The Cavs lost on New Year’s Eve last night to the Bucks 96-80, and in some ways it wasn’t much to see. There was a lot more talent on the bench than the floor including Shawn Marion (ankle), Kevin Love (back spasms), LeBron James (sore knee), and of course, Anderson Varejao, out with season-ending Achilles tendon surgery.
It was particularly unsightly on the offensive end where the Cavaliers shot 34% from the field and endured a 3-19 third quarter. You’d have thought the Commodores were in town the way Kyrie Irving and company laid the foundation for a fine brick house. But as ugly as it was offensively (think Kevin James naked), it was really freaking refreshing to see guys in Cavaliers uniforms flying around on defense.
They weren’t always very coordinated, but the intensity and energy that’s been missing was here among the un-entitleds, our very mortal bench dwellers. A couple days after playing his best defensive game (2 blocks, 2 steals) since the sophomore season of his 11-year career, Jones again looked active along with A.J. Price, who was cut before hooking on with the Pacers for a couple weeks (averaging 10.5 pts, 2.7 assists and shooting 39% from 3 in 19 mpg) before returning to the Cavs.
The team’s in-house rim protector and long-running DNP Brendan Haywood got the start next to Tristan Thompson with Love still ailing. Haywood has been an effective reserve big man, playing alongside Marion in Dallas among other locales. He’s not really a pick and roll player, but he’s got a little post game and showed it last night, getting a couple baskets, five boards and a couple blocks in his 15 minutes – hopefully enough to extricate him from the pine for at least a handful of minutes each night.
They came out rough, but after allowing the first 7, points put together their own 11-2 run keyed by good ball movement. Sadly that came to a crashing end when Dion Waiters came into the game.
Now as anyone who’s read me knows, I am not Dion’s biggest fan. He’s an astounding combo guard able to handle the point and beat people off the bounce with skill that recalls Kyrie Irving. However, we don’t need a poor man’s Kyrie, especially if that means he’s even worse at defense. It’s not even that Dion doesn’t try, he probably tries harder than Kyrie, but he’s just not real attentive, a sort of must on defense.
Because he is so exciting offensively, Dion gets a pass, but he just boggles my mind with his play such that I wonder if when he closes his eyes the world disappears. Of course most basketball fans don’t watch defenses anywhere as intently as they do offense, so they probably didn’t notice when the Bucks put four straight 3s in Dion’s mug during the three minutes he was on the floor without Kyrie. (This horror should be kept from the eyes of young children.)
How does a player allow himself to be scorched for four threes and introduce a 12-pt gap in a heretofore close game? Let me count the ways. First, you crowd with three other Cavs under the basket, neglecting your sole responsibility, the guy waiting to drop a 3 in your head. Then you crowd next to two other Cavs standing in the lane to stop penetration, while your man stands at the 3-line. Oops, I did it again.
On the third, Dion comes over to help James Jones who clearly has his man blanketed, leaving his man a wide open three. Please pay it forward Jared Dudley. By the fourth time it happen,s I started worrying that Coach David Blatt might own a gun. Of course, the fourth time was the least of Dion’s fault as the Bucks used a blatant moving screen – but Dion shows nowhere near the savvy getting around picks he does getting around defenders when the ball’s in his hands, a question of effort and focus he shares with Kyrie.
This comes the one night after he fouled a three-point shooter on a corner three. This neglects to mention the overly aggressive drives and bad passing. Now, obviously Dion is what he is – an explosive scorer reminiscent of Vinnie Johnson but better off the bounce, or present day bench spark plugs/remorseless chuckers like the Raptors’ Lou Williams or Nate Robinson. Like both, Waiters has some point guard skills but they’re often overshadowed by a willingness to shoot that recalls the case of Amadou Diallo. (You expected a more contemporary reference?)
Maybe Dion can become a better defender and reign in his crazier freelance skills and aggrieved nature – for the good of the team and their collective defensive psyche — or failure to get back in transition, which is a fork in the eye of everyone else’s effort.
Obviously everyone needs to be doing some growing. In that spirit, I have New Year’s wishes for everyone on the Cavs.
LeBron James: Please give LeBron the patience to withstand the ugly play, the drama-hungry narratives of bored beat writers, and the weight of being the sole example of how to play, when just five years ago you were where Kyrie and company are today. With that patience may he continue to defer to his teammates (until necessary) that they might learn to do themselves rather than lean on LeBron to do everything. (In this way he’s very different from control-freak MJ.)
