For the majority of this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been seated atop the Eastern Conference standings. This much is hardly a surprise. However, the way this first place team had been playing as of late was more than a little unexpected.
Cleveland, as a whole, hasn’t looked all that impressive in the past few weeks. Wins have been unconvincing, losses have come as a result of sloppy play and defense wasn’t exactly there to be seen. LeBron James has felt the need to call out the effort of his teammates on numerous occasions, but it didn’t seem to have much of an impact.
One caveat many fans and pundits kept highlighting was the fact the Cavs weren’t playing at full strength. Up to this point in the season, the team has been without star point guard Kyrie Irving and swingman Iman Shumpert. Sure, it was a valid excuse, but the team assuming the return of these two players would spark a complete turnaround was a bit concerning.
However, after last night, there might be some validity to that assumption.
Shumpert made his season debut Friday night as Cleveland visited a scrappy Orlando Magic team. In just one game back, Shumpert proved two things right away. He certainly didn’t need to be eased back into the action, and his return might have a greater impact than anyone would’ve thought.
In 25 minutes of action, Shumpert looked like he hadn’t missed a beat while recovering from offseason wrist surgery. Scoring 14 points on 5 of 7 shooting, the Cavs guard looked fully healthy for the first time since before last postseason. Additionally, his aggression was apparent from the get-go, as he played dogged defense throughout the night, a concept not often seen from this Cleveland team all year.
It goes without saying such a return performance was a great sight to see. Shumpert spent much of the recent playoffs fighting through lingering shoulder and groin injuries, and his performance was clearly a little off because of these ailments. To see him at 100% for the first time in months was clearly a welcome sight for Cleveland.
However, what was even more astounding was just how much his return impacted the rest of his teammates.
Since Thanksgiving, the Cavs haven’t won a contest by any more than five points. They’ve had to stave off lesser opponents, and also suffered through a three-game losing streak. Said slump was snapped last Tuesday as Cleveland beat the underwhelming Portland Trail Blazers, but it had to erase an 18-point deficit to do it.
Last night, though, there wasn’t an ounce of drama to be had. The Cavaliers ripped Orlando apart, winning by 35. The ball movement was fluid, the defense was intense and the team as a whole hasn’t looked as in rhythm as they were last night in weeks.
Obviously this wasn’t all thanks to Shumpert. At the same time, the sense of purpose shown by everyone in a Cleveland uniform is something we haven’t seen all year.
Even more important was the fact Shumpert’s return seemed to inject life into center Timofey Mozgov, who’s currently in the middle of a particularly bad season.
Mozgov looked like a completely different player last night, finishing with 17 points and four rebounds. He no longer looked like a pushover on defense, and wasn’t the least bit timid offensively. To the naked eye, it certainly looked like Mozgov’s turnaround had a lot to do with Shumpert, something the latter player seemed to agree with.
“He was just waiting for me, man, that’s all it was. Timo was waiting for me,” Shumpert said. “I’m the crazy brother that puts the battery in him, I guess. That’s my big fella. He’ll be all right.”
Obviously, there’s no sense in overreacting to one game. The Cavs could easily fall back into a slump after the excitement of Shumpert’s return dies down.
That said, you could sense the impact of the flat-topped Cavalier the second you flipped the game on last night. By getting one key player back, Cleveland played one of its most complete games of the season.
More importantly, if this is how the Cavs respond to Shumpert’s return, just wait until Irving gets back on the court next week.