BOSTON — Following a rousing 121-99 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday, LeBron James said his four new Cleveland Cavaliers teammates fit in as if they have been with the team longer than the three days that have passed since they were acquired at the trade deadline.
“It was a good start,” James said. “It’s almost like the new guys have been here.”
The four players — George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. — combined for 49 points and helped the Cavs defense hold the Celtics to just 40.4 percent shooting from the field and 26.3 percent from 3.
“It started with George and his on-the-ball pressure and him just running the team,” James said of Hill, who had 12 points, three rebounds and an assist as the starting point guard. “And then the three guys came off the bench. Jordan was — he’s ready to score at any time, but his composure was great. Rodney plays with so much poise, and Larry was just controlling the perimeter, setting great pick-and-rolls. Got him a lob, got him a dunk, so it was a good start for the new guys, a good start for all of us with our revamped team so far.”
The Cavs, who came into the day 6½ games behind Boston for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, led by as many as 29 points as James just missed his third straight triple-double, finishing with 24 points, 10 assists and 8 rebounds while sitting the entire fourth quarter with the game firmly in control.
Hill said James’ pregame message was simple.
“LeBron said before the game, ‘Who cares about mistakes? Who cares about missed shots? Who cares about all that stuff?'” Hill revealed. “We weren’t here to be perfect. There was no judgement out there today. Go out there, have fun, take our shots, be ourselves. I think that’s what we tried to do.”
Clarkson — whose 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting and two steals off the bench compared favorably to former Cavs guard Kyrie Irving‘s 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting and five assists for the Celtics — said James’ postgame message was even simpler.
“‘That’s the way to hoop,'” Clarkson shared. “That was it.”
Nance Jr., who spent his entire career as a teammate of Clarkson with the Los Angeles Lakers, said the combo guard’s Cavs debut was no aberration.
“That’s JC. That’s Jordan Clarkson, get used to it,” he said. “What you saw tonight is Jordan Clarkson. That was nothing outstanding, that’s his norm. Be ready for it.”
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said there has been a welcome shift in energy around his team ever since they parted with six players through three trades on Thursday and brought the new group in.
“I thought our spirit was different,” Lue said. “I didn’t know what the outcome would be. But I knew we would compete and play hard. Move the basketball and move bodies. Those guys are flying around and it was good to see.”
The Cavs, after struggling for much of the past month and a half, have now won three straight games — their longest win streak since ripping off five straight from Dec. 9 through Dec. 17.
While Lue said the team’s improved spirit “wasn’t about the other guys” they traded — echoing James declaring “there’s no shade” on the players the Cavs shipped out earlier this week — former Cavs guard Dahntay Jones credited the improvement to the type of players Cleveland has now as compared to the type of players it said goodbye to.
The difference between selfish and selfless players. Take notice
— Dahntay (@dahntay1) February 11, 2018
Hill said whatever happened in the Cavs’ season prior to the trade deadline — the in-fighting, the porous defense, the embarrassing effort — is inconsequential now.
“It’s not my job to ask questions about that,” Hill said. “I’m a big believer that if you continue to look back at your past, you’ll trip over the future that’s ahead of you. I don’t care what happened before. We’re here to start something new.”
The Cavs’ schedule after the All-Star break is unforgiving. They will play 17 games in 32 days, making practice time hard to come by to get the new players up to speed.
“We’ve got some smart guys that came into our team that picked up some things very quick, just from yesterday’s practice and today’s shootaround, so that’s a good start,” James said.
While Cleveland thoroughly outplayed the Celtics on Sunday, James said Boston — as well as a few other teams in the East — are still in better position to compete if the playoffs started today.
“I think they’re playing better basketball than we are, especially for the majority of the season,” James said. “We’ve got some work to still do. We’re just coming together; guys don’t quite know what we want to do. … So, we’ve got some catching up to do. Not only Boston, but Toronto and Philadelphia and a lot of other teams in the Eastern Conference and the rest of league. To try to get on a page where we feel like we’re confident enough to win a playoff game.”
Hood, who scored 15 points in 19 minutes while shooting 3-for-6 on 3-pointers, was asked what it’s like to play alongside James.
“Fun,” he said. “It’s fun. He demands simple things, just to play hard. But other than that, he’ll make the game easy for you if you’re in the right spot, so it’s fun.”
James reciprocated the compliment.
“At the end of the day, I just like being around guys who want to play and work hard,” James said. “I know I demand a lot of excellence out of my teammates, but I demand out of myself, too. And [when] we [are] on the road, we want to try and play as well as we can, and we want to try to put ourselves in contention to try to compete for another championship, and that’s my mindset.
“I know the guys that’s here, they’re very excited about this opportunity, and it’s my job to keep them excited about being here. They’re joining something that, obviously, the last couple months hasn’t been what we expected, but over the course of the last four years since I came back has been really good basketball. So it’s my job as the leader of this team to make sure that I acclimate the new four guys to be around a culture that’s built on winning and practicing championship habits, so that’s it.”