Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have reestablished themselves as serious contenders in the Eastern Conference playoff race, I think fans need to take a realistic view going forward. The next six games will be another test of the Cavs resolve to improve. Those six games are over 17 days so the All Star break will help give the team some needed rest. But I see the possibility of them taking their foot off the pedal for a short stretch and that could prove challenging. If one thing is clear about the Cavs, they do not play well when their foot lifts off the pedal.
I am obviously referring to defensive intensity and effort. The Cavaliers have proven when they play well that it is fueled on the defensive end. Many games during this 11 game win streak have been riddled with shooting and scoring difficulties. When the team defends, they can weather these offensive lapses and still win games. So I will be watching carefully for evidence of any decreases in intensity.
I think the first game in this stretch will be the biggest challenge to their streak and the momentum they are building. I know the LA Clippers will be pretty surly after we knocked them off in LA. They will be looking for the same payback that we have shelled out to teams recently. This will be a huge test of the Cavs resolve to be great. I will be there. I will be hoping for a maximum performance because that is what it will take to win the game.
After two potential trap games against the Pacers and the Lakers, it will be three straight games against probable playoff teams in the East. Miami, Chicago and the Washington Wizards each present their own unique set of difficulties for the Cavs. And right now, the Bulls and the Wizards are in front of the Cavs in the race for playoff positioning.
In addition to the main ingredient of defensive intensity, the Cavs need to continue to grow as a team with their new and improved roster. I am convinced that they can become substantially better as the entire team plays together and the rotation is a bit more structured. That is why, as I have said several times, they need to stay healthy for a stretch of games. It will also give David Blatt more time to get comfortable with those rotations.
Kevin Love will be just fine in time. But that doesn’t mean his offensive slump might not affect the Cavs in the short term. It is critical that he get his full confidence back and produce on the offensive end. Again, I am not concerned at all long term, but I am a bit concerned short term during these next 6 games. His defensive effort and rebounding have been improving and I expect that will continue to improve.
I will be curious to see how Iman Shumpert responds to increased playing time. He looks like a great fit with the Cavs and I am hoping to see his athleticism stand out as he gets more comfortable. I still see him as the eventual starter with JR Smith moving to the sixth man position. Time will tell on that.
I am just throwing out a little caution now that the Cavs and Blatt have proven they will be OK, allowing the fans to back off the ledge. It would not shock me if Cleveland went 3-3 over those 6 games. I don’t think that would be the worst thing to happen and it would not make me any less optimistic regarding the playoffs.
If that prediction comes true, I sure hope the fans do not climb back on the ledge and the media does not do cartwheels because they can be negative again. This is the natural ebb and flow of a long NBA season. I will be rooting for the Cavs to have a 17 game winning streak at the end of this stretch, but I will not panic if they don’t.