HOUSTON -- After traveling nearly 6,000 miles over the course of a six-game, 12-day trip -- enough distance to go from New York to Los Angeles and back again -- the Cleveland Cavaliers walked out of the Toyota Center on Friday night having picked up five wins on the journey and a boost of confidence to take into the second half of the season.
They ripped through the Houston Rockets to finish things off, a 91-77 shellacking of a Houston team that had been riding a five-game winning streak and came in rested against a Cavs group playing the second night of a back-to-back set after a disappointing loss in San Antonio.
Yes, that Spurs defeat kept it from being a perfect trip, but the Cavaliers came away from it all feeling rightfully accomplished and excited about their positioning as they look ahead at what could be a five-month march back to the NBA Finals.
"The only thing I care about is how I lead these guys every single night, and I know we can compete with any team in the league and it doesn't have to be a regular-season game," LeBron James said afterward when asked if it bothered him that some were judging the Cavs because of that Spurs loss. "I know, you give us four games and it's time to lock down in a playoff series, we can play and we can beat any team in this league. So that's my feeling and that's what I know."
The certainty in James' words was significant, as the 5-1 trip seemed to solidify the notion that his Cavs had indeed turned the corner. They won in just about every imaginable fashion -- blowing it open late in Washington; thoroughly dominating in Minnesota; toying around with the competition in Philadelphia; coming from behind in Dallas and making big plays down the stretch; and then, in Houston, shooting only 39.1 percent as tired legs resulted in missed jump shots, but determined defense wouldn't let them lose as the Rockets shot even worse at 35.1 percent.
They've now won nine of their past 10 games, heading into a home date with the Golden State Warriors on Monday, and are starting to look like the team that became a juggernaut in the second half of last season through the playoffs, until injuries derailed them in the Finals.
"I think just being on the road, just together for 12 days just brought us together more," Cavs big man Tristan Thompson told ESPN.com. "And you can see it on the court. There's more flow. Guys are understanding where guys are going to be at. Because it's been a long time since we've played with each other. S---, it's been since, what? The first round, so, late April? So it's been a long time."
It had been even longer since Kyrie Irving played in a back-to-back situation, as the playoffs do not make teams play games on consecutive days. So to see Cleveland's star guard play his first back-to-back set since undergoing knee surgery and see him not just do it, but shine in doing so -- scoring 11 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth quarter against Houston -- was another positive development for the Cavs.
"All our pieces getting back, we're still finding our rhythm," Irving said. "It's still coming though. It's still coming. It hasn't clicked for us yet, but games like this where we show our resiliency ... we're showing signs of being a good team so we just got to continue to keep it up."
Yes, there is still plenty of room for improvement before Cleveland will be considered a top contender, on the same level as Golden State or San Antonio, but those signs were unavoidable on the trip. From Irving's emergence; to Timofey Mozgov showing a glimpse of re-discovering his game with a big night in Dallas and effective minutes against Dwight Howard in Houston; to coach David Blatt actually trusting his bench enough to give Anderson Varejao a chance against the Rockets and seeing the center have a plus-15 impact in eight minutes; to Cleveland's defense which, with a smartly executed game plan, held James Harden to only 11 points on 2-for-10 shooting when he averages 28; to J.R. Smith finding an extended shooting groove; and of course, James' sustained excellence. The signs, they're there.
That's not to say that Kevin Love's place in the offense (and the defense, for that matter) doesn't still raise some eyebrows. And that doesn't ignore the fact the Cavs' reserves, while keeping pace with Houston 24-23, haven't been producing the way they were to start the season. But that's the beauty of an 82-game campaign. There is plenty of time to correct what needs to be corrected while still nurturing the things that have come together the right way already.
"That's a good sign when you can finish a road trip like we just had with that kind of effort and energy," Blatt said, "and look forward to more good things in our future."