The first month of basketball is all about rounding into form, a chapter the Cavaliers seemed to have closed a couple weeks ago, before embarking on a 7-game win streak they continued last night with a 110-88 victory over the Nets.
Now the question is less one of roles and responsibilities and more about consistency, desire and effort. They know what they should be doing and how to do it; it’s all a matter now of convincing the team to do it night after night. This week will be a real test of that as they embark on the dreaded four-games-in-five-nights spin, with three of them on the road.
They passed the test last night despite an exceptionally bad first quarter of defense, where it often looked like they just got out of bed. For example, LeBron inexplicably left his man, who had the ball to cover someone else (?!?) allowing Deron Williams (13pts, 11 assists) an unobstructed driving lane.
On the very next time down the court, he swiped at a pass, didn’t come particularly close, and wound up yielding a Williams 3.
Later, Williams executes a pick & roll with Mason Plumlee – one of two Nets starting for injured players – while everyone on the other side of the floor is content to watch. Plumlee cuts down the lane, receives a pass and drops it in, unchallenged.
While the effort lacked, the Nets jumped out to 18-9 lead midway through the first, and the Cavs still trailed at the end of the quarter. They didn’t look very fluid on either end of the floor. Kyrie was actually held scoreless in the first half and LeBron finished with 7, as the only productive first half player was Kevin Love, who scored 15.
This team’s certainly got it’s conundrums and Love is one of them. The team has made it a point to get Love involved in the first quarter, and done a good job of it, only to forget about him the rest of the way. Case-in-point: Love scored four points the rest of the night. Against Milwaukee he scored 17 of his 27 in the first quarter. Against the Pacers, 16 out of 28 in the first quarter.
Maybe this isn’t a problem for the moment, but one can’t help but wonder what happens when other teams notice that this is the Cavaliers modus operandi and start taking away that first quarter breakout. Will they continue to find Love in other quarters? Because there isn’t much evidence of that so far.
The short-handed Nets clobbered the Cavs inside 28-12 as the familiar problem of point guard penetration was either forcing rotations that left big guys unguarded, or producing no rotations at all. This was a problem all game, even after the offense started to show up. Thankfully that offense was so overpowering you didn’t notice the defensive lapses as much.
No telling what Coach David Blatt said to his charges at halftime, but LeBron for one came out with real intensity. As lacksadaisical and lethargic as James looked in the first half, that’s how aggressive he was to open the third quarter. He scored the Cavs first 9 points and took the ball aggressively to the hoop.
Sadly, despite jumping out to a 59-53 lead behind LeBron’s play the teams settled back into their torpor. The Nets took a 61-60 lead before Love split a pair of free throws, to tie it at 61. The team would score an extraordinary 24 points over the next seven minutes, holding the Nets to just six.
The run was equal parts Kyrie Irving, who scored his only 7 points of the game during the run, Dion Waiters (with six) and Tristan Thompson, who scored eight including finishing on three nice alley-oops from Irving and James.
Particularly notice the last one, where he goes and demands the ball from Waiters, pushes him away, then runs the pick and roll with Thompson, rewarding him for recovering Waiters' miss a moment earlier with another beautiful alley-oop.
Sometimes you have to wonder if that’s Dion Waiters on the floor or someone in a Dion Waiters Halloween mask, because so far this season it’s been trick-or-treat for the mercurial Cavs shooting guard. Tonight it was treat as Waiters exploded for a season-high 26 points in 30 minutes, his most minutes since opening night.
Even more important than the scoring, actually, is Waiters ability to pass. He’s always been a scorer, but if he can find others open off his drives – which he’s only intermittently shown interest in – he could be a devastating weapon off the bench. Last night, he did coming up with four assist, including a couple to Anderson Varaejao
Speaking of improved bench play, James Jones came in for the second consecutive game and provided an immediate second quarter spark enroute to double-figures (4 of 5 from 3). Matthew Dellavedova also played his first game in a month after recovering from a left knee injury. He scored 2 and had 3 assists as the scrubs got plenty of garbage time in the fourth. Even recent MIA Joe Harris sunk a three, after sitting out the Raptors game.
After the game, Coach David Blatt continued his campaign of flattery toward Waiters. While at times it seems like Blatt is trying to massage Dion’s allegedly hyper self-critical ego, he wasn’t whistling Dixie when he spoke about Waiters efforts and ability after the game.
“I thought [Waiters] worked really hard in the last few practices we had,” said Blatt at the post-game presser. “I think his mindset is in the right place… It’s easy to focus on all sorts of different things with Dion, I don’t want to focus on that right now, I want to focus on the fact that the guy went out and played his heart out and played a good basketball game. He had good minutes a few nights ago against Toronto as well, and I believe he’s going in the right direction.”
So is the team. Varejao (14), Thompson (12) and Love (14) all had double-figure rebounds, the team turned it on when they needed to, and in the last couple games, James Jones has provided a surprising spark, offering instant offense – something the bench has been lacking outside the inconsistent Waiters.
Next challenge is their third rubber match against the Conference-leading Toronto Raptors at the Q tomorrow night. They lost to the Cavs at home on Friday, but are coming off a 112-107 OT home victory over Denver last night. This will be a good test of the team’s focus, though the Raptors are still smarting from the loss of second-leading scorer DeMar DeRozan.