INDEPENDENCE — The Cavaliers’ newest challenge is to pick up where they left off.
Central Division-leading Cleveland (34-22), which won four straight games prior to the All-Star break, will play for the first time in nine days tonight at Quicken Loans Arena when it hosts the Southeast Division-leading Washington Wizards (33-24), who will be minus All-Star point guard John Wall (knee).
Just like three of the Cavs’ last four games before the break, the 8 p.m. game will be televised nationally, this time on TNT.
“You never want to take a break when you’re playing well,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said Wednesday following practice, “but I thought we needed it.”
Cleveland had been floundering in the weeks leading up to the break, losing 14 of 21 at one point, but beat Minnesota, Atlanta, Boston and Oklahoma City before taking a brief vacation.
The Atlanta win came after the trades of Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose and Iman Shumpert, while the Boston and Oklahoma City victories came with new arrivals George Hill (9.5 ppg), Jordan Clarkson (15.5 ppg), Rodney Hood (14.5 ppg) and Larry Nance Jr. (9.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg) in uniform and contributing heavily.
A seemingly rejuvenated James dominated in all four games, averaging 30.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 13.0 assists in 39.3 minutes. He shot .553 from the field and .455 on 3-pointers.
“I’m ready to go,” the four-time league MVP said after practice. “That’s all that matters. I’m ready to go and I feel great.”
Suddenly looking like a team ready to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season, the Cavs have scored at least 120 points in four straight games, a franchise first.
In that span, Cleveland is averaging 126.0 points on .543 shooting, 27.5 assists to only 10.8 turnovers and 17 3-pointers on .479 shooting while winning by an average of 12 points.
So much for needing an adjustment period while getting the new players acclimated, though Lue joked he had to go over all the plays Wednesday because they forgot them over the break.
“They know how to play the game,” the coach said of the additions. “When you’ve got guys who know how to play the game, it’s easy to fit in.
“When you’re young, you don’t know any better,” he added of young veterans Clarkson, Hood and Nance not showing any signs of feeling pressure. “You just want to go play the game and play hard.”
Despite the Cavs’ great play in their first two games with the new players, James cautioned every night won’t go quite so smoothly.
“We’ve got a long ways to go,” he said. “We’ve got four new guys in our top-nine rotation.
“We don’t have that much time. It’s almost March. But we look forward to the challenge.”
James also noted three of the Cavs’ last four games were on national TV, including the two with Hill, Clarkson, Hood and Nance in action. Tonight will make it three in a row for the newcomers.
“Those guys won’t shy away from the moment,” James said.
For their part, Clarkson and Nance, who graduated from Revere High School and is the son of Cavs legend Larry Nance Sr., are looking forward to playing in Cleveland.
“Here, you’re always going to be on that stage with people watching,” Clarkson said. “It’s definitely something where you’ve got to go out and represent.”
Said Nance: “I’m so excited. Even when I was with the Lakers, every year I looked forward to coming back here and getting to play under my dad’s (retired No. 22) jersey and in front of my family and stuff like that. (Tonight), getting to do that for the first of hopefully many, many times will be really exciting.”
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