It’s a new season with fresh starts and some fresh faces but the same old expectations. Indeed, after the Cavaliers' somewhat improbably short-handed title run you might even suggest the expectations are higher. Yet despite this, the Cavaliers come out of their 97-95 loss to the Bulls feeling pretty good.
They came out flat and fell behind nine, 26-17, after the first, then outscored the Bulls every quarter after. It often wasn’t pretty, as they shot 8-27 (30%). While the Cavaliers played with greater pace than we’ve seen them play before, nothing was all that crisp.
To their credit, the Bulls were no pushovers defensively — which wasn’t a given, thanks to the departure of Tom Thibodeau in favor of ex-player/college coach Fred Hoiberg. Mirotic in particular looked quick, and though Gasol got beaten numerous times in pick and roll plays – especially in the fourth quarter (Joachim Noah left with an injury) – Gasol made the one he needed to, stopping LeBron James with the last of 6 blocks.
Yet unlike last year’s start which proceeded like an AA meeting, everyone just introducing one another and their deal, that’s all done. The team moved the ball and ran the offense most of the night, accumulating 26 assists against just 11 turnovers. Everyone but Joe Harris and Sasha Kaun got a taste.
Both on offense and defense there was lots of discontinuity. The fact that the team was able to rally back from an 11-point third quarter deficit and tie it early in the fourth quarter makes up for a lot of those issues.
Even with 2:42 left when the Cavs fell behind 93-85 on a Rose step-back, they didn’t back down. It was part of an 11-2 run fueled by 3 foul calls and a technical foul call when J.R. Smith briefly lost his cool after a ticky-tack foul on a switch that put him on the much taller Mirotic. (Dellavedova played the rest of the way, a message to Smith, who acknowledged after the game his need to keep his emotions in check.)
While the fouls wound up essentially even, the Bulls shot six more free throws and more often found themselves in the gift line. They didn’t let bad calls affect their focus. James proceeded to assist on a Matthew Dellavedova finger roll, and two Kevin Love threes to pull within 2, 97-95, with 10 seconds left. Note what I said – James assisted on those last three scores.
Denial alert: James is not himself yet, and his back is a concern. He’s been seen stretching it on the sidelines. However, we also remember that James started last season without any explosion, and it really took until his two weeks off in December to fix.
One theory is that he pushes himself so hard during his personal off-season training that he doesn’t give his body enough off-season break. Doubly-so this season when James did three-a-days with his trainer in prep for the season. NBA guys complain about the one week of two-a-days and how hard that is. That’s like an ice cream party to James.
Of course, that’s why David Griffin expressed that he was “really really disappointed that we didn’t do a better job as an organization of keeping him from doing three-a-days this offseason.” Notice where none of the blame goes?
James’ intensity is to be commended, but he has to be smarter – which is where that last three minutes is instructive. The plays he made for others brought them back, but when he tried to make a play for himself he was blocked.
Like last year, James’ physical limitations have made their first appearances and James is starting to adjust and attempt to dominate the ball and play less frequently when the game is on the line. Jordan made the same adjustment as his career advanced, opening the door for Pippen to take a larger role. With Irving injured that could be Love, who had a hard time inside. Love was 2-9 in lane – where he was blocked four times – and 4-8 outside it (including 3-7 from three).
Richard Jefferson, who is looking like not only a go-to quote, but the best bench scorer on the team (10pt, 4-7 FG, 2-4 3P), noted that because of the preseason schedule, the team hadn’t seen action in a week, adding to the rust and step-slow-ness.
“I think that’s why after the first quarter we started to get into more of a rhythm,” he said. “[The choppiness] was all over, just like every team in this league I feel you can improve as the season goes on and you want to improve… [but] we had a chance to win it on the road after not playing well.”
That’s it in a nutshell and as Love suggested a few minutes later, it’s something that’s easily put behind them with Memphis on the docket tonight.
