DALLAS — Thus far this season, the Cavaliers have been able to use injuries and the integration of seven new players as excuses for their underachieving ways.
But they tip-toed close to the line of answering serious, franchise-changing questions before putting away the 2-11 Dallas Mavericks 111-104 Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
The Cavs opened a double-digit lead midway through the third quarter, only to see it cut to one with 6:43 remaining as their collection of All-Stars continued to struggle against teams at the bottom of the NBA standings.
The Cavs put it away by going 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final 37 seconds, with Kyle Korver, Iman Shumpert and LeBron James making both their attempts and Jeff Green one. For the game, the Cavs hit 29-of-35 from the stripe.
The Cavs thought they had made progress in a four-point loss at Houston Thursday. Then they came out and hit just three of their first 11 shots against the Mavs. After going on a 13-0 run in the first quarter to take the lead, they let the Mavericks back in the game in the second period by hitting just 5-of-16 from the field and committing six of their 10 first-half turnovers.
The Mavs led 52-49 at halftime not just because Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. had 11 points apiece, but because unknown second-year center Salah Mejri contributed six points and four rebounds in nine second-quarter minutes.
Down 64-60 in the third quarter, the Cavs found life as Kevin Love, Jae Crowder and J.R. Smith carried the bulk of the load to help them go ahead 83-74.
But the Mavs weren’t done. They went on a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter as Wesley Matthews scored seven points, four at the free-throw line, and Dirk Nowitzki added a 3-pointer. Korver ended that surge with a 3 and Crowder put in a rebound after Nowitzki blocked his shot.
Love led the Cavs with 29 points and 15 rebounds, posting a double-double in all six of his meetings with the Mavs since he was traded to Cleveland in 2014.
Smith, who had totaled 33 points in his previous two games, added 17 and Korver scored all 13 of his points in the fourth quarter to help keep the Mavs at bay.
The Cavs evened their record at 1-1 on a four-game road trip that also includes stops in New York to face the Knicks and in Charlotte.
James received a huge ovation when announced and No. 23 jerseys were all over the arena. His supporters also cheered his spectacular plays. But after re-aggravating a sprained left ankle that cost him nearly all of the preseason at Houston, James didn’t seem like himself for much of the night.
Coming in, James had scored at least 30 points in four of the Cavs’ five games in November. He was averaging 36 points on 62 percent shooting this month, along with 9.4 assists, 6.8 rebounds, two steals and 1.2 blocks in 39.4 minutes. Against the Rockets, he pitched in 33 points.
James finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in 42 minutes.
Barnes paced the Mavericks with 23 points and 12 rebounds, and rookie Smith added 21 points and seven assists and Nowitzki contributed 14.
Despite their slow start, the Cavs finished the first quarter hitting 8 of their final 11 shots and led 29-23 at the break. Smith and Love led the way with 10 apiece. Love secured his double-double by the end of the third quarter, when he had 29 points and 11 rebounds.
The Cavs are 5-1 in their last six meetings against the Mavericks, including two 30-point victories. In the previous five, the Cavs were averaging 112.2 points, 15.2 second-chance points and 18 fast-break points, along with 14.8 3-pointers.
Going into the game, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle looked forward to the matchup of future Hall of Famers James and Nowitzki, 39 and in his 20th season that could be his last.
“Cleveland is really, really talented,” Carlisle told the Dallas media Friday. “LeBron James is really, really great. I feel the fact that the number of times these guys are on the floor together is on the downside. And I always look forward to it. You see this level of greatness only so often with two guys on two different teams. I cherish it whenever it happens.”