my teammates but I demand out of myself, too.
“And we on the road, we want to try and play as well as we can, and we want to try to put ourselves in contention to try to compete for another championship, and that’s my mindset.”
James elaborated on what the new mix looks like. Suddenly, the Cavaliers have won three games in a row for the first time since Dec. 14-17 and have some momentum as they head to Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder on Tuesday night to wrap up play before All-Star Weekend.
“The new guys that’s here, they’re very excited about this opportunity, and it’s my job to keep them excited about being here,” he said. “They’re joining something that, obviously, the last couple months hasn’t been what we expected, but over the course of the last four years since I came back has been really good basketball.
“So it’s my job as the leader of this team to make sure that I acclimate the new four guys to be around a culture that’s built on winning and practicing championship habits. That’s it.”
A good time was had by all who donned Wine and Gold on Sunday.
“We looked phenomenal!” Smith said.
“This is going to be fun again,” Korver added.
But, at the end of the day, though, it all starts and ends with LeBron. General manager Koby Altman, who along with assistant GM Mike Gansey with the OK from owner Dan Gilbert, remade the roster on the fly Thursday, sounds almost prophetic when his words from Thursday night after the trades were done were spoken.
“I think we’re going to get a rejuvenated LeBron James and that’s the key,” Altman said . “This guy is so good he dictates outcomes. That was the hardest part for me was seeing him…and I don’t want to say he didn’t believe in this group and want to be careful in saying that because he’s going to compete every night and try to get whatever teams he’s on to The Finals, but I wanted to see a renewed sense of joy in him and I think he’s excited and I can see a renewed sense of excitement and joy in him when he’s in the building and we will see that translate to some fun basketball because he’s the key.
“He’s the guy that is going to take use back to the Promised Land so you want to put the right pieces around him.”