CLEVELAND — The Cavaliers started fast, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith had their best games of the season and LeBron James put up numbers across the board.
It added up to a much-needed 124-119 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday at Quicken Loans Arena.
“When we lead after the first quarter, we win,” said James, who had 30 points, eight rebounds and nine assists as his team improved to 4-0 when it hasn’t been behind after the opening period.
The Cavs (5-6), who had lost five of their last six and were 2-4 at home, got a season-high 32 points and 16 rebounds from Love, while Smith broke out of a season-long slump with 20 points and made 5-of-7 3-pointers.
That was more than enough to offset a magnificent 40-point, 16-for-21 shooting, nine-rebound performance from Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose team lost its fourth straight to fall to 4-6.
“He was ‘The Swish,’” James said of Smith, whose previous season high was 11 points. “That was Swish. We’re going to need a lot more of that from him.”
Love was equally good, going 9-for-14 from the field and 14-for-16 at the line while not attempting a 3-pointer. It was his second 30-point, 15-rebound game with the Cavs, while the last time he didn’t attempt a three was Jan. 23, 2015.
“We need Kevin to play like that all the time,” James said. “Tonight he was great.”
The Cavs, who begin a four-game road trip Thursday in Houston, went 33-for-38 at the line compared to Milwaukee’s 12-for-16 — Antetokounmpo had 11 of the attempts before fouling out — which didn’t sit well with Bucks coach Jason Kidd.
“No matter if you have three officials out there or six officials, we’re not getting the call,” he said. “That’s disappointing because the game is being won or lost by the free throw line. We’re outscoring our opponents. We’re making more twos and more threes and we’re losing at the free throw line.”
Up three after three periods, the Cavs went to a lineup of Iman Shumpert, Dwyane Wade, Smith, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green to start the fourth.
That group extended Cleveland’s lead to 107-97, and the Cavs were still up 109-101 when a rested James and Love returned with 6:26 to go in the game.
“It was huge,” James said.
The Bucks, who got 22 points from point guard Malcolm Brogdon and 20 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists from small forward Khris Middleton, were down just 118-115 with 1:37 to go, but the Cavs never faltered.
James hit two free throws at the 1:22 mark and a baseline fadeaway with 51.9 ticks on the clock as Cleveland won in what was probably its best home performance of the season.
“It was a different kind of game for us,” said coach Tyronn Lue, whose team was 9-for-18 on 3-pointers, “but we’ll take it.”
Love had 30 points on 9-for-12 shooting and 12-for-14 at the line, plus 13 rebounds, as the Cavs led 94-91 after three periods.
“I just wanted to establish myself early and get some easy buckets,” said Love, who had eight offensive rebounds. “I’ve been drifting a little bit in the last few games.”
Love left due to an illness in the third period Sunday against Atlanta and was taken to the hospital, leading him to say, “Whatever they gave me, I might go back and check myself in again.”
Up 13 early in the second period, the Cavs lost their offensive pace and defensive focus and trailed 67-65 at halftime. Cleveland was 19-for-22 at the line at that point, while the Bucks, who had 39 points in the second quarter, were 7-for-8 but held a 24-12 edge in 3-point scoring.
Smith started 3-for-3 and hit a pair of 3-pointers early as the Cavs raced to a 25-15 lead a little more than seven minutes into the game.
A motivated Cleveland team went on to lead 39-28 after one, largely because it got the Bucks into early foul trouble and made 14-of-15 at the line compared to Milwaukee’s 3-for-3.
It was only the second time in seven home games that the Cavs didn’t trail after the opening quarter.