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Cavs are built with grit

As the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals, it seems like it’s been a few seasons since the Cavs struggled in January. The Cavs shipped out Dion Waiters and some draft picks for J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, and Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets.

Smith and Shumpert have provided the perimeter defense and shooting the Cavs were missing from the shooting guard position, while Mozgov solidified the interior defense. A key turn around for the Cavs that is often overlooked by their high-scoring offense, is the dramatic turnaround the Cavs defense made in January. That defensive presence was obvious in the series finale where the Cavs blew out the Chicago Bulls to the tune of 94–73, in Chicago.

Blowing out the home team in the playoffs is hard to do, especially when you lose your starting point guard and the second of your “Big 3” early in the second quarter.

Multiple players stepped up to fill the void, James Jones and JR Smith hit a couple three’s to keep the offense paced. Tristan Thompson crashed the glass, and to the court, gobbling up rebound after rebound and several alley-oops from Matthew Dellevadova. Speaking of Delly, no one had a bigger game than the 6’4 Australian, who pretty much dominated the second half. His defense was suffocating and his offense was breathtaking.

The Cavs also have that guy from Akron, old what’s-his-name, who almost put up a triple-double on an off-shooting night with 15 points and 11 assists, but came up a rebound shy. The problem was he shot 7–23 as the defense collapsed on and double-teamed the King relentlessly. Luckily for the Cavs, Jones, Smith, Shumpert, and Delly kept making shots.

Shumpert is another player who has come up big in the post-season with his pesky defense and timely shooting. All it took to wake up Shump in Game 6 of the semi’s was a clothesline from Nikola Mirotic. A technical was called and Shump missed the free throw, but he went at Mirotic on the next couple series with a layup and a timely three.

The Cavs have truly benefited from excellent coaching and player execution. With Irving hobbled by injuries to both legs, James has had to carry more of a load than was planned, but he and everyone else on the Cavs has stepped up and not made excuses.

You have to give credit where credit is due. Personally, I was all for the Cavs finding a true backup point guard during the regular season. Delly started off slow, warmed up, and was then injured. He had a phenomenal game and then was pretty much unspectacular the rest of the season. His gritty defense has been a big presence in the post season, even more noticeable with Irving’s injury.

Mozgov continues to be up and down. His presence is heard and not so much seen. By that, I mean that he alters many shots at the rim and his large body forces teams to put someone on him, but he is rarely used to close out games when Blatt normally favors the hard-working Thompson. Though his stats might be low, other teams know he is there and must account for Mozgov, I’d just like to SEE a little more.

And am I the only one waiting for JR to have a monster game? He has been effective in both series and made some critical shots, but that has not parlayed as confidence into the next game. Perhaps, the Cavs don’t need him to have that monster game yet. He and LeBron keep delivering just what the Cavs need, when the Cavs need it. So maybe it’s more of an aesthetic for Smith, who doesn’t seem scared of the bright lights or big stage.

Heading into the Atlanta Series, LeBron said he does not consider himself the underdog. Not to be overconfident, because the Cavs can lose this series and they are plenty banged up and have enough reasons, but you have to agree with him. Again, look at the way the team around him has risen to the occasion time and time again, never letting the moment get to big for them. A tough task for players like Thompson, Irving, and Delly who were with the team the last few season as they were at home watching the playoffs, not participating.

Pressure can mold or melt a player, and the Cavs are transforming in front of our eyes. It’s hard not to appreciate this team and want them to win. The chemistry, the selflessness, the gritty defense. It’s at this exact time of year that those awful growing pains at the beginning of the season become so critical. Where Atlanta cake-walked through the Southeast division and the early portion of the schedule, the Cavs were forged by loss after loss. Those losses showed them exactly where their floor is, while they only dreamt of their ceiling. Those losses forced the Cavs to look within, while the trades forced Blatt to learn how to use players and deal with additions and subtractions on the fly.

The Cavs roll into Atlanta wounded and with a 1–3 record against them this season, but with confidence and momentum. To me, the 1–3 record is incentive enough, let alone that the loser goes home. Do the Cavs have enough left to outlast the Hawks and make it to NBA Finals?
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About David Burkart

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