The Cavaliers got clipped by the defending champion San Antonio Spurs last night 92-90, but proved their mettle in this yardstick game even if they didn’t quite measure up.
The Spurs are the class of the NBA with a share-the-ball approach that’s very hard to defend – as LeBron James and the Miami Heat discovered this past summer. Again, the Cavs played to the level of their competition, as they have for most of the season, and in this case, an encouraging sign.
Just 48 hours after being eviscerated by the Denver Nuggets — whose poor start has their coach on the hot seat – the Cavs played their most consistent defensive game of the year. The pick and rolls that the Nuggets’ Ty Lawson executed with such ease came much more difficult to the Spurs.
The Cavs' big men “showed hard” consistently on the pick and roll – meaning they stepped out on the pick and trusted their rotations. (Modern NBA defense requires constant shifting and the abandonment of the man you’re covering with the faith that your teammate will grab your guy.) Below, Thompson fails to press the ballhandler, yielding an open jumper.
But this was generally the exception. After the game, Coach Blatt singled out Kyrie Irving as having played his best defensive game of the year against one of the league’s elite players, something the TV announcers noticed as well.
It was a team effort, led by the bigs, with Cavaliers men in the middle pushing the pick and roll ballhandler away from the basket, giving the defense time to recover and taking pressure off the guards.
Varejao played a spectacular game, scoring 23 points on many pick and roll cuts of his own, grabbing 11 boards and blocking two shots. Love (10 pts, 11 boards, 5 assists) got some post-up opportunities early but continues to have trouble finding his spots in the flow of the offense. Meanwhile Irving (20 pts, 3 triples, 2 assists) posed problems of his own for the Spurs.
LeBron didn’t have a great night shooting (6 for 17, 2 for 3 from long range) but did have 9 assists, as Irving played off-the-ball as more of a shooting guard much of night. (There were even a couple possessions in the fourth when LeBron was on the bench where Waiters initiated the offense instead of Irving.)
LeBron took the long view on the game in the locker room afterwards. “I hate to lose, but I'm happy about the progress we made tonight. It's totally different than what we did on Monday. We came to play, we competed for 48 minutes and when you give yourself an opportunity to win, that's all you can ask for."
Of course, it was LeBron who fumbled away their chance to tie or win in the final moments, losing the ball from his left hand after a nifty behind the back move to avoid Manu Ginobili racing up the court after a missed Spurs free throw. (It was James’ first turnover in the last 5 seconds of a one-possession game since 2009.)
Blatt has to accept some of the blame as well for leaving the team without a timeout to stop the clock and advance the ball into the frontcourt after the miss. He said after the game he felt comfortable all the timeouts were necessary when he took them.
Diaw caused the Cavs continued headaches throughout the game with his ability to shoot from 3, but also beat most power forwards off the bounce as well as acting as an extremely good passer. Diaw was tied with Duncan as the Spurs’ leading scorer with 19, as well as producing 3 steals, a blocked shot and 7 assists, as on this one to Kawhi Leonard for a slam dunk.
“That’s one of the great values of Boris, he can play out at the three-line and facilitate – be the soccer assist guy and pass it before the next guy or make the pass himself and occasionally he’s going to make shots for you that’s the challenging part,” offered Coach Blatt
Though a tough loss, Blatt shared LeBron’s sense of optimism. “Honestly, I thought we defended really well, there were some breakdowns but that’s going to happen in the NBA,” he said. “Overall I thought we defended really well and gave ourselves a chance to win because of that. It was more the turnovers [18 for 22 Spurs pts] and the end of a couple of those quarters [they were outscored 20-11 the final two minutes of the four quarters] where we lost our lead and the momentum.”