CLEVELAND, Ohio – Out on the floor Thursday night was Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, a point guard, modern-day triple-double machine and one of the NBA’s best players.
The Cavaliers are paying three players a combined $138.5 million over the next few years to match up with a player like Westbrook – Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumert, and Mo Williams – and none of them was available due to injury.
And yet, the Cavs won the game, 104-100, behind LeBron James’ 33-points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds. That’s how it’s gone for the East-leading Cavs all season.
“We’ve just been playing ball,” said James, as he prepared to echo comments he’s made before. “Our motto is next man up. There’s no excuses around here. Who’s ever in the lineup is ready to go.”
Cleveland is off to a 17-7 start, despite not playing a single game with its true starting lineup. Irving (knee surgery) has yet to play at all, though his return is imminent and could happen when the Cavs host Philadelphia Sunday.
With easily the highest payroll in basketball ($110.2 million this season), the Cavs were built to withstand any matchup, even against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, who host Cleveland Christmas Day.
This past week served as a stark reminder for just how much adversity the Cavs have overcome in this young season, largely on the back of James and with the help of a worthy supporting cast at different points.
Also reinforced this week were the statements James has been making all season, words about wining with the players available, about the relative inexperience the Cavs have as a group despite their Finals run, and about the danger of counting on the return of Irving and Shumpert as a fool-proof elixir for all problems.
Case in point: The Cavs were playing against the Boston Celtics Tuesday at TD Garden, in what was to be their emotional return after a chaotic Game 4 of a first-round playoff series last season.
Irving enjoyed two solid days of practice with the Cavs in Orlando, but the team declined to activate him. Shumpert made his second appearance this season, but wasn’t in the starting lineup and left the game in the fourth quarter with a groin injury.
But James scored 24 points with seven rebounds, Kevin Love added 20 points and eight boards, and Williams contributed 10 points off the bench in what became an easy 89-77 win.
And on Thursday, with Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and the red-hot Thunder in town, and with Irving, Shumpert, and Williams (sprained thumb) all unavailable, six different Cavs scored in double figures.
Tristan Thompson contributed 14 points and a whopping 15 rebounds off the bench.
“Delly’s been playing great,” James said of Matthew Dellavedova, who scored 11 points and recorded 10 assists against the Thunder. “Until Mo got hurt last game he has, and the young fella JC (Jared Cunningham) has been great coming in at the guard spot too, so.
“Like I said, we want to be full, but that’s not our mindset. When it happens, we still got to go out and play the game, and we don’t worry about it too much.”
James is averaging 26.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 6.5 assists in 23 games (he missed one this season). He’s scoring 1.3 more points and averaging 1.7 more rebounds per game than a year ago, and averaging nearly one-fewer assist. His minutes (36.8) and usage rate (33.5 percent of Cavs’ possessions) are up, and his turnovers (3.7) are about where they were a year ago.
James’ efficiency rating is the fifth-best in the NBA, trailing only Stephen Curry, Westbrook, Durant, and Kawhi Leonard.
None of these numbers are surprising, given Cleveland’s predicament with injuries. James is enjoying an MVP-caliber season, and it’s yet to be determined how much of the burden to carry the Cavs is taken from him once Irving finally returns.
“Obviously we had a winning year last year, but we’re still inexperienced as far as playing against so many teams,” James said. “That team (the Thunder) has been together for years and we just got to continue, each game, each film session, each shootaround, we’ve got to continue to get better.
“There’s no biggest win of the season. Every win, every day is a win for us.
After a loss in New Orleans on Dec. 4, when James was asked if the Cavs needed Irving and Shumpert back to shake a malaise that had begun to set in, and he scoffed.
“I hope we don’t think that way. It’s never that way,” James said. “When you get your guys back, you prepare just as you prepare before. It’s only one guy in the world, ever, where everything will be all right when he comes back, and that’s Jesus Christ. Other than that, you can’t bank on nobody being OK.”
Shumpert returned, and was almost immediately hurt again. Irving has reportedly been itching to play for nearly two weeks – he’s yet to lace up his sneakers. Williams, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov have been nagged by injuries all year.
And yet, James and the Cavs keep winning.