Mike Miller sent Coach David Blatt a thank you note last night for giving him the starting SG nod: Seven three-pointers. He was the Lone Ranger on a night when the Big Three went a collective 14-46 from the field. It was Miller’s first night back from a concussion suffered just over two weeks ago versus the Knicks.
The great thing about Miller is you don’t really have to do too much to get him open. Just plant him on one side. They threw it to him strong-side (the Kyrie-assisted third one), from the weak side (LeBron dribbling to the right just enough to suck Miller’s man Karasev into the lane giving Miller more room), and the first one was just him going from one side of the floor to the other while his man Joe Johnson momentarily becomes distracted by the ball for long enough for Miller to get his feet set, catch LeBron’s pass and launch.
Miller’s long-distance marksmanship helped tremendously, balancing the rest of the team’s difficulty shooting. They played more energetic defense than they did on Wednesday against the Hawks, though only a pulse would be necessary for that. It didn’t happen at first. The Nets shot 67% (14-21) in the first quarter, and we saw the same familiar issues – unchallenged penetration as well as poor interior and transition defense.
The second team came out with a little spunk and tied the score at 35. Then trailing 45-39, the starters put together a terrific five minute stretch during which they outscored the Nets 15-4 to take their first lead of the night and a 59-54 halftime lead. The stretch coincided with the Nets starting point guard Deron Williams leaving the game with a right calf strain from which he did not return.
Miller’s presence opened the floor. Here, about 90 seconds after hitting Miller for a three, his man, Karasev must hang closer leaving room for Kyrie to drive off his pick and roll with Anderson Varejao, ultimately drawing a foul.
Both teams came out playing with energy in the third and it was back and forth all quarter. The offense was completely out-of-sync, however. Nobody finished, and for the quarter they shot 7 for 21. Kevin Love in particular was 0-6 on his way to 1-10 for the night. Six minutes in, two Miller 3s were all the offense the Cavs had, allowing the Nets to take a 61-60 lead. The only thing keeping them in it was Miller and their Tenacious D.
It was a three-point game when the fourth quarter began and the bench held the line. Marion got a couple nice baskets on a post up and a floater providing just the kind of spark Blatt was looking for.
Dellavedova made a beautiful fake on a drive for a layup with the clock running down, and then came up with a steal on defense the very next play.
When LeBron came back, in the lead was five. LeBron scored the team’s next seven points (sandwiched around two of his turnovers). Then with the lead at four and the clock at 90 seconds, he inexplicably held the ball for 18 seconds — without dribbling or passing – finally shooting a contested three. Luckily the Nets didn’t score the next time down and Irving came back down and iced it with this very nice drive for a 94-88 lead with 45 seconds left.
Miller’s insertion into the starting lineup sure looks good in this light. Blatt had been hinting at changes to the starting lineup as far back as when Miller first got injured. For a time Joe Harris seemed like a candidate, but he disappeared down the rookie rabbit hole (last night’s “DNP-Coach’s Decision” was his third this month).
The move is really two-pronged. The first part is Marion moving to the bench where he can spark an often lackluster defensive unit like he did the first-team when he first joined. It allows Marion to spend more time matched up on small and power forwards rather than guards where his age shows against quicker, smaller players, exacerbating the Cavs’ chronic penetration issues.
The other hope is that by starting Miller, he maybe finds it easier to get in a rhythm. Prior to last night Miller was shooting 30% from the field and 25% from three. Last night he went 7-8 having not played a minute in 15 days.
Of course, the other thing, to which Miller alluded in his post-game interview, is that when you’re out there with great players like LeBron, Irving and Love, the opportunities are there, and they will find you.
That’s less likely to happen on the second squad because it features Dion Waiters, whose tunnel visions borders on blindness. Here Delly points to the uber-hot Miller (who’d hit 4 threes to that point) waving his hand, wide open. Undeterred, Waiters heaves himself at the basket for the bucket and one.
That Dion. He’s trick-and-treat rolled into one. Get a good look at him, because we appeared to have entered a new phase in the Waiters saga. This present-and-future (seemingly) one-dimensional scoring machine played but six minutes last night, none of them in the second half.
Miller seemed to take his third quarter minutes and Blatt started James Jones with Matthew Dellavedova, Kyrie Irving, Marion and Tristan Thompson to open the fourth.
Asked after the game, Blatt called the lineup “going with his gut.” But that ignores the prior 30 games (counting preseason) which has seen Blatt praising, cajoling and wheedling Waiters into some attentive play, like a sympathetic parent who finally decides their kid needs to spend the night in jail.
Will it work? Stay tuned, because trading season’s in full swing. Corey Brewer, who the Cavs had been interested in, was moved by the Wolves to the Rockets in a three-team trade that netted them 6-6 combo guard Alexey Shved, whom Blatt coached on the 2012 Russian Olympic squad.
That took two players off the table, but in the other trade yesterday, the Celtics sent Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks for Brandan Wright, a 6-10 big man on an expiring contract. He’s making $5 million – which means he’d fit in the Keith Bogans trade exemption slot.
Wright is a tremendous pick-and-roll offensive player, which would work very well with LeBron and Kyrie. He’s #6 in the NBA in PER (which attempts to measure total per minute contributions) while only playing 18.7 minutes and he’s shooting a ridiculous 75% from the field (mostly alley-oops).
He’s also averaging 1.6 blocks a game; Tristan Thompson leads the team with .9/game. He’s not a true rim-protector, but about as close as you’re likely to get given the premium on big men. (Though one can still hold out hope for the Bucks’ John Henson.)
Waiters is the team’s most attractive piece, and yet his strengths don’t match the team’s weaknesses, and probably never will. With Blatt’s patience and confidence in Waiters at its lowest ebb, it’s reasonable to wonder how many more chances Dion gets before the team cuts bait and trades him to a non-playoff team where Waiters can score unimpeded without worrying what impact his defensive indifference might have on the team. My gut says he’s gone before the team’s 6-game/9-day West Coast road trip beginning January 9.
Sunday’s a big test as they play the Memphis Grizzlies, Miller’s team last year. The Grizzlie have the second best record in the NBA and the best inside offense in the league. That should pose special problems for the Cavaliers, as will speedy guard Mike Conley, who may be as good as Kyrie Irving, when you consider the whole package.
I will be live tweeting from the game Sunday afternoon, and as I’ve noted, I am the ONLY Cavaliers beat reporter to tweet live video from the game. So if you’re tailgating after the Browns game but want to keep tabs on the game and SEE what’s happening, follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne.