ORLANDO, Fla. — When the doors swung open to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ locker room after the Cavs’ most complete win of the year, the head of just about every media member that entered swiveled toward the flat screen TV that hung on the front wall.
You see, as the Cavs were putting the final touches on a 111-76 shellacking of the Orlando Magic, the unbeaten Golden State Warriors were embroiled in a one-possession game late with the Boston Celtics.
Only instead of one of the more significant regular-season games in NBA history being on the screen, the television was showing the opening minutes of the 3-19 Los Angeles Lakers facing the 18-5 San Antonio Spurs.
I have no evidence that the channel choice was intentional, but it certainly felt that way.
In order for the Cavs to reach their potential, there needs to be an internal focus. LeBron James might have used the external pressure of the Warriors’ historic run to crack the whip in the early part of the season and keep his team from thinking anything would come easy, but there seemed to be a shift for Cleveland this road trip.
Now, at long last, we would see the real Cavs. Iman Shumpert got back in the act against Orlando, making his season debut with 14 points and three rebounds in 25 minutes, while going 5-for-7 from the floor. Come Tuesday in Boston, Cleveland could very well have an entirely healthy roster for the first time all season. The Cavs have two more practices scheduled before then to give Kyrie Irving some extra work, and they have four days for J.R. Smith to fight off the sickness that kept him out of the Orlando game.
“He’s back,” Cavs coach David Blatt said of Shumpert.
“Got in the lane, made 3s, was very aggressive defensively,” added James. “We needed that from him, and we were happy to have him back.”
Shumpert was sublime, yes. But Friday felt like a lot more than just Shump trading in his sports jacket for his jersey and shorts (short shorts, by the way, just like James). It felt like things clicked. It started offensively with James in peak form in the first half (all nine of his attempts came within the restricted area; he made eight of them). It continued defensively with the Cavs’ wing D enforcing its will with James, Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and Jared Cunningham helping Cleveland to a 14-3 edge in fast-break points as they clamped down on the Magic guards before any meaningful offense could be initiated.
And then on top of all that, Timofey Mozgov came alive (17 points on 8-for-9 shooting in 20 minutes). “Timo was waiting for me,” Shumpert said. “I’m the crazy brother that puts the battery in him I guess. That’s my big fella. He’ll be all right.”
The same can be said for the 15-7 Cavs, now riding a two-game win streak and looking at seemingly clear skies ahead after a 5-6 stretch over their previous 11 games made things murky for a while.
By the start of the fourth quarter — with the Cavs up by 31 and James already with two ice bags fixed to his knees, signaling he would get the final period off with the win already all but settled — things were taking on a “Freaky Friday” type turn. Suddenly, the Warriors got to feel what it was like to embody the Cavs and be missing two of their top players — Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes — and see the boost that gives to an opponent that can smell blood in the water.
And on the other side, the Cavs spent the night embodying what it must be like to be the Warriors on most nights.
First, there was James hitting his first five three throws of the night to make him 50 for his last 55 in the last seven games (a Stephen Curry-esque 90.9 percent). Then, there was James swishing a ridiculous turnaround shot from the corner of the court to beat the shot clock in the third quarter, causing Cavs assistant coach Larry Drew to summon him over to the bench at the next dead ball just so he could shake James’ hand. Then, as happens so often with Curry, James’ night was over by the time the fourth quarter started.
And that’s when Cleveland looked the most like Golden State, a team that not only wins but does it in Vine-generating style, as James Jones went ballistic in the final period and scored 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting, causing the Cavs’ bench to go berserk with every successive swish.
“It’s a fun game,” Blatt said of the bench celebrations that made even him unable to stifle a smile late in the fourth quarter, when Kevin Love came sprinting out of his seat to cheer on Jones. “It’s great to see guys enjoying and supporting their teammates.”
There has been gravity to the Cavs’ season thus far. There is pressure that comes with being the second-highest payroll in league history. There’s even more of it when all that money is being paid to try to erase a half-century of championship failures in the city of Cleveland. All the while, there is an uneasiness that bubbles up with every record-breaking accomplishment the Warriors put up, a wonder if it’s all going to be for naught.
It all started to seem all right for Cleveland on Friday. Then again, as James answered questions in front of his locker after the game, his eyes stayed fixed on the TV showing the Spurs-Lakers game.
He wasn’t looking at the action.
He was looking at the bottom line to see the Warriors-Celtics score.