While nobody’s satisfied with the losses to the New Orleans Pelicans last night 119-114 or the loss the night before in Oklahoma Thunder, both showcased an evolving team with some serious issues but also a lot going for it, particularly a spunky, no-quit spirit.
The last two games in particular highlight this half-empty/half-full dynamic that we’re sure to be discussing until the end of the season. All good teams have a tendency to coast at times and the Cavs in particular will play down to the level of the competition when their energy flags.
These lapses in concentration are deadly when you’re facing NBA assassins like Tyreke Evans (31 pts, 10 assists) and three-point marksman Ryan Anderson (30 points, career high 8 triples).
All night long there were miscommunications on cutters and picks, particularly when the ball was centered up. An announcer noted in an earlier game the Cavaliers getting confused as to who the “weak-side” defender was when the pick’s at the top of the key; that’s something the Pelicans seemed to exploit a lot last night.
Below they let one of the least physically-gifted point guards in the league, Jimmy Fredette, easily split their double forcing help from James Jones, who arrives late. (This may be one reason Coach Spoelstra kept the sweet-shooting Jones nailed to the bench in Miami.)
Here the Cavs give their own spin on the immortal Madonna classic “Who’s That Girl?” as they watch Omer Asik go in for a dunk. Almost half (56) their 119 points came in the paint, and that’s responsible for the Pelican’s 55.7% shooting percentage.
If you watched the Cavaliers last year, you’re probably aware that Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving has as much familiarity with NBA-level defense as Donald Trump does with shame. I’m going to say if Kyrie intends to be this accommodating on defense (below) he really needs to go all out and purchase a classy red cape.
Dion is a much more physically gifted player, sort of Sherman to Kyrie’s Mr. Peabody. (Give up kids, you’ll never get it – judging from the box office receipts.) Like a puppy he really wants to succeed but somehow can’t help peeing in your bed. Now a coach will tell you to shadow your defender, but they really mean “mirror” or copy his movements – don’t ollow him around the play like a mopey younger brother.
And finally, there’s the ever-present problem of transition D. It’s really the simplest thing in basketball. When your time on offense is done, turn around, hurry back, stop them from advancing the ball and find your man. Just takes attention. Somehow guys routinely beat the Cavs down court, like their tummy hurts and they ‘really don’t want to go to school today, mom.’ Notice here how Austin Rivers is well in front of three Cavs, but somehow goes by them for an uncontested slam.
Of course, the half full side of the Cavs is their ability to sleepwalk defensively for 39 minutes and suddenly wake up. They perform all kinds of magic, defying gravity and law enforcement only to arrive a couple baskets short of the late bell. Have you seen their type? Gifted underachievers. LeBron knows what I’m talking about.
But man can they turn it on. They can be the league’s most devastating juggernaut – as they were during parts of last night’s fourth quarter when Kyrie finally got going after missing his first nine shots (I documented a 1-10 stretch last night, so we won’t revisit this one), before scoring 17 in the fourth. He led them back from 19 down with 9 minutes left, to within 5 with 54 seconds left, but as was the case all night, they just couldn’t get a stop.
During the entire first half it was the LeBron James and Kevin Love show, as the team’s vets said climb on my back and produced 44 of the team’s 49 points. James finished with 41 points and 5 assists, and Love 21 points and 7 boards, though Coach David Blatt did not put James back in for the final minute after a James Jones 3 closed the lead to five.
Blatt said LeBron had given all he could up to then. (Love played a frightening 43 minutes, Irving, who twisted his knee the night before played 39, and James after sitting with a sore knee played 38. This is another issue that we are going to be talking about.
Without a strong bench – or more importantly, David Blatt’s concident in it, this team is going to be in trouble. Dion Waiters left after the first half with some kind of abdominal issue and was in the hospital overnight. Dellavedova was 0-5 a night after playing 34 minutes in James’ absence and looked gassed all night.
Rookie SG Joe Harris made it off the pine for some extended time in the fourth and played well, while Jones, for his defensively deficiencies (like calling Jong-un a little unbalanced) did stroke another couple triples. It’s a role he excels at. But the team needs more. Marion was repeatedly abused off the dribble and just doesn’t look able to cover 2s at the age of 36. Ray Allen has reportedly narrowed his choices to San Antonio, Washington, Chicago, Cleveland, and Golden State.
The team’s still looking for better transition and dribble penetration defense, but given the personnel, that ain’t coming soon. They have become much more efficient on offense. After 11 turnovers the night before they made on six last night, which is a very positive development, though there’s cause to worry that initiating and running some much off the offense through LeBron is compromising his defensive energy.
However Kevin Love shows increasing ability to take over a game in brief 6-8 point spurts. As he continues to find his opportunities on the offense it will take some weight off James, but the minutes all the Big Three are playing is unsustainable. Expect reinforcements before the year’s out.
Sometime this week the restriction on trading guys signed in the off-season as free-agents lifts and there will likely some movement. It would be more surprising if there wasn’t a nice gift in the Cavs rotation by their Christmas game in Miami, then if there was.
This five-game homestand’s a great opportunity to “get well” and part of that is going to be finding a starting guard so Marion can play off the bench. I’m betting he comes, though you have to wonder if Golden State with their wide open style might appeal to him.
With 22 games under their belt and some home cooking coming, it’d be nice to see the Cavs climb from their 5th slot in the Eastern Conference, over the Bulls and Wizards to a more rightful spot among the Conference elite.
Look out for the games Wednesday and Sunday against the second-best teams in the Eastern and Western Conference, respectively, the Atlanta Hawks (16-6) and Memphis Grizzlies (18-4). The other adversaries (Charlotte, Brooklyn, Minnesota) pose significantly less challenge.