Kyrie Irving: Let all his articulate words and creative finishes somehow translate to a similar defensive savviness. While he’ll never be the kind of back alley shiv Gary Payton was, certainly Irving has the competiveness and physical ability to not hit picks like whales hit beaches.
Kevin Love: May Love’s willingness to do the work, put his head down and be the third option not be rewarded with questions about his abilities or greater focus on his self-admitted shortcomings (spoiler alert: defense) continue, as the greatest sacrifices are those fully embraced without ever being sure that they will reap the desired fruit.
Shawn Marion: Yoga, acupuncture, herbal tea, massage, copper-fit and/or reiki – anything that will allow him to make it through the regular season and playoffs unscathed. He’s arguably the team’s most unsung and important contributor. He doesn’t need touches or attention but he brings great energy and defensive presence whether starting or off the bench, whoever he’s guarding. His versatility affords Coach David Blatt more lineup options.
Tristan Thompson: Arguably the most improved player on the team, he’s advanced by learning to stay within himself. That’d be my wish for him in the year to come, to continue to build on this reserve and self-knowledge. He seems to understand having the ball in the low post is not a reason to shoot the ball, unless you can dunk it from where you stand. He’s developing a sixth sense on the pick and roll with Kyrie Irving reminiscent of LeBron & Varejao.
Matthew Dellevadova: May he actually try to shoot the ball and have it reach the basket the next time he leaves the floor around the lane. Delly has a nasty habit of leaving his feet without knowing what he wants to do with it. His defensive shortcoming (speed, size) won’t be changed by anything short of divine intervention and he covers those with effort.
Mike Miller: For the guy who has always been challenged on his willingness to shoot the ball, a renewed selfishness in the twilight of his career. Miller’s such a great passer and glue person who knows how to defer to others, but sometimes the elders have to demonstrate.
James Jones: May this eleven year vet continue to be a dangerous 3-pt weapon and surprisingly good defender making good use of his long, spider-like arms as he has in his last couple appearances, after showing very little of that moxie in prior (admittedly more limited) minutes.
Joe Harris: May he get the time to earn a chance. This second round pick is a coach’s son and knows how to play, giving one confidence that as he learns how to play NBA ball he can be relied on to make a big play down the stretch form off the bench.
Brendan Haywood: May he continue to show Coach Blatt enough to get time at the edges of the rotation, since his emergence could be key for the team. Last year’s foot injury which robbed Haywood of an entire season will require playing time to get back the timing and patience on Blatt’s part for not-the-most-fluid of offensive players, but an admitted force at the rim.
AJ Price: May this hidden bench gem get a chance to show what he can do and perhaps relieve Dion of some of his ballhandling (see, ball-stop) responsibilities, that Dion might concentrate solely on what he does well. Price showed some 3-pt ability and looks like more of an offensive threat at the point than Dellevadova.
Dion Waiters: May his immaturity give way to greater wisdom, even if that only means he won’t hop up and down and wave his hands trying to get the ball onh offense like he’s trying to get a bartender’s attention on NYE. But perhaps it would mean passing the ball on drives more frequently, and not playing defense like a turnstile.
Coach David Baltt: May he continue to hold the attention of his team, contrary to recent pontificates of headline-hungry media conspiracy theorists (you know who you are), and show the fortitude to withstand the second guessing of the press equivalent of the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf, while remaining true to the precepts that brought him here after decades of success in Europe. And if I could get a second wish, it’d be that he could somehow find the key to instill the same defensive intensity he gets in spurts (usually the first and last quarter) from his team on a more continuous basis.
GM David Griffin: PLEASE bring us another big man. Pretty please with sugar on top. And the sooner, the better, because it’s already a headache getting the personnel we have on the same page, the longer they have together the quicker the gel, and at the moment it’s hardly Dr. Scholls in the locker room. Also one more bench scorer would be sweet, 3 point range a must.
Long suffering Cleveland fans: May the new year bring us our first taste of the playoffs since LeBron left town four years and change ago. That’s the easy part. Advancing in the playoffs is the real ask, but if we can get to the Esatern Conference finals in the first year of The Prodigal’s Return®, that will be an accomplishment.
It’s a busy holiday season. The Cavaliers are in Charlotte for a welcome break, as the Hornets just lost their centerpiece Al Jefferson to injury and if a Cavaliers team should lose to a Lance Stephenson-led team, LeBron might just permanently deactivate Chill Mode. (So yeah, I could see where it could be a good thing.)
That’s followed by a day game at the Q against the Dallas Mavericks in their only home appearance all season. Don’t be surprised to see Love and LeBron back for that game but not Friday’s game against the bottom-dwelling Hornets.