OKLAHOMA CITY — After the Cleveland Cavaliers headed into the All-Star break with two big road wins over the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder with their new trade acquisitions in tow, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue had something to admit.
“They exceeded my expectations,” Lue said following a 120-112 win over the Thunder on Tuesday.
LeBron James led the way against OKC with 37 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, helping the Cavs avenge an embarrassing 148-124 home loss to the Thunder on Jan. 20, but once again, it was Cleveland’s newcomers who also made a collective impact.
Larry Nance Jr. had 13 points, 9 rebounds (8 offensive) and 3 blocks. Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood scored 14 points apiece. George Hill chipped in 7 points, 4 assists and a steal as the starting point guard. And the Cavs extended their winning streak to four games.
“I thought that we’ve got guys that can shoot, dribble and pass, and they can make plays,” Lue said of the revamped roster. “It’s changed our team, and we’re a lot faster. Now I think we’ve got a chance to switch a lot of things with our size and our length. We can switch stuff defensively. I thought it would be a process; it’s still going to be a process. But the first two games I didn’t think they would not be decent. But they exceeded my expectations.”
Lue said the new personnel has helped the Cavs find their attacking mentality again.
“I think we’ve got to get back to being the hunters and not the hunted,” Lue said. “These young guys we have, able to shoot, drive or pass it, adds a different element to our team. They’re playing free, having fun.
“The biggest thing is Clarkson finished the game. George Hill during the timeout was talking to him and happy. Tristan [Thompson] is happy for Larry Nance. That’s what we’ve got to have. If you want to win you’ve got to sacrifice. With our team that we have, whoever’s playing well is going to finish the game. They understand that and it’s all about winning with this group.”
James, who is averaging 30 points, 9.5 rebounds and 13 assists in his past four games, spoke with a sore voice as he publicly lauded Cavs rookie general manager Koby Altman by name for the first time since the team’s trade-deadline deals were completed and explained his role in taking things from here.
“Well, I think Koby did a heck of a job of understanding what our team needed,” James said. “It just wasn’t working out for us, and he felt like — obviously, you guys saw his quotes — he made the changes that he felt best fits our team. Then it’s on me to make sure the new guys that come in. I make sure they fit in and make it as seamless as possible. That’s my job. This is the third game in a row my voice is gone. And so, I’m just trying to have the communication at an all-time high for us, for the new guys and for the rest of the guys as well.”
Nance, a former teammate of Kobe Bryant’s on the Los Angeles Lakers, is no stranger to having instructions barked at him. He described being a beneficiary of James’ yelling and offered a strong endorsement for the new star he plays alongside.
“It’s hard to miss a defensive coverage when you’ve got somebody behind you yelling it for you,” he said of James. “He sees everything on the court, offensively and defensively. Offensively he can tell where to go, no matter what position. So he’s been integral to my joining the team, but he’s not probably the best player of this era. He is.”
With only 26 games left in the regular season, James said he was trying to speed up the introductory process as the Cavs begin to coalesce.
“I’m trying to fast-track it and help the guys out on the floor, because some of the things that we’re doing they’re not used to — offensively and defensively,” James said. “So my voice has to be heard. Some things we could do on the fly with the guys that we had to start the season or in the past because we kind of knew the system. Right now I’m trying to fast-track it and make sure that the new guys are always hearing me behind them on the defensive end and offensively they know where to go. So I’m just trying to do my part and lead them the best way I can.”
Even leaders need a break. As Cavs players said their farewells to one another in the visitors locker room at Chesapeake Energy Arena as the team played its last game before the All-Star break, James told ESPN he would be boarding a chartered plane to fly to Cabo San Lucas for a few days off before continuing on to Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend.
He’s not only serving as one of the captains in Sunday’s game, but he’ll be a spectator on Saturday when Nance competes in the slam dunk contest against Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr., Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.
How does James view Nance’s chances?
“Well, he’s my teammate, so I’m definitely rooting for him,” James said. “Oladipo is my [All-Star] teammate, too, right? Team LeBron, huh? I’m taking those two.”