LOS ANGELES — The results were clear.
One team looked like an elite team getting its execution down before the playoffs. There was dribble penetration, the ball moved, the shots fell, the defense was sharp.
One team looked like it was missing a key player.
The result was an old-fashioned shellacking, with Cleveland beating the Los Angeles Clippers 114-90 in a game that felt over by the half. LeBron James had 27 points, Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith each had 17, and the Cavaliers hit 18 threes (shooting 48.6 percent).
“We made shots,” Irving said of what went right. “We made them come into defensive rotations, made it uncomfortable for DeAndre (Jordan) to come and guard Kevin (Love) when we go small and LeBron goes to the four, so it’s hard for them to match up with us when we go small like that. Also with our pick-and-roll game… we’re just going with what was working. Whether it was me attacking or LeBron going downhill, we were creating and with our pace feel like they couldn’t run with us.”
The Cavs looked like a team ready for the playoffs.
“We’re kind of getting in form right now,” LeBron said. “I think coach (Tyronn) Lue has done a great job of finding out his rhythm, of finding out what he wants from us, and we are responding. We have a great rotation right now and guys are healthy, so we are just trying to pay the game the right way.”
Cleveland played big and they played small effectively at different times. Offensively they got into the paint and then either finished or kicked out — then the ball didn’t stick, the Cavs were making the extra pass and a lot of their threes were open and in the flow of the offense. LeBron said there was only one three he could recall — a Smith heat-check three in front of the Clippers bench — that wasn’t in the flow, and laughingly added Smith gets to take those.
When the threes are falling for Cleveland — and Channing Frye was essential for this, hitting 5-of-7 — they are almost impossible to stop.
The Clippers, on the other hand, may have put up an impressive record without Blake Griffin (39-22), but up against the elite teams he is missed. And the drop off is dramatic — the Clippers starting forwards of Jeff Green and Luc Mbah a Moute were a combined 3-of-15 shooting, plus they were torched all game by LeBron and Love defensively. It was ugly. The Clippers spread pick-and-roll offense can mask the loss of Griffin against lesser teams, but not contenders such as the Cavaliers.
“It gets real tough (playing without Griffin),” Chris Paul said. “They have three, four guys out there that no shot clock can bail you out (of). Just having Blake to be able to throw the ball into the post, when the shot clock is low, or just that pick-and-roll, just having that pick-and-pop option. Just all the attention that he brings opens it up for all of is. So it has been tough without him, but we have to keep fighting until he gets back.”
That fight moves into a brutal five-game road trip for the Clippers that starts Tuesday in San Antonio and also includes stops in Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, and finally Golden State. Originally the Clippers hoped to have Griffin back on this trip, but Rivers said that a quad injury (why Griffin had missed a few games before he broke his hand when he punched a team employee) is what is holding him back now. There is no time
Cleveland finishes up their road trip Monday in Utah. The Cavs are 3-0 on the trip so far.