As the Cleveland Cavaliers started to pull away from the Chicago Bulls in the third quarter on Tuesday night, LeBron James corralled a loose ball at the right right elbow. He looked directly at J.R. Smith who was standing at the top of the key, forcing the Bulls defenders to begin crashing out to the line. In one, fluid motion, James took the ball in his right hand and spun off a behind-the-back pass to Jae Crowder who was standing, alone, in the corner. Crowder buried the three.
It was just one sequence in a largely up-and-down win, but it was one where the Cavaliers displayed, if only for a second, their very own lineup of death — a 6-foot-8-inch point guard tends to tilt the axis a bit. More importantly: The team may have also simultaneously solved their issue at point guard in the wake of the Kyrie Irving trade, the best option having been on this roster the entire time. The result: James recorded his second double-double on the season (the 361st of career) with a game-high 34 points on 13-20 (.650) shooting from the field, including a team-high four three pointers, a game-high 13 assists and a game-high three steals in 37 minutes.
With Isaiah Thomas still nursing his hip and Derrick Rose having twisted his ankle, Tyronn Lue pondered a simple Next Man Up strategy that would put Jose Calderon in the starting lineup. Calderon played just one minute in the team’s win over Milwaukee on Friday and was a part of the starting lineup on Saturday that allowed the Orlando Magic to race out to an early, ultimately insurmountable lead. James’ versatility is huge here, allowing Jae Crowder to slide back to the three, Kevin Love to the power forward spot, and Tristan Thompson back into the starting lineup. If it feels like this should have been the natural move all along, it may have been. Lue, however, wanted to give Dwyane Wade time to assess his comfort with both the starters and the reserves wherein his move to the bench freed up the head coach to roll with James at the point.
Like a center midfielder on a soccer pitch, James oftentimes found himself directing traffic at the top of the key. He would pass to the post, conduct his wing players around the three point line, receive the ball back and then make a secondary move. When needed, he would use this trademark Jamesian power to orchestrate a switch before driving to the lane. In others, he would find an open shooter or deliver a pristine pass out of the pick and roll to a streaming Kevin Love.
“I mean I’m looking for my guys a little bit more when I’m starting at the point, especially in transition,” said James about his efforts. “I’m kind of being more of a precise, precision passer. I’m not full speed ahead in transition. I’m kind of looking to see what’s going on and getting my guys involved. But for me, I just try to stay in attack mode when need be and then once I see the hot hand, start going for my guys and getting them the ball.”
The productivity, however, wasn’t just limited to James’ productivity. While Lue has good reason to be frustrated with the team’s defensive efforts early on, the offensive flow was much more improved compared to the team’s first three games of the season. As a team, Cleveland shot 43-83 (.518) from the field, assisting on 28 of their 43 made baskets. Kevin Love’s move to the power forward spot led to a 20 and 12 night. Jae Crowder, as mentioned above, notched double digits. J.R. Smith, while shooting just 1-of-8, had plenty of open looks. Spacing was noticeably better, allowing for a more, free flowing set. Realigning the bench also allowed for more continuity, having Dwyane Wade be the leader of that unit with the veteran hitting 5-of-7 shots for 11 points.
Lue used the matchup against the Bulls and their true center in Robin Lopez as the impetus for the move, allowing Thompson to match up with the more physical center. The good news here is the Cavs’ schedule aligns with this experiment with Brooklyn (Timo Mozgov), New Orleans (DeMarcus Cousins), and New York (Kristaps Porzingas) being the next three teams on the calendar.
James may be the team’s third point guard in four games, but he’s clearly the best. There’s no telling how long it will last, but this lineup will be a ton of fun to watch.
This Week in #ActualSportswriting:
- “How the Houston Astros Won the American League” by Jeff Passan (Yahoo Sports)1
- “Better Call Paul” by Jackie MacMullan (ESPN The Magazine)
- “Big Interview: Kirk Cousins” by Greg Bishop (Sports Illustrated)
- “My Search for L.A.’s Toughest Fitness Class” by Nate Dern (Outside Online)
This Week in #ActualNonsportswriting:
- “Nicki Minaj, Always in Control” by Roxane Gay (NY Times Magazine)2
- “Joni Mitchell: Fear of the Female Genius” by Lindsay Zoladz (The Ringer)
This Week in Bleacher Report pieces:
- “Every Year He Could Be MVP: LeBron James’ Quest for No. 5“
- “You Have to Respect It: Wade’s Move to Bench Looks Promising“
This Week in Picks:
Can we just pretend the San Francisco-Dallas game didn’t exist? I mean, the Niners would like to, right? It’s tough to complain about a 2-1 week, though Week 6’s 3-0 showing was a bit of a spoiler. Nevertheless, Week 7 officially takes us to a win total that doubles the losses. Given that most bettors aim to simply get in the low 50s, this is a pretty nice start to the season. This week gets interesting as we start a three-week stretch with a ton of byes and that many fewer choices. Let’s give it a whirl…
SEATTLE (-5.5) vs HOUSTON
Dallas (pick) vs WASHINGTON
Pittsburgh (-2.5) vs DETROIT
YTD ATS: 14-7
Last Week: 2-1