While the Cavaliers still have a long ways to go before they’re again one of the top teams in the league, they seem to be headed in the right direction with rookie Kyrie Irving leading the way.
Coming off a win over the defending champions, visiting Cleveland looks for its momentum to carry over against James and the Heat on Tuesday night.
After finishing with an Eastern Conference-worst 19 wins last season following James’ departure, the Cavaliers (9-13) surprisingly find themselves in ninth place in the East - one-half game behind eighth-place Milwaukee.
Much of Cleveland’s improvement is due in large part to Irving, who was selected No. 1 overall in June’s draft. Averaging a team-high 18.1 points, the 19-year-old leads all first-year players in scoring and field-goal percentage (50.0 percent) and ranks second with 5.0 assists per game.
“He’s a very good young player …,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’ll be a foundation piece for more than a decade for sure.”
Carlisle wasn’t short on praise for Irving after watching him lead the Cavaliers to a 91-88 win over the Mavericks on Saturday. Irving had 20 points - including a clutch layup with 15.8 seconds to go to help seal the victory.
“I just feel my teammates’ confidence going down the stretch,” said Irving, who six days prior made the game-winning layup with 2.6 seconds left in an 88-87 win at Boston.
“They continue to give me the ball and they have the confidence in me to make the right play for myself and for them. Once you have that confidence, it’s easy going into the fourth quarter.”
With a 5-8 record as the visiting team, the Cavaliers are just two victories away from matching last season’s win total on the road. Inching closer to that accomplishment, though, could prove difficult versus Miami.
The Southeast Division-leading Heat (18-6) have been nearly unbeatable at home, with their only losses 100-92 to Atlanta on Jan. 2 and 91-82 to the Bucks on Jan. 22.
Since that loss to Milwaukee, Miami has won a season-best five straight on its own court - most recently holding on to defeat Toronto 95-89 on Sunday.
“We came into (the) game knowing we wouldn’t be able to take any shortcuts and it would be a work game,” coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team improved to 11-2 at home, told the league’s official site. “We would have to work the game for 48 minutes. We knew we would face a lot of zone … We will take this win and move on.”
Ranking second in the league with 29.2 points per game while shooting what would be a career-best 55.2 percent from the floor, James scored 30 and grabbed nine rebounds versus the Raptors.
While James’ efforts have resulted in plenty of MVP conversation, he’s isn’t concerned about bringing home any hardware.
“Every time I go on the basketball court I try to be the MVP for our team,” he said. “I try to lead - that’s how I’ve always tried to carry myself to that standard of being the MVP every time I go on the court.”
James also downplayed the significance of facing his former team again. He scored a hard-fought 18 points on 8-of-21 shooting in a 92-85 win over the Cavaliers on Jan. 24 as the Heat improved to 4-1 versus Cleveland since James joined them.
“It’s not as big as it was last year of course. Each game it kind of goes away,” he said. “But it’s always fun going against your old teammates.”
James won’t get to square off against Daniel Gibson, who will miss his fifth straight game with discomfort in his neck. He is averaging 7.1 points off the bench.