A fourth straight NBA Finals appearance would always be a challenge for the Cavaliers (32-22) the moment they traded away Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics. But no one expected it would take a roster blowup before the trade deadline simply to stay in the running for the top spot in the East.
Yet that is what Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman did Thursday, bringing in four new players and shipping six out as an almost entirely new cast surround superstar LeBron James. The most notable new pieces are point guard George Hill, swingman Rodney Hood and forward Larry Nance Jr., though questions remain over whether these new pieces will have enough defensive cohesion to help address those obvious shortcomings.
As the players descended upon Cleveland over the past 72 hours, James took it upon himself to will Cleveland past Atlanta 123-107 on the road Friday night. He recorded his second straight triple-double, totaling 22 points, a career high-tying 19 assists and 12 rebounds for his tenth triple-double of the season and 65th overall.
Another old hand, Kyle Korver, scored a season-high 30 points as he burned one of his former teams with seven 3-pointers. Cleveland used just seven players for most of the contest, and James logged nearly 41 minutes.
Boston (40-17) are percentage points behind Toronto in both the Atlantic Division and for the top spot in the Eastern Conference after a 97-91 setback at home to Indiana on Friday night. Irving scored 21 points as the Celtics dug themselves out of a 26-point first-half hole and grabbed an 83-82 lead with 4:46 to play before being unable to stop the Pacers tandem of All-Star Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner down the stretch.
This is the rubber game of the three meetings between the teams this season, with the winner holding the head-to-head tiebreaker if necessary for playoff seeding. The home team has won both games, with the Cavaliers holding off the Celtics on opening night in Irving's return to Cleveland in a game more remembered for Celtics guard Gordon Hayward fracturing his ankle before the Celtics posted a 102-88 win in the most recent meeting January 3.