The first game of the post-Anderson Varejao season didn’t go very well, with the Cavs losing to the Heat 101-91 in a game Miami led most of the way. The Cavaliers played their now typical uninspired first half defense, then tried to turn it on that last quarter and a half, only to find their usually steady offensive touch abandon them.
The Cavs allowed the Heat to shoot 57% in the first half and score 62 points. Part of it was undoubtedly the loss of energetic center Anderson Varejao to a torn Achilles tendon on Tuesday.
Rather than start Tristan Thompson, as many assumed Coach David Blatt would, Marion started and Love played at center, something he doesn’t like — when we asked Love about the possibility of playing center after Tuesday’s game, he brushed right past the idea to talk about how great Thompson is and how this is an opportunity for him. Guess Coach Blatt didn’t feel that way.
Odds are it won’t persist. Love is a terrible interior defender, the near definition of a stretch four. So far this year opponents are shooting 60% at the rim against Love, the fifth worst rate among big men, just ahead of Ryan Anderson, Nikola Mirotic, Reggie Evans and Tiago Splitter. Last year the only worse bigs were Tristan Thompson and Thaddeus Young. You wonder why the Cavs had trouble with penetration? It’s not all the Kyrie and Dion’s fault.
Of course, there’s plenty of blame beyond Love to go around in a game where the Cavs were outscored 44-28 in the paint. They let Dwyane Wade go off for 19 points of his 24 first half points. (He was a non-factor the rest of the way going 2-12, 7pts.) The Cavs played typically uninspired defense in the first half. It was all the things we’ve come to expect from the 25th team in the league in defensive field goal percentage. (Miami’s worse, and the other bottom-dwellers include the Timberwolves, Lakers, Pelican and Jazz.)
There was bad transition defense, which is really really sad. Among the first things they teach you in basketball is to stop the ball on the break. But the Cavs often simultaneously decide it’s the other guy’s problem, allowing successful 2-on-4 breaks like this.
There were guys watching the ball and drifting too far from their man at the three-point line to effectively recover when the penetrating ballhandler kicks it back out.
Sometimes they just failed to pick a guy up, looking more like pickup basketball defense than something professionals do.
The team tried to play some zone defense to try and protect the basket better and not expose Love so much defensively. However he kept getting lured out of position on match-up zone mismatches that the Heat exploited.
Sometimes it was just a matter of guys – like LeBron, though he’s not nearly the only culprit – losing track of their man and giving Miami open three-pointers, as they do in giving Chalmers one of his two baskets on the night.
The team came out playing a lot better defense in the second half, and held Miami to 15 third quarter points. But after an initial outburst, the Heat answered and pushed the lead to 9 when LeBron went out after leaping a row of seats behind the basket chasing an errant Love full-court pass.
While LeBron was out, the team moved the ball and drew to within 2 before ending the third quarter trailing 77-74. LeBron came back to the bench during the third quarter run and helped lead the team back to tie the game with ten minutes left on this beautiful Kyrie Irving drive.
Then came a crucial exchange with the Cavs trailing 84-82. Kyrie Irving dished to Tristan Thompson off penetration but Thompson’s dunk attempt was stuffed by Chris “Birdman” Andersen. Chalmers went back the other way, Waiters racing behind and blocking him at the rim. However Norris Cole beats Kevin Love to the ball (looks like a push) then finds a cutting Deng for a dunk, turning what could’ve been a tie game into a 4-point deficit.
The Cavs would twice get to within 3 (81-84, 87-90), but couldn’t close the deal. They finished the game shooting 44%, including an unsightly 6-26 from three. They also missed more than a third of their 33 free throws. (Miami was 14-17 from the line.) The Cavs were outrebounded 43-37, including allowing 12 offensive rebounds. The Cavs finished with 16 assists on 32 baskets while the Heat had a more respectable 27-40 rate.
The Cavs offense was a little uneven, particularly in the second half when they missed nine straight shots in one stretch. LeBron didn’t pull any punches speaking to reporters after that game.
“We’re not that good right now,” he said. “We’ve won some really good games, we’ve lost some games, but we’re not that good right now. Once we get there, we’ll see what we’re about.”
After the game Blatt implied that Love at center was a one-game experiment. Whether that means Thompson starts tonight in Orlando against the Magic, or perhaps even seven-foot pine jockey Brendan Haywood, who might be a good fit against the Magic’s big center Nicola Vucevic, remains to be seen.
The only positive is that Blatt’s not eager to repeat the same mistakes again. One wonders if the team continues to look so overmatched down low, if that will impact GM David Griffin’s search for a replacement.
Rumors came out last night that the team wanted to take their time and consider their options. They are in the midst of three-games-in-four-nights, so nothing immediate is likely, but the Cavaliers are the fifth seed at this point — behind Toronto, Atlanta, Washington and Chicago, in that order. They would probably like to move up to get some home court advantage – something that's easier done if the Cavs don’t punt a whole bunch of post-Wild Thing games in December and early January deciding what to do.
The Cavaliers have a five-game West Coast road trip in mid-January, I’d expect something around then if not before. In the meantime they’re facing an Orlando team that had lost 6 of 7 before beating the Celtics on Tuesday. Those two days rest and home court advantage will place an added weight on the Cavs.
Orlando’s only 13-20, but under the circumstances – the Cavs’ second game in two nights & the Magic’s size up front – this game will be a real challenge for the Cavs.
Look for my live tweets during tonight’s game, which include video unlike any other Cavaliers beat reporter. Follow me @CRS_1ne
and read me here in the late morning after every game.