People haven’t realized yet, but the difference between in talent the conferences has begun to equalize and the Eastern Conference will be tougher top-to-bottom. (See my preview here.) Not that it should bother the Cavs, who have more talent than anyone in the conference.
The only problem is much of it still hasn’t hit the court, and that which has is hamstrung for the moment by their lack of familiarity. With he injuries working into shape, lack of practice time and familiarity with each other, it will take them for this team to perform consistently at a high level in the early going. But as this game demonstrates even 24-30 minutes of tight focused basketball can be enough to pull one out given the talent.
An early issue that we expect to be harping on a lot is guard penetration. The second half of last season Kyrie turned up his defensive intensity, but that also was the same time Mozgov arrived, making it easier for Irving to stomach mistakes with a big eraser behind him. But with Mozgov still struggling with is knee after surgery and looking a step slow, that option isn’t there so much. Mozgov only played 21 minutes.
Whether Mozgov’s knee, somewhat limited playing time or defensive matador Mo Williams was more responsible, we can’t tell you, but somehow Derrick Rose took 15 shots (of 22) in the lane last night, the most or second-most in his career. (Ups to ESPN’s Sportscenter for the stat.)
Neither Dellavedova nor Williams looked capable of staying in front of him or even Aaron Brooks, who beat Delly several times. It was préja vu – the first time you feel something you can tell you’re going to have the sense you experienced before. That said, the Cavs wound up crushing the Bulls in the paint 42-28, evidence of the team’s unwillingness to settle for jumpers – which we hope holds.
That extends to J.R. Smith in particular. Watching him in the finals against Golden State, there was the impression that whatever dribble move he made, he was going to come back through his legs to his right for the step-back. It was so predictable, Iguodala (rather incredibly) blocked it. So it’s like you can almost see the gears working this off-season (under LeBron’s tutelage) when Smith comes back and goes repeatedly to the bucket.
Smith is finishing very nicely against challenges, something that seemed beyond his skill last year. That will really help in those situations where Smith is called on to create his own shot, or when teams overplay his catch & shoot, closing out their rotation very hard, doubting he’d put it on the deck.
LeBron filled the boxscore with 25 points, 10 boards and 5 assists against only one turnover. That’s low turnover number is because James dominating the ball much less than last year and – at least for last night – not forcing anything, letting the game come to him and flow to his teammates.
Anderson Varejao got some game action, though he only played 11 minutes despite being +9 when he was in there and bringing the same energy you felt when he entered preseason games. The limited minutes despite his success is an indication Blatt knows better than to play him too hard, especially with a back-to-back looming. Similarly, James only played 36 minutes.
It will be interesting to see if Blatt keeps it up. Last season he began the year overplaying his starters. He was trying to get a rhythm with three new stars who’d never played together. However in hindsight it may be he was subconsciously behaving as if the season were European length – about half the number of games the NBA plays. More aware of the grind, perhaps he’s become that much more cautious.
With Mozgov still only about 75% and Wild Thing on a minutes restriction, rusty ex-holdout Tristan Thompson got the majority of the “5” minutes. He was okay, going 1-4 from the field and grabbing 12 rebounds, 2 offensive. As always he brought a lot of energy.
Mo Williams is definitely a defensive liability but on the positive side he’s also a fine offensive point guard. Not only was he 7-15, with 3 treys for 19 points, but also had 7 assists, two secondary assists (pass before pass that created basket) and two feeds to guys that were fouled. When he can feast primarily on second-string point guards, both his offensive and defense will look better.
In the end, it really is a new season and that brings new attitudes. Even one of last year’s leading excuse-shamers, Akron Beason Journal’s Jason Lloyd, whose postgame notes columns are often great reads, gave David Blatt leeway last night suggesting the Cavaliers Coach was “hesitant... of making excuses.”
That’s something Blatt was never accused of last year (fairly or not), so it really must be a new day.
Chris Parker covers the Cavaliers for the Scene and Jerusalem Post. His columns appear the day after any Cavs game. You can read him here and follow him on Twitter @CRS_1ne.