The LeBrons live.
They’ve been reborn as a basketball team that can complement the best player on the planet and play defense at a level higher than what you would find at your local YMCA. Instead of backbiting, they’re just back to looking like a contender. That’s bad news for the Boston Celtics.
The Cleveland Cavaliers showcased a new look, a new spirit, and looked like a renewed threat to keep both LeBron James and the Eastern Conference crown on Sunday. That’s the upshot after the revamped Cavs ruined Paul Pierce jersey retirement day by routing the Celtics, 121-99, on the TD Garden parquet.
The new-look LeBrons debuted in Boston. On the same day that Pierce’s No. 34 was raised to the rafters the Cavaliers took the court with their new team for the first time after razing the disgruntled, dysfunctional group they had. (The Cavaliers defeated the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night without any of their new LeBron pawns.)
A bouncier, better-shooting, more defensively dedicated version of the Cavaliers destroyed the Celtics. Cleveland’s new players — guards George Hill and Jordan Clarkson, wing Rodney Hood, and forward Larry Nance Jr. — combined for 49 points and were a combined plus-43 on the day.
Right now, both teams are looking up at the Toronto Raptors, owners of the top spot in the East. But these Cavaliers, who led by 21 points after three quarters and by as much as 29, look like a tougher matchup for the Celtics than anyone in the East. They’re certainly tougher than the decrepit Cleveland club that creaked and complained its way to a 7-13 record between Christmas Day and their final game together on Feb. 7.
“I think so,” said Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “I mean they’re long and athletic. [Celtics coach] Brad [Stevens] does a great job of putting guys on the floor where they can switch a lot of things. I think with the trades that we made I think we can do the same thing. We can put guys on the floor that are similar sizes, and we can switch a lot of things [defensively].”
If the Cavaliers play with this intensity and lack of misery with their remade roster then the three deals that Cleveland GM Koby Altman made last Thursday could go down as the Cleveland version of former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein jettisoning Nomar Garciaparra at the 2004 baseball trade deadline.
Lue was practically giddy after seeing the impact his new additions had.
“They were phenomenal. They played hard. They competed, so it was just good to see our team smiling again and having fun,” said Lue, who looks like he has aged 10 years this season. “I thought our spirit was different. I didn’t know what the outcome would be, but I knew that we would compete, play hard, move the basketball, move bodies. Guys were flying around. It was good to see.”
There was no need to worry about any acrimony between Pierce and Isaiah Thomas over the absence of a tribute video for IT. It turns out that neither the Cavs nor Pierce wanted Thomas there on this day.
The Cavaliers renovated their roster at the trade deadline in an attempt to turn their season around and retain the services of James, whose looming free agency is like a guillotine hanging over the Cavs’ heads. Cleveland spread the ashes of its underachievement across the NBA.
They exiled IT to the Los Angeles Lakers, sending him there along with a first-round pick and Channing Frye for Clarkson and Nance. Cleveland also discarded former Celtic Jae Crowder, former NBA MVP Derrick Rose, and guard Iman Shumpert in a three-team deal that netted them Hood and Hill. Certified Friend of ’Bron Dwyane Wade was returned to the Miami Heat.
There were “LeBron will leave you” chants from the Parishioners of the Parquet early on. Instead, LeBron, who had a ho-hum 24 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds, and his fresh new sidekicks left the Celtics in their wake.
The Cavaliers were up, 95-69, in the third quarter after James fed Clarkson for a 3-pointer. That capped a 14-2 Cleveland run that featured a pair of threes from Clarkson (17 points on 7-of-11 shooting) and a knock-down triple by Hood (15 points on 6-of-11 shooting). Cleveland was 16 of 30 from 3-point range in the game, half of those threes from their new players.
James seemed re-energized by his retooled collection of teammates. He took over in the second quarter, scoring 13 points, as the Cavs surged to a 64-52 advantage at the half.
It was the Celtics who played like perfect strangers on the parquet, especially on defense. Boston was even more feckless defensively than the Patriots were the previous Sunday in Super Bowl LII. After allowing 59 points in the first half to the Pacers on Friday, the Celtics allowed the Cavaliers, the equivalent of a blind-date basketball team, to roll up 64 points in their first half together.
The Cavaliers have given James players he actually wants to play with and guys who feel fortunate to play with him, instead of being bitter that they weren’t still the leading man in Boston.
“At the end of the day, I just like being around guys who want to play and work hard,” said James. “I know I demand a lot of excellence from my teammates, but I demand it out of myself too. We want to roll. We want to try to play as well as we can and put ourselves in contention to compete for another championship, and that’s my mindset.”
The Cavaliers are hoping his mindset is to remain in Cleveland. The Kyrie Irving trade has been a disaster for the Cavaliers. It made their chief rival, the Celtics, better, and it upset their team chemistry and James.
Irving tied his season-low of 11 points the last time he played his former team at the Garden, a 102-88 Celtics victory. Irving had 16 points in the first half on Sunday. But he had little help, as the game got away from the Celtics in the third quarter. Irving finished with 18 points and sat out the entire fourth quarter, so did Marcus Morris, who had 17.
James mentioned how the reconstituted Cavaliers are capable of playing defense at a higher level now. That was obvious with Hill, who made just as big an impact with his dogged defense as he did with his 12 points. Hill helped Cleveland hold the Celtics to just 40.4 percent shooting from the field and just 24 of 64 (37.5 percent) in the final three quarters.
“It was a good start for the new guys. It was a good start for all of us with our revamped team so far,” said James.
The Cavaliers have a new look and new life.