NBA

New-look Cleveland Cavaliers look transformed in blowout win over Boston Celtics

Jay Asser 19:57 12/02/2018
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LeBron James and Jordan Clarkson applaud the Cavaliers' effort.

What a difference a trade deadline makes.

One game is practically a non-existent sample size, but the Cleveland Cavaliers had a different feel about them in their first appearance since revamping the roster.

All four of the Cavaliers’ new additions acquired in various trades ahead of last week’s deadline – George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr and Jordan Clarkson – contributed to an encouraging 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday.

Considering it was their first game together and they faced the top-ranked defensive team in the league in an electric atmosphere at TD Garden on the night of Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement, the victory couldn’t have been a better start to the new era.

While it’s unlikely Cleveland have gone from floundering to world-beating in the span of a few days, their performance felt like statement – not necessarily that they’ll be unstoppable going forward, but that the pieces in place form a much better fit than what was there before.

Forget for a moment just how well the Cavaliers played. Even putting the results aside, the way they played was a night-and-day difference from the first half of the season.

It’s debatable how much Cleveland actually improved from a talent standpoint with the moves they made at the deadline, but they undoubtedly got younger, more athletic and better defensively. That was evident in Boston as the Cavaliers played with an unfamiliar energy on both ends of the court, with their usual malaise replaced by exuberance and earnestness.

Even before they opened up an insurmountable lead, Cleveland appeared to at least play like a team – a novel concept – instead of five jaded individuals with their own motivations and agendas. Hill said before the game that the Cavaliers role players have to be the Robins to LeBron James’ Batman, and that’s exactly how the dynamic looked from the get-go. While James controlled the action in his typical conductor fashion, the accompaniment pieces around him played their part beautifully.

On the defensive end, where Cleveland have struggled most this season, the initial grade is incomplete, but promising.

It’s hard to tell how much their defence has truly gotten better when the only test has been against an offensively-challenged Celtics team, which entered the game ranked 21st in the league with 104.3 points scored per 100 possessions.

Though it’s not the most impressive feat to hold Boston under 100 points and just 40.4 per cent shooting, the Cavaliers showed real signs of life that they can at least jump up and become a below-average defensive team, instead of the dumpster fire they have been.

Hill was as advertised with his on-ball defence on Kyrie Irving, but seemingly everyone on the floor had a renewed sense and vigor to rotate off the ball and give second and third efforts. Even LeBron was defending closeouts and doing the little things like a man who’s no longer apathetic with his situation.

While Cleveland’s new length and youth was on display defensively, their depth shined on the other end of the floor.

Between Hood and Clarkson, the Cavaliers now have two sparkplug scorers to come off the bench and keep points ticking while James sits. They’re not always going to shoot as well as they did against the Celtics – Clarkson was 3-of-4 on 3-pointers while Hood was 3-of-6 from deep – but with LeBron feeding them cross-court drive-and-kicks, they’ll have plenty of uncontested looks.

Boston’s defence has slipped of late and they’re not playing anywhere near the 100.1 defensive rating they came into the contest with, but Cleveland’s offence, without much practice time or any game experience, was imposing nonetheless.

And though the joyful celebrations and fun-loving atmosphere the Cavaliers indulged in during the win are very much the byproduct of winning, the chemistry seems as if it’s heading in the right direction.

More, and sterner, tests are on the way, and it’s unclear how these new Cavaliers will deal with adversity.

For now though, everything is fine in Cleveland, which, after the season they’ve drudged through, is something to savour.

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