Here’s the kind of groove LeBron James was in during the second half of Sunday’s matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks:
After a fourth-quarter whistle, James pulled up from the antler on the Bucks’ half-court logo, flickadatwrist-ed a set-shot/pass at the bucket, and got nothing but nylon from about 40 feet out. Yep. That kind of rhythm.
In the early going, it didn’t look like it’d be that kind of Sunday for James and his Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs opened the matinee meeting sluggish, especially on the defensive end, allowing a Bucks club that has posted the third-worst offense in the NBA since the All-Star break (and the three-way trade that shipped out top scorer Brandon Knight in favor of sour-shooting point guard Michael Carter-Williams) to shoot 60.5 percent from the field in the first half. All five Milwaukee starters chipped in at least eight points, as the Bucks rode a 36-22 advantage on points in the paint and some cockeyed Cavaliers shooting (18-for-44 from the floor, 4-for-14 from 3-point land) to a nine-point halftime lead.
After intermission, though, Cleveland course-corrected. James sparked a 13-4 run late in the third quarter, scoring six points and assisting on an Iman Shumpert layup to put the Cavs up 75-73, their first lead since early in the second.
The Bucks stayed within hailing distance early in the fourth, but a small-ball, spread-the-floor-and-bomb-away Cavs lineup — Tristan Thompson in the middle, James alongside, ex-New York Knicks J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert on the wings and reserve Matthew Dellavedova running point — blew Milwaukee’s doors down the stretch. That crew ripped off a 24-9 run over the space of 7 1/2 minutes, punctuated by Smith and James connecting on this high-flying alley-oop flush on the fast break:
Goodnight, Milwaukee. Please drive home safely.
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A few minutes of garbage time later, a Shumpert triple finished off a 108-90 victory, the Cavs’ third straight and ninth in their last 11 games, to improve to 46-26 on the season. Cleveland now sits 3 1/2 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls atop the Central Division, and has the same cushion over the Bulls and Toronto Raptors in the race for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
James led all scorers with 28 points on 10-for-17 shooting, with 21 coming on an 8-for-11 mark after halftime. He added 10 rebounds, six assists, a season-high five steals and a block in 39 1/2 minutes of work. Smith added 23 on red-hot 7-for-9 shooting from 3-point land, draining three wide-open long balls during the Cavs’ game-deciding fourth-quarter run. All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving, who struggled with his shot a bit but helped carry the Cleveland offense through the slow first-half start, finished with 20 points, seven assists, three rebounds and two steals in 31 minutes.
Those contributions led the FOX Sports Wisconsin to throw up the following graphic late in the contest:
… to which we can only imagine that Kevin Love (nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, three rebounds, two assists, two turnovers in 29 minutes) had something like the following reaction:
Ah, well. You’ll get ’em next time, Kev.
Carter-Williams led five Bucks in double-figures with 19 points, five assists, four steals and three rebounds, but he also committed six turnovers in 34 minutes at the controls. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton each added 15 points, but Milwaukee was simply outgunned and outclassed in a second half that saw the Cavs outscore the Bucks 64-37, leading to Milwaukee’s sixth straight defeat. Jason Kidd’s club, one of the league’s most surprising success stories in the first half of the season, now stands at 4-13 since the trade deadline, dropping two games below .500 at 34-36.
“We take one game at a time, and I think this is a perfect time for this team, for coaches and players to be put in,” Kidd said, according to Genaro C. Armas of The Associated Press. “No one thought we were going to be here.”
That may be, but if the Bucks — who are now just 1 1/2 games ahead of the No. 7 Miami Heat and three games clear of the No. 8 Boston Celtics — they might not stay here for long.
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