LeBron James lost his voice but found his second wind.
That’s bad news for the Eastern Conference and good news for anyone dying to see a fourth straight meeting in the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
The Cavs are now 2-0 since their front office blew up their roster at Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, but Sunday’s embarrassingly easy 121-99 victory over the Boston Celtics was various. The Celtics, with LeBron’s former running mate Kyrie Irving leading the way, are Cleveland’s top rival in the East.
The Celtics presently own the second-best record in the conference. And this butt kicking took place before Paul Pierce’s jersey retirement ceremony, with a few adversaries from James’ past, Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo and Doc Rivers, sitting baseline adjacent to the Cavaliers bench.
This wasn’t just a terrific statement victory for the new-look Cavs. It will go down as one of the most satisfying regular season wins of LeBron’s career.
“Attention to detail was at an all-time high this season,” he told ABC afterwards. “We have players who can get their own and are pretty smart.”
LeBron’s words were intended as a compliment for the newcomers, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and George Hill, but it also sounded like a subtle dig at Isaiah Thomas, one of six Cavs players Cleveland GM Koby Altman traded on Thursday.
Thomas, who left Cleveland kicking and screaming, started the season recovering from a hip injury and came in just 15 games. His time with the Cavs was an unmitigated disaster. He and LeBron just weren’t a good pairing.
Thomas is now trying to salvage his season and his pending free agency with the Lakers along with Channing Frye, a former Knicks lottery pick. Iman Shumpert, a former Knicks first round pick, was sent to the Sacramento Kings. Dwyane Wade was returned to Miami while both Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder, who along with Thomas and the Nets 2018 first round pick were shipped to Cleveland in the Irving deal, were traded to Utah. Rose, who spent last year with the Knicks, has since received a buyout.
By moving out older players and in some cases dead wood, the Cavs added salary but they also made their roster younger and more athletic.
“It’s still going to take a little time,” James said, “even though this was an impressive win on the road.”
Clarkson was the most impressive of the reinforcements, scoring 17 points on 7 of 11 shooting. Hood scored 15 points on 6 of 11 shooting while Hill finished with 12 points on 3-for-8 shooting and Nance finished with five on 2-for-5 shooting.
James talked about the high IQ of his new teammates and added, “The passion they play with is going to assist us a lot. We’ve got some hungry guys and guys that have been here.”
And that’s the largest change. In the previous two seasons, the Cavs also struggled at times during the regular season. Boredom was the cause of some of their issues. That was also the case this season, but it was more than that. The Cavs played like they didn’t like each other. LeBron’s body language, especially in a blowout loss to Houston last week, gave off the impression that he was counting the days until free agency.
“We were really worried that what was going on on the floor and our culture in the building, we were marching a slow death,” Altman said of the decision to revamp the roster. “We didn’t want to be a component of that.”
The Cavs had to do something, especially with James, who is in the final year of his contract, going through the motions. The Cavs needed a change because they had to change LeBron’s attitude. Cleveland has won its last three games and James has played like the self-proclaimed best player on the planet.
He went for 24 points, 10 helps and eight rebounds in 28 minutes against the Celtics. He also lost his voice from shouting encouragement and instructions to his teammates. He’s having fun again. He hurt his ankle but still had bounce to his step.
And the East is LeBron’s to win once again.