If looks could kill, LeBron might have been doing a 360, through-the-legs, tomahawk jam in my face. The last thing he wanted to talk about was Miami and that first season.
Certainly not after an gutty 105-101 win in which 15 minutes of hard-nosed defense and a whole night of pretty good offense propelled the Cavs past one of the three best teams in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors, for the second time in five days.
But how can you leave a meatball like this sitting out there? When Miami hit bottom after their eighth loss during that first-season, after a stretch where they lost three in a row and four-in-five, they went on a nine-game winning streak, lost, and ran off a twelve-game streak. Can this team be that good – is it getting close? Are you out there not wondering this?
Of course, LeBron wants no part of nostalgia, no comparisons, and definitely doesn’t want to suggest this team could win 21 of their next 22, even if they have won eight in a row.
Here’s LeBron’s crossover evasion: “Every campaign, every team, every season is different. You can take experiences from other teams, but will it work? I can’t predict that,” he said in the locker room after the game. “For our team, if we continue to get better, we give ourselves the best chance to win.”
What did I expect him to say? My bad, LeBron. Only I suppose that the ability to pull together in the final quarter and win a game you had no business winning before that is certainly the sign of a winner.
A few moments later, during a different question, he offered a better response to my question of where this team is.
“I said it would take a couple months, maybe a few, to really hit our stride. I may be off a little bit, I feel right now we’re playing some good ball, but I don’t get too high. I try to stay even keel. As fast as you can win five or six in a row, you can lose five or six in a row. It’s a process of it getting better everyday and taking on the next challenge.”
He may be right, but if this team can win while allowing an opponent to shoot 65% in a half and put 63 points on the board – simply by bearing down hard for one quarter (the Raptors were 6-20 FG, no FT, 13 points in the 4th quarter) – then man, this team is going to really be dominant.
Sporadic? ABSOLUTELY. But even here at maybe 65%-70% efficiency, this team is an Eastern Conference killing field. If they can get that up to 80-85% efficiency (i.e. play consistent defense for more than 15 minutes at a stretch), they can challenge the Western Conference elite. (Yes, the disparity is that vast.) That’s still a high hurdle.
The team has made a habit of getting Kevin Love going in the first quarter and using that as a springboard for the rest of the game. (Or perhaps an excuse to ignore him the rest of the game, but that’s yet to be determined.)
But you had to know somebody was going to notice that and be ready. Though the Raptors gave up an easy backdoor layup from Anderson Varejao to Love on the very first play of the game, they were on him the rest of the way. Amir Johnson chased him off the “3,” and even lumbering seven-footer Jonas Valanciunas made sure he found Love and got out to him in the corner after an offensive rebound, another favored Cavs' technique.
They ultimately got the offense going but the defense was another matter. Having seen each other three times in the early season, there’s a definite familiarity, and around midway through the first it clicked in for Toronto. They hit 10 of their next 11 shots, seven of them either at the basket (dunk/layup) or on 3-pointers. Some of it was they were hot. But a lot of it was bad defense.
They didn’t stop penetration opening up drive and dish threes.
Sometimes Kyrie never got in front of Toronto’s talented point guard Kyle Lowry, and nobody helped him…
Or sometimes they just didn’t get back on defense like they should.
It continued into the 3rd quarter when Dion Waiters admired his near-airball (the “nairball”) like David Ortiz does a homer, letting his guy get back ahead of him. He recovers but by then the Raptors are off behind him.
The defense was pretty abysmal at times – due both to a balanced Raptors attack (six guys in double figures) and Lowry playing the Cavs like Cyrano De Bergerac to the tune of 16 points and 14 assists with NO turnovers
The Cavs’ saving grace all night was their offensive efficiency, including committing just 11 turnovers. Here Irving runs consecutive pick and rolls with Varejao that the Raptors are powerless to stop.
LeBron had a fantastic night on offense, scoring 35 and handing out 4 assists. He played more frequently off the ball than he has in any of the recent games becoming more of a scoring focal point, while Kyrie passed and took just 12 shots (for 13 points), while accumulating 10 assists.
For the second game in a row Waiters was an offensive spark plug, scoring 18 on just 10 shots, while Dellavedova played the entire fourth, helping key the team’s defense with his scrappy energy. He twice found Tristan Thompson for alley-oops to open the quarter for two of his five assists.
Delly covered Lowry much of the quarter as the team held him to 1-8 with 2 assists in the quarter. He even drew a foul fighting over an Amir Johnson pick, and his good positioning forced a travel on Patrick Patterson, sparking the team early in the quarter. His intensity was contagious and his scrappy on-ball defense slowed the Toronto offensive sets down, running down in the clock and forcing them into bad shots.
“Delly is a guy that’s always been counted out. He can’t make it, he can’t shoot enough, he’s not fast enough. Not tall enough. Heart and defensive effort will take away a lot of the things you can not do. I ‘ll take a guy like that any day on my team,” says LeBron. “You aren’t always going to be successful but you can never discredit how he goes about the game and how hard he plays. You put him out there for 20 seconds it will be the hardest 20 seconds he ever played, like he’ll never gonna play again.”
LeBron, of course hit the key “3” here.
But we couldn’t go without mentioning the extraordinary job Tristan Thompson did guarding Lowry at a key time, right after LeBron’s shot. This is how you play D on a smaller, faster player, as Thompson continues his emergence as the team’s finest defensive player.
Two more games, both on the road, in this four-in-five set. Tomorrow a nationally televised game against one of the Western Conference elites, the Oklahoma Thunder, and the night after, a game against perhaps the best young player in the league, Anthony Davis. Strap in, it’s gonna be a bumpy and exhilarating ride.