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What started off as a feel-good story in the early season has turned into the real deal, as the Cleveland Cavaliers have become one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference after finishing with the fifth-worst record in the NBA last season. The Cavs won their fifth straight game to improve to 18-12 with a 124-89 blowout win over the short-handed Houston Rockets on Wednesday, achieving a significant milestone in the process.

The Rockets were never close after the opening minutes of the game, with Darius Garland leading the way for the Cavs with 21 points on 3-for-6 3-point shooting. Isaac Okoro added 20 points, including one of the most disrespectful dunks we've seen all season over three Houston defenders.

With the victory, the Cavaliers are now off to their best 30-game start since the 1997-98 season, excluding teams with LeBron James on the roster, according to Tim Reynolds of the AP. This may seem like cherry-picking to find a juicy stat, and it is, but the context here is important. In the seven seasons that the Cavs have played without LeBron since he entered the league (four seasons in Miami and the last three in Los Angeles), Cleveland has gone 157-374 -- a paltry .296 winning percentage. So, for the Cavs to look like a legitimate playoff team this far into a season without LeBron really is a big deal for the franchise and the city.

It would be challenging to find a single analyst who predicted the Cavs would have the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference 30 games into the season, and they've done it in an even more surprising way. Cleveland entered Wednesday's game with the third-best defensive rating in the NBA, allowing a stingy 104 points per 100 possessions. In the previous four seasons, the Cavs finished 25th, 30th, 30th and 29th in defensive rating.

Much of the credit deservedly goes to head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his assistants but shoring up the middle with Jarrett Allen, who came over in the James Harden trade early last season, and impressive rookie Evan Mobley were key factors that have led to Cleveland's excellent interior defense -- they're eighth in the NBA, allowing 1.13 points per possession around the rim, according to Synergy Sports. The addition of veteran guard Ricky Rubio, who has gotten more playing time following the season-ending knee injury to Collin Sexton, has also bolstered the defensive attack.

Many of the numbers suggest that the Cavs will be able to continue their success. Their 3.1 net rating entering Wednesday was good for seventh in the league, and they have the league's most favorable remaining schedule according to Tankathon. Whether they end up in the postseason or not, it's nice to see the Cavs taking significant steps forward in the post-LeBron world.