at LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Tip-off: Sunday, 9:00 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson return to Staples on Sunday. When arguably the best basketball player of all time says he's playing the best ball of his career, you know he's playing quite well indeed. "Probably an all-time high," LeBron James told an ESPN reporter when she asked him about his level of play after the Cavaliers' 113-108 win in Denver on Wednesday night. "Just because of my body, my mind, the way I go out and approach the game. And then, just the grace of God, giving me the ability to do this. I'm blessed, and I never take it for granted." LeBron's surging play is a welcome development for Cavs fans, who have watched their team struggle more than usual during this regular season. Things got so bad that Cleveland completely overhauled its roster at the trade deadline, with one of the team's trades sending PG Isaiah Thomas, PF Channing Frye and a first-round pick for C Larry Nance Jr. and PG Jordan Clarkson. While it's unclear how far this new Cavaliers group can go in the playoffs, it's a clear upgrade over a squad that looked completely listless. The Lakers, meanwhile, have little incentive to tank despite being out of the playoff picture—their pick will probably go to the 76ers. Los Angeles has played surprisingly well in recent weeks, and has seen encouraging growth from its younger players. What kind of audition will they put forth for LeBron James, who many believe is considering signing with the team this coming offseason? C Tristan Thompson and PF Kevin Love are out indefinitely for the Cavs, while SF Brandon Ingram, SG Josh Hart and Frye are out indefinitely for LA.
LeBron had reason to be talking up his own performance after beating the Nuggets, as he scored 39 points on the strength of five three-pointers to go with eight rebounds and 10 assists. It was only the fourth game of his career with at least that many points, three-pointers, rebounds and assists. Most striking was his clutchness, as he scored 13 of his team's final 15 points in the first half, and put the game away with his team's final nine points of the game. The victory made Cleveland 6-4 in games since their big trades, a 10-game stretch in which LeBron averaged 30.0 PPG, 9.7 RPG and 9.8 APG. Of the newly added Lakers, Nance has made the biggest impact. In fact, he's arguably the Cavs' second-best player overall, as he certainly was in a recent win against the Pistons in which he posted career highs of 22 points and 15 rebounds. Against Denver, he had 13 and 13, plus four steals. He appears to be the Cavs starting center going forward, even when Thompson returns, although Love will certainly be in the starting five one way or another. Clarkson has been efficient as a Cav, scoring 12.5 PPG on 49.5% shooting in those first 10 games. SG Rodney Hood came over in a separate deadline deal, and he's been decent—but not great—in Cleveland. He now starts next to his former teammate, PG George Hill, who was acquired in yet another trade. Hill is theoretically the third-best player on Cleveland behind James and Love, but his 11.7 PER through 10 games was an unpleasant surprise. But a 26-point, five-assist performance in a win over Brooklyn late in February showed just how impactful he can be.
Other than the antics of his own father, PG Lonzo Ball has been the biggest story in Los Angeles this season. The much-hyped rookie carries an unconventional skill set, making it hard for fans and analysts to track his progress as a pro. But both his haters and admirers agree that he has looked improved since he returned from an extended injury absence late in March. A 18-7-11 statline in San Antonio helped the Lakers earn a surprising comeback win against the Spurs, and his 16 shot attempts in a win against Orlando on Wednesday—good for 16 points—showed an aggression that many have been hoping to see out of him more often. He and Ingram are considered the young core of this franchise, so he takes on an increased role in Ingram's absence. A surprising third member of that core is PF Kyle Kuzma, averaging over 15 PPG as a rookie after being selected 27th overall in June's draft. He put up 20 points (9-16 FG) and 10 rebounds against Orlando. Carrying the offense in that game was veteran C Brook Lopez, who scored 27 on 12-of-18 shooting. On the other hand, Lopez matched starting SG Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with a team-worst plus-minus of minus-15 on the night. PF Julius Randle is averaging a career-high 15 PPG, and his 12 points against Orlando marked his 21st straight game scoring in double-digits. PG Isaiah Thomas's NBA future remains murky, but rest assured he'll take plenty of shots off the bench against a Cleveland team for which he surely has plenty of disdain.