There’s only one ball, and early in this Cavs season, its distribution has produced more drama than CBS. The Cavaliers would rather do without the drama, favoring an approach more like The Learning Channel, which they took a step toward during last night’s 110-101 victory over the Denver Nuggets, which included a brilliant 38-point first quarter.
The Cavs were looking to improve upon Wednesday’s effort during a 102-100 loss to Utah, in which they produced a franchise-low six assists. Against Denver, the ball moved as freely as the undercarriage of a kilt-wearing Scot. They logged 25 assists, including on 14 of their first 18 baskets.
The early lack of assists and news-hungry beat writers stirred a teapot tempest highlighted by a report that LeBron James and Kyrie Irving had a verbal exchange over the point guard's failure to pass the ball. Before the game LeBron dismissed the report as pure fiction but said he understood “negativity sells.”
While Moses may have gone to the Mountain, LeBron went to South Beach, and returned centered like a picture in a frame. He’s not only donned the epaulets of leadership but emanated serenity and understanding crucial to this team’s growth and unity. It’s like he left a championship-hungry 25-year old behind and returned to Northeast Ohio as Morpheus, bearing a red pill for Northeast Ohio.
“When the ball is moving it’s just the karma of the game, guys make shots,” said the Da-LeBron-a after the win. “It’s just the good karma of the game. You move the ball early and get guys feeling the ball, touching the ball, and everyone feels comfortable and that results in having seven guys in double figures.”
All of the starters – including Shawn Marion in his second straight start – scored in double figures, as well as top reserves Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. Indeed Waiters was something of the star of the game on several levels.
On the surface, he had 17 points and a team-high two steals, including one with under just under four minutes left after the Nuggets had pulled to within six. It produced a breakaway layup and was followed immediately by a 20-foot jumper that put the game out of reach.
On another level, he seemed to not just accept his role coming off the bench, but brought the level of energy that Blatt has been asking from him defensively. Blatt has played Waiters on small forwards and seemingly challenged him to be a defensive stopper, something James as alluded to complimenting Waiters’ performance after the game.
“Dion comes off the bench and brings that scoring mentality, but more than that, he brings us another defender off the bench which we need, someone that’s tough,” he said. “Someone that can guard one through three. It’s a new role but it’s a good role. He came off the bench at Syracuse I believe [Correct, King] and he was a very impactful player there. He’s found his niche and I think it was the best game he’s had all season.”
Waiters also provided an emotional spark in the first quarter when he was fouled hard by Darrell Arthur on a layup. He bounced up strong, and Arthur was ejected from the game. He closed the first quarter with four points as the team took a large 38-20 lead.
“Dion, I thought he played a helluva game. Really do,” said Coach Blatt during the post-game press conference. “He took the challenge [of coming off the bench] and was definitely one of the main reasons we won the game.”
Waiters could play a big role for the team with his ability to handle the ball and drive out of pick and rolls. Sharing the floor with either Kyrie or LeBron means there are always two people who can initiate the offense.
It’s important that he buy into his role. At times in the past, he’s bristled about coming off the bench. On a championship team, it’s crucial for player to embrace their roles. There’s only so much space before the footlights of any NBA team, and this isn’t last year’s pathetic excuse for a team, but a championship contender. The expectations are necessarily higher.
For his part, Waiters seemed to buy-in to Blatt’s ball-movement philosophy during the postgame player of the game interview.
“We moved the ball. It was going side to side. We didn’t get too stagnant and play isolation basketball, and we played as a team,” he said. “We needed this win bad. That was the whole thing to come out here with the mindset of get a win together. We did that.”
He even offered a mea culpa for his ball-chucking ways.
“We’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “I found myself shooting a lot in the wrong situations. I just wanted to come out here and play my game – pass the ball and do what I do and I was able to do that.”
It was a good win, and is especially noteworthy coming on the third game in four days of this West Coast roadtrip. Though it started rough with a bad loss to the Blazers and a last-second loss to the Jazz, they recovered nicely as the defense came together. A little.
Sadly, that defensive urgency was really only on display during the last half against Utah and the first half against Denver. During the second half, backup guard Randy Foye went off, scoring 28 points including five threes. Many of those points were simply pull-ups at the start of the play clock – the product of lackadaisical defense – helping get Denver back in the game. Sooner or later they’ll play 48 consecutive minutes of defense in the same game.
“I thought our defense in the first half was terrific but again much like the last game we played a poor half of defense,” Blatt said. “Last time it was the first half. We gave up 59 points in the first half and today we gave up 56 points in the second half. We’re not gonna win consistently with that. That’s an area we have to get better at on a consistent basis. This is the NBA, if you let teams score they are going to score.”