CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James could be considered something of a history buff on the Cavaliers. After all, he’s responsible for making — and altering — the franchise for more than a decade.
So after scorching his former team on Monday night with a 46-point, tour-de-force performance he said was fueled by seeing a member of Cleveland’s front office overreact to one of his few missed shots, the Lakers superstar admitted keeping an eye on the Cavs.
“You can tell that team is improving,” James said.
No doubt, the Cavs, who were left in shambles when James bolted as a free agent three seasons ago, are ahead of schedule.
Led by All-Star-in-the-making guard Collin Sexton, center Andre Drummond, and boasting unexpected depth and defense under coach J.B. Bickerstaff, the Cavs are 9-9 and currently holding a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as they prepare to visit the New York Knicks on Friday.
And while Cleveland’s record is surprising, it’s notable the Cavs have made the jump despite myriad injuries, including one to All-Star forward Kevin Love, who has played 46 minutes all season.
Bickerstaff has the Cavs playing a loose, aggressive and relentless style of ball that allows them to stay with more talented teams and helped them beat comparable ones.
“Just a scrappy team, like to get after it,” said guard Darius Garland, who turned 21 on Tuesday. “And we base ourselves this year on that. Just being active on both ends of the floor. Starting defensively, just have to get into guys, be physical, on and off the ball. So that’s our identity this year.”
Last week, the Cavs opened eyes around the league with back-to-back wins over the Brooklyn Nets. Granted, Brooklyn is still blending its’ Big 3, and Kevin Durant missed the second game as part of his post-surgery maintenance. But the Cavs showed off their resiliency and toughness in taking down one of the East’s elites.
“Our main goal is to beat up teams as much as possible, to wear them down,” Drummond said after Cleveland’s 122-107 win on Wednesday over Detroit. “Cavalier basketball.”
After winning just 19 games and being excluded from the NBA’s Orlando bubble last season, the Cavs are climbing.
In Sexton, the Cavs have a future star.
A first-round draft pick in 2018, Sexton is a blur with the ball in his hands. And while his speed can sometimes get him into trouble, the 22-year-old is more than a handful for any team to stop as he’s become defensive objective No. 1 for any opponent.
Sexton’s averaging 25.2 points per game and he single-handedly took down the Nets last week, scoring 42 points — 20 in overtime — in a double-OT win. After poor shooting nights (combined 9 of 27) in consecutive losses to Boston and Los Angeles, Sexton bounced back against the Pistons with 29 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Bickerstaff was impressed with how Sexton adjusted to different looks the Pistons showed him.
“I thought he read the game the right way,” said Bickerstaff, who took over last season after John Beilein stepped down. ”I thought he recognized how they we’re playing them in the pick and roll and where he could get his shot from. And I also thought he played with great patience. In the pick and roll, you don’t always have to go 100 miles an hour.”
The Cavs have been speeding along as well.
This was supposed to be another year of growth and change in Cleveland. But general manager Koby Altman, who was charged with a massive rebuild when James left, has strengthened the roster through smart drafting (rookie Isaac Okoro is a defensive stopper) and trades, including one that brought Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince, two talented frontcourt players from Brooklyn, earlier this month in the James Harden deal.
Other moves — and challenges — lie ahead. After winning three straight, the Cavs got thumped by the Celtics, a loss Bickerstaff feared was coming.
“It was a lesson that we needed to learn,” he said. “We were reading our press clippings and smelling ourselves because we had a couple good games.”
There are roster issues. Drummond is in his final year under contract, and the Cavs are probably priced out of keeping him, which is why the 22-year-old Allen’s arrival was huge. Love’s deal ($90 million over the next three years) makes him difficult to move.
But after falling so far, so fast, Cleveland’s future finally looks bright.
James would know.
“J.B. has done a hell of a job and they’ve been drafting well and made a couple trades,” he said. “They got some young guards that are very dynamic in Collin and Darius and the rest of them they can build around. They got some young pieces they can put their futures behind. We’ll see what happens.”
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