CLEVELAND, Ohio — With Kevin Love dealing with an achy back, Channing Frye away from the team, J.R. Smith trying to regain his rhythm after a two-game absence and Kyrie Irving fighting tired legs on the second night of a back-to-back, LeBron James hopped in his supersized phone booth, tossed on his cape and delivered his finest regular-season performance of the year, carrying the Cleveland Cavaliers to a fourth straight win.
Here are five observations:
Another fast start – On the second of a back-to-back, the Cavs needed to get off to a fast start. They did, racing out to a 10-point advantage, 36-26, at the end of the first quarter.
“It was big for us,” Love said. “Obviously we don’t want to have that kind of look in the third quarter, but we wanted to set the tone early, especially on our home floor. We felt like we came out, had our coverages right. Came out firing, were super aggressive and I think that carried over throughout.”
The Cavs scored at least 30 points in the first period for the fifth straight game and have now outscored the opposition in the opening period in six consecutive, establishing themselves as one of the best starting teams in the league.
“I think more than anything, we’re distributing and sharing the basketball,” Love said of the early success. “It’s not just one guy or a couple guys, it’s really all five of us on any given night. Guys can light it up and guys come in and we’re not losing a step.”
Love has been at the center of the early-game plan. The offensive focal point, Love scored 11 points on 5-of-7 from the field, with plenty of his work coming in the post.
In all, the Cavs scored 14 of their 36 in the paint, shooting 71.4 percent against the Hornets, a team that entered the night ranked fifth in defensive efficiency. They assisted on 11 of the 15 made shots.
Heavy legs – Irving didn’t have it on Saturday night, something head coach Tyronn Lue knew prior to the game against Charlotte.
“He was tired,” Lue said. “He didn’t have his legs. Kevin was still moving stiff and Bron said he got us.”
Irving still tried to put his mark on the game. He scored 11 points overall, shooting 4-of-13 from the field, snapping a streak of 12 consecutive games scoring at least 20 points. He also dished out four of his five assists in the first quarter, helping the Cavs build that early lead.
“You just have to accept the emotions, accept the frustration, accept what your body feels like and coach did a great job of getting me some easy buckets and getting me some post-ups, but I tried not to force it,” Irving admitted. “Just tried to use my footwork as much as possible. Speed wasn’t all the way there tonight, a little fatigued, especially in the legs, but like I said, just goes back to leaning on my teammates and them doing a great job of just picking me up in situations like this.”
No showdown – Irving’s fatigue prevented the usual point guard fireworks show.
Kemba Walker did his part, scoring 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-5 from 3-point range.
“Kemba is a great player,” Lue said. “We tried everything. We tried to blitz him. We tried to switch. We tried to show. I mean, he just attacked us in every way and he turned the corner a lot on our blitzes, which opened up the floor and got guys open 3s. So he’s a tough cover for us. We just tried to mix it up and keep him off balance.”
Walker is a tough cover on any night. But with Irving having heavy legs…forget it. Walker took advantage early, going 4-of-4 from the floor with Irving as the primary defender. Shortly before the end of the first half, Lue switched up his defense, putting the longer, defensive-minded Liggins on Walker, which led to a turnover and blocked shot on back-to-back possessions.
Coming out of halftime, Lue went back to his customary starting group, with Irving guarding Walker again.
It went poorly. Walker broke down the Cavs’ defense with relative ease. In the first four-plus minutes, Walker had five points and two assists, as the Hornets trimmed the Cavs’ 15-point halftime edge to four.
That’s when Lue called for Iman Shumpert.
“(Kyrie) had a tough matchup with Kemba and having to go through all those pick-and-rolls,” Lue said. “I wanted to get Shump in there and put him on Kemba and then bring Kyrie back when (Ramon) Sessions came in the game.”
3-point rise – Hornets head coach Steve Clifford used the word “hopeless” when asked pregame about the challenge of defending Cleveland. Turned out to be foreshadowing. At least, against James.
“He was phenomenal,” Clifford said. “When he’s shooting the ball like that, there’s nothing you can do, other than blitz and that’s what he wants you to do. Then he’ll really make you look bad.”
That he did, finishing with 44 points on 17-of-24 from the field, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc. He added 10 assists, nine rebounds, three steals and one block.
The gaudy numbers aren’t anything out of the ordinary. Except for one. The five 3-pointers. He last hit five in November, 2015 against Milwaukee.
“I have the ability to make 3s,” James said. “It doesn’t drive my game. Teams sag off me or tempt me to shoot, I gotta go up and knock them down. I gotta keep defenses at bay and keep them off balance throughout the whole game where they’re just not keying in on my drive or keying in on my postups.”
Plenty was made about James’ shooting struggles last season, one piece of kryptonite.
He shot just 30.9 percent from long range, his second-lowest career mark. This season, he’s shooting 36.5 percent.
“It’s always a rhythm thing for me at times, you know, so I’m just in a really good rhythm right now,” James said.
Added Irving: “On nights like this, it just makes him a lot harder to guard, which I’m always amazed to see. Some teams decide they have to live with something, going under his screens and for me, when he’s knocking those things down he’s impossible to guard.”
A little help – James was the star, reaching another milestone. But perhaps equally important for the Cavs was the minutes with him on the bench.
Late in the first quarter, during his three-and-a-half-minute rest, the Cavs’ outscored the Hornets, 13-6. During that period, Love tallied five points while Iman Shumpert continued his sizzling outside shooting, canning two key triples.
The Cavs had the same success in the third, outscoring Charlotte, 8-3, while using another non-LeBron lineup.
There have been times this season the Cavs would’ve faded without James. Not Saturday. Outscoring the Hornets, 21-9, in those critical minutes played a big role in the double-digit win.
Shumpert helped, finishing with a season-high 16 points.