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The Cleveland Cavaliers had no business beating the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 23. Not only were their four top scorers -- Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert -- all sidelined, they were without Sam Merrill, the reserve sharpshooter who had gone supernova (eight 3s, 27 points) in a win against the Utah Jazz three days earlier.

In Chicago without much firepower, the Cavaliers needed Max Strus to take 17 3-pointers and Jarrett Allen to grab 17 rebounds. They held the Bulls to 16 points in the third quarter, executed well down the stretch -- with rookie guard Craig Porter Jr. running the show -- and earned a victory that allowed them to celebrate Christmas on a high.

Looking back at this meaningful, memorable moment, the first thing Cleveland forward Georges Niang said was, "I missed a lot of 3s that game." 

Niang shot 1 for 5 from 3-point range and Strus missed more 3s (12) than he ever had in a single game, but that wasn't a big deal. The important thing was that the Cavs attempted 45 3s, despite the fact they did not have any star ballhandlers to create them.

"We were playing fast," Niang said. "We were taking layups and 3s, and that's what teams are trying to take away."

It's not that they were running and gunning like the Indiana Pacers. It's that, even in the halfcourt, they were moving and making decisions quickly. They cut hard, moved the ball and attacked the basket with force. After the 109-95 win, they "felt like, OK, if we play this style and share the ball and play together then we can be pretty successful," Merrill said.

Since the beginning of training camp, coach J.B. Bickerstaff had been trying to turn Cleveland into a more unpredictable team. He wanted the Cavs to get into their offense faster, flow from one action to the next and make the most of the shooting the front office had added in the offseason: More motion, more reads, more 3s. It never fully clicked, though, until they were forced to play that way. On Dec. 15, when they had a 13-12 record, they announced that Garland and Mobley both needed surgery -- the former for a broken jaw, the latter to remove a loose body from his knee. Cleveland won three straight games after that, but to Allen the Chicago game was when it turned the corner.

"We had to find a way to win without, what, three, four of our starters," Allen said. "And we just found a way that worked. And that continued to work."

The Cavs "learned, through this, how dangerous the 3-point shot can be for our team," Bickerstaff said. They "needed to find weapons" with Garland and Mobley sidelined, and the Bulls game gave them "something visual that our guys could see, and then now we've got numbers that we can hold our guys to, and now they go out and try to create and reach those goals for us, game by game."

At the All-Star break, coming off a totally different win against Chicago on Wednesday, Cleveland is now 36-17, second in the East, with the league's fourth-best point differential. Since the day the Cavs announced those two surgeries, they've gone 23-5, and in that span they rank first in passes per 100 possessions, second in 3-point attempts per 100 possessions and third in offensive efficiency. The defense is elite, as expected, but this offensive explosion is the best story in the NBA.

"I'm not going to say I'm not a big numbers guy, 'cause I am, but I think it's also a feel of playing the right way and taking and making the right shots," Niang said. "I've been in places where we haven't played the right way, and then I've been in places where we have played the right way. And you kind of have that feel where things start becoming easy, you see the defense getting frustrated, and that's the way that you want to play, right? You want to feel good while you're playing, and not feel like everything is a struggle."

Garland and Mobley returned in late January, and the good habits -- and vibes -- that developed in their absence have remained.

"We found an identity through that," Mitchell said. "So now, you add those two guys back, and we're still doing that. I think it's something that -- you never want to have those two guys out, but it helped us see, one, the depth of our team, and also see the playing style we wanted to be able to play with them, kind of how it comes about." 

The Cavaliers have only lost twice since New Year's Day, so it's easy to forget how bleak things appeared to be before they found themselves. I optimistically suggested the Cavs' first few games might play like early episodes of "The Simpsons" when they were 3-5 in mid-November, but I can't say I envisioned them going on a run so close to perfection that it could be credibly described as the NBA equivalent of Season 4. On Nov. 30, they were booed at home during a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers

That dispiriting defeat prompted an extended postgame meeting in the locker room. The next day, The Ringer's Bill Simmons predicted on a podcast that Bickerstaff would be fired. On Dec. 19, Simmons and Ryen Russilo had a lengthy conversation about potential trade destinations for Mitchell, who can be a free agent after the 2024-25 season. Bickerstaff is now a Coach of the Year candidate, and Cleveland stood pat at last week's trade deadline. 

"Technically we did do something: We added DG and Ev back," Mitchell said hours after the deadline, following a 118-95 win overt the Nets at Barclays Center. "We feel like we have enough with what we've got."

Mitchell won't win Most Valuable Player, but he's been playing MVP-caliber basketball; his passing and defense have never been better. Allen won't play in Sunday's All-Star Game, but, compared to when he made it two years ago, his short-roll game has grown immensely. Garland is slowly starting to look more like himself, and, per 36 minutes, Mobley averaged 22.2 points on 61.4% shooting, 13.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks in his first eight games back from knee surgery.

"He just came back seamlessly," Allen said.

Mobley and Garland have been on minutes restrictions, so Cleveland's starting lineup has still logged only 239 minutes together. Mobley has been mostly tethered to Garland lately, and less than half of his minutes since he returned have come next to Allen. Skeptics of the Cavs' upside can point to their competition -- aside from late-January wins against the Bucks and Clippers, they haven't been beating contenders -- and can still concern-troll the bigs, neither of whom is a prolific 3-point shooter. 

"We don't really care, honestly," Allen said. "That's just the best answer I can give you. People say what they want to say about that, but we have a belief in our system."

The bigs assist each other "all the time," Allen said. "Evan's 3-point shot" -- 8 for 13 in his last six games -- "is only improving. It's only up [from here] for us, I believe." And on defense, there is no one on the planet saying they don't complement each other. 

After winning 51 games and then falling apart in the first round against the New York Knicks last season, Cleveland bet that it could solve its playoff problems with movement and shooting. The last two months are a testament to the changes the Cavs made, but it'll be another two months before they be validated. Mitchell is aware of this -- "We can win the rest of the games for the rest of the year; ultimately, we gotta go out there and execute in the playoffs," he said -- but there's a collective confidence that comes from how well they've been playing and how much fun they've been having.

"Everybody's happy," Niang said. "Everybody touches the ball, the ball is moving. Guys have the freedom to make plays, but also know when it's time to play the right way and get a great shot when a team is going on a run. So it's been awesome. I just think we're focused on continuing to build."

As those words came out of Niang's mouth, Mitchell, walking past him in the locker room in Brooklyn, playfully hit him in the back and said, "Shut up!" Niang let out a little laugh, but was not thrown off, barely pausing as he finished his thought: The Cavs are trying to stay in this moment, rather than looking too far ahead.

"We're going to keep riding this until the wheels fall off," Niang said. "And when they fall off, try to put 'em back on and keep riding a little bit."