The Cavaliers gutted out a 106-90 road victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday night by climbing aboard the broad shoulders of LeBron James.
Playing their fourth game in five nights, many of the Cavaliers starters were dragging a bit, with the exception of LeBron. On a night when Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and JR Smith put together a collective 12-37, James bided his time before single-handedly outscoring the Timberwolves 16-11 in the fourth quarter, en route to 36 points in sum.
That’s probably the hardest thing about being someone for whom it all comes so easily. If it comes so easily to you, why not do it all? The Oklahoma City Thunder sort of take that approach with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, whom they basically surround with low- and non-scoring role players.
But LeBron James has been as inspired by Magic Johnson as Michael Jordan. James will defer, which in a team sport like basketball is everything, because many players’ defensive spirits sag if they don’t touch the ball on offense. You don’t get to the NBA without an ego because the road features many years as the biggest fish in the pond. Yet when he decides to turn it on, the talent’s blinding as klieg lights.
The funny thing was you could actually see the changing attitude in his demeanor. The ultimate change came with about 10 minutes left, after a phantom foul call on Shawn Marion when replays clearly showed the ball just popped out of Wolves center Gorgui Dieng’s hands. LeBron complained rather bitterly about the call, shook his head vigorously, walked away and then took over the game for the next six minutes.
LeBron made his next five shots, two of them threes, and three of his next four free throws, scoring 15 points during a 20-6 run that gave the Cavs a nine-point lead with four minutes left. It was something to see. Even the other plays – a Delly 3 and some Thompson free throws – were enabled by James' passes.
The team shot 10 free throws in the fourth quarter after shooting nine the prior three. This was emblematic of a team that settled far too often for jump shots on offense. Needless to say they weren’t falling.
Meanwhile the defense they’d shown during the prior nine games of their win streak was noticeably absent. Even James was victimized by watching the ball instead of his man. (He was far from the only culprit, I just like to troll the haters.)
The team had particular trouble with their (briefly) former teammate, this year’s top draft choice, Andrew Wiggins. The last time the Wolves faced us in Cleveland on Dec. 23, Wiggins went for 27. Saturday’s performance made that look like Vince Vaughn’s Anthony Perkins turn in the Psycho
Wiggins had a career-high 33, hitting 14 of 25 from the field (including 3 of 4 from distance) and making four steals, while committing but one turnover. He had 23 in the first half and another 8 in the third, but the Cavs held him to 2 points in the fourth, his only hoop coming when he backdoored LeBron (see photo).
Everyone helped, including Tristan Thompson, whose energy keyed the team in the second half. He finished the game with an uncharacteristic four blocks (he’s averaging less than one per game for the season) to go with 13 rebounds, four of them offensive. He blocked the much bigger Pekovic as well as the driving Wiggins in two terrific on-ball blocks.
Thompson took over for center Timofey Mozgov when the big Russian picked up his fourth foul just three minutes into the third quarter. Tristan ran the rest of the way. His legs seemed fresh, and his energy gave the team a lift.
That shouldn’t diminish T-Mo’s first half play. He did a good job on the Wolves’ huge Yugoslavian, Nikola Pekovic, and looked very smooth offensively. He got eight (of his fourteen) points on five first quarter shots, including these nice shots.
Though he didn’t have a great offensive game, Kevin Love gave what he could. He was 6-14 from the field but only 1-5 from distance, and 1-4 at the line. However he had 17 rebounds (nine in the first quarter alone) and six offensive boards, often keeping possessions alive (along with Tristan Thompson) or getting an easy bucket as he does here.
The team played tough defense in the final quarter – and that’s it. The held the Wolves to 11 points on 16% shooting (3-19), and forced 4 turnovers. In the prior three quarters the Wolves were shooting 49% and made 8 turnovers.
Obviously the Cavaliers can’t expect to win games playing only one-quarter of serious defense or to have LeBron bail them out on a nightly basis. But it was good enough for Saturday night — and with only one game the next four days, there’s plenty of time to rest up for Thursday night’s big home match-up with the Los Angeles Clippers.
We’re going to mark a lot of it down to fatigue. The team’s had one of the toughest schedules in the entire East so far this season, so a little of that is understandable – and they didn’t let it compromise the final outcome as they would’ve earlier in the season.
Four of the next five are at home so this is a great time for the team to build a good head of steam prior to the all-star break in just less than two weeks. Let’s hope they put the appropriate hurting on the 76ers at the Q on Monday in payback for their defeat of our boys in Philly early last month, the night Dion was traded.
I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game Monday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and read my game analysis Tuesday in the Cleveland Scene blog.