Sports

Reason to Get Excited

Chad W. Lutz
It’s Friday morning, and it’s raining. The sunlight has just broken behind a curtain of clouds, casting a dismal blue/grey onto everything outside and what the light can reach inside of the giant living room I’m sitting in. But it is light, nonetheless. I’ve been up for about an hour now, and it took what seemed like far more than awhile for the light to finally reach me. I mention any of this because, as odd as it sounds, it reminds me of the Cavaliers.

After galloping through the first half of the season at an astounding clip, the Cleveland Cavaliers schedule has finally slowed down. Back in December, Cleveland played a grueling stretch of 5 back-to-back contests on 2 days of rest or less, most of them on the road, resulting in only 2 wins. The schedule, now, plays out more in favor of the Wine and Gold and features 7 home games in a row beginning with the win against Oklahoma City last Saturday and culminating with a home contest against New Orleans on February 20. During the month of February the Cavs play only 4 games on the road and contest 8 games at the Q.

Prior to the January 19 contest against Portland, in Portland, things looked extremely bleak. We were 9-31, had lost 8 of our last 10 games and ranked near the bottom in every meaningful defensive and offensive category in the NBA, except for maybe rebounding and free throw percentage. Our bench stunk to high heaven, our starters were consistently injured and our rotations were awful. It looked as though we were in hot contention for the worst overall regular season record in Cavs history, practically steamrolling our way there.

But, the basketball powers at be sent, at least, perhaps, in only some temporary sense, some much needed relief. One January 22, the Cavaliers dealt Jon Leuer to the Memphis Grizzlies for G Wayne Ellington, C Marreese Speights, G Josh Selby and a future, first-round draft pick. The big man, Speights, appeared to be an answer for the loss of Anderson Varejao. The announcement of a developed blood clot in Anderson’s right lung after successfully undergoing surgery to repair a split quad muscle came with the decision to shut him down for the season.
Wayne Ellington brings the ball up court at the Q during a recent game (cavs.com)
Marreese Speights shows some hustle against Milwaukee Jan 25 (Mark Duncan/AP)
And yet…

It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to talk about, let alone write about, a winning streak of any kind. Last season the Cavaliers strung together back-to-back victories all of 3 times. It looked like this season was going to be the same sort of game-for-game train wreck we saw last year. That still may be, but I’m optimistic with the level of recent play over the last 10 games that we might win more games this season than last. Here’s a look at the Top 5 reasons the Cavs will finish with a better record this year:

1.) The Trade

When it’s all said and done, this might go down as one of the best trades in the history of the organization. Though it’s still way too early to tell and quantify that sort of thing, it appears as though Cleveland made out like bandits in the deal with the Grizzlies. Memphis traded away Speights, Ellington, Selby and the future draft pick to dump salaries enough to keep room for stars like Michael Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph under the new collective bargaining agreements set to go into effective at the beginning of the 2013-2014 season. In return, they got John Leuer. Take him.

Speights, who averaged 6.6ppg and 4.7rpg in 14.5mpg off the bench for the Grizzlies through 40 contests has averaged 14.6ppg and 7.3rpg in 24.5mpg through 6 for Cleveland. His energy has reignited a bench that ranked at the bottom of the NBA for the vast majority of the regular season leading up to the trade. Combined with Ellington, 8.2ppg compared to 5.5 in roughly the same amount of minutes for both teams, the Cavaliers bench pours in nearly 40 points per night over the last 6 contests, well above the season average of only 27.9ppg and a 3rd worst bench field goal percentage (40.6%).

2.) Omri Casspi

Another beautiful aspect of the Speights-Ellington trade includes the reduction of minutes of Omri Casspi. Since the deal, Casspi has only played a total of 23 minutes in 4 games. There are even rumors he’s asked his agent to shop around. Absolutely beautiful.
It’s okay…will a hug make you feel any better? (nbcsports.com)
3.) Clutch Play

The last minute heroics of Kyrie Irving continue in the 2012-2013 campaign, most notably against the Raptors January 26. With time winding down, Kyrie hoisted a go-ahead three pointer from just outside the Raptors center court logo that swished through the net leaving .7 left on the clock.

As a team, Cleveland ranks 15th in the league in fourth quarter scoring. Over the last three games (through February 8 against Orlando) Cleveland is averaging a blistering, league-leading 31.7 points in the final 12:00 min. of play. The upped 4th quarter intensity was best highlighted in the February 2 contest against Oklahoma City in which the Cavaliers scored 39 points in the final period. Kyrie Irving and Marreese Speights both notched 13 points in the 4th against OKC.

4.) Energy

When the season first began, the expectations for the Cavaliers were a bit murky, at best. While it was expected of the Wine and Gold to improve upon last year, most of that improvement depended on the development of rookies Tyler Zeller and Dion Waiters. Health also played a vital role in the Cavaliers ability to meet expectations, both of fans and analysts as well as coaches and expectations held by the players themselves. The Cavs came out of the gates swinging early. They dispensed of the then-limping Wizards and two games later beat arguably one of the best teams in the NBA in the Clippers. And then, things went downhill rather quickly. Zeller was injured during the game against L.A., as was Boobie Gisbon. A week later Kyrie broke his middle finger, Thompson received an elbow to the face, and the only one left standing was, ironically the only person missing from the equation all last season, Anderson Varejao.

But now, even with Varejao out of the picture, the Cavaliers are playing harder, smarter and appear to be having more fun on the hardwood. Instead of hard grimaces, distant looks and exhaustion, the Cavaliers seem to be clicking. Assists are up (20.18 per game), turnovers are down (14.3 per game) and moral seems to be at an all-time high, even with the addition of three new players.

5.) Home Schedule

An early, road-heavy schedule tormented the Cavaliers. Now with the ability to operate at home more so than any other time during the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the ability to string some wins together. While it’s hard to say, definitely, that the Cavaliers early season woes were due to an accelerated, road-heavy schedule, it is certainly good to be home. Following Wednesday’s victory over Charlotte, the Cavs spend a majority of the rest of the season at the Q (19-13). The Cavaliers, although only slightly, hold a better record at home at 8-13. On the road, Cleveland wears a 7-21 scarlet letter. But over the last 10 games, Cavs fans have seen something they haven’t seen since the Lebron-era: consistency; and something they weren’t even privileged to during the winning LBJ days, teamwork.
My instincts tell me we’re probably still a long way off from making it to the NBA Finals just yet (this season, at any rate), but you never know. You just never know. Especially when it comes to Cleveland sports.