The ‘drastic’ change that made the Cleveland Cavaliers ‘contenders again’ in one week

BOSTON — One week ago at this time, the Cavs weren’t even done with their losing yet.

They hadn’t had the last of their locker-room gripe sessions. Defense remained a non-starter. Kyle Korver was in street clothes. They were still on the road.

The Cavs will wake up late Thursday morning in their own beds and alone in first place in the Eastern Conference after dismantling the Celtics 114-91 in Boston Wednesday night.

It was a clinic in every sense. LeBron James bullied his way to 36 points. Kevin Love owned the glass with 16 rebounds. The Cavs were tougher, quicker, and more together than the Cs, who unlike Cleveland hadn’t played since Sunday.

The Cavs have now won four in a row.

A week ago Thursday, they had lost their third straight, on the road to the Bulls, for their fifth loss in seven games. Tougher? Quicker? Those were words used to describe the opponent.

So, what’s changed?

“I’m pretty sure everybody is going to write about it, probably this drastic change, all of the sudden the Cavs are contenders again,” said Kyrie Irving, who scored 19 points to go with five assists. “But for us, it’s just really minimizing the mistakes that we make down on the floor and what we’re doing offensively and defensively and then as one of the leaders on the team, bringing guys along as best we can.”

Lue said the Cavs implemented some playoff-style defensive schemes to slow down Celtics star Isaiah Thomas. He scored 26 points but was 9-of-19 shooting with four turnovers.

Eviscerated defensively for all of March, the Cavs held Boston under 41 percent shooting and to seven 3-pointers in 33 attempts.

So that was different.

“Every game you don’t approach like it’s the Eastern Conference finals possibility,” J.R. Smith said.

Smith continued his re-emergence with 12 points. He was arguably Cleveland’s worst player during the team’s rut, and attributed his soaring production to the Cavs’ recent three-game homestand in which he was able to get more sleep and extra shooting practice.

When Smith returned from a broken thumb on March 9, the Cavs were in the early stages of playing 12 of 17 games on the road. They lost 10 games total in March.

“Um, concerned? Man, my team concerns me every day, honestly, regardless of good, bad or ugly,” Smith said.

The Cavs’ problems were growing as obvious off the court as they were on it. It’s a team that by month’s end did not like each other. A team that, Irving said, was being twisted in knots by players’ personal agendas. Some players, like James, denied that team chemistry had taken a hit. But in the locker room, at shootarounds and on the court, the Cavs in no way resembled the team which dined together and went to World Series games so often at the beginning of the season.

Speaking of baseball, the Indians’ home opener is Tuesday. James said he’s most likely going to go. Sounds like an outing that could help bring that old feeling on this team. Sort of like pounding the Celtics into submission did last night.

“Tonight we put together a good string of basketball for just about 48 minutes — that felt like us,” Love said. “It had been a while since we put together a game like that.”

The Cavs now own a one-game lead over the Celtics with four to play and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. There was no talk of rest after beating Boston, only of preparing for the Hawks in game No. 79.

“We played Cavs basketball tonight, and when we do that we’re a pretty good team,” James said.


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