Let’s get this out of the way first. The Memphis Grizzlies are not a good basketball team. Since trading Pau Gasol for spare parts and change, the Grizzlies are 1-10. Tonight they played without scorer Mike Miller. This would be another team that the 8-man Cavaliers might have beaten.
That being said, this was a nice opportunity for the Cavs to get to know each other. And it didn’t take long for them to get acquainted, as Cleveland jumped out to an early lead and never looked back. The end result was 109-89 Cavaliers.
Everyone got into the act, as 6 Cavs (James, Ilgauskas, Wallace, Damon Jones, Szczerbiak and Smith) reached double figures in points, and Devin Brown came close with 9. The team was unselfish nearly to a fault, occasionally passing up a decent shot to make an additional pass. The result was 27 assists, but also 19 turnovers. Certainly many of those turnovers were a direct result of not being familiar with each other. Ironically the Cavs lost several rebounds that way as well, as new teammates had to feel out where the other would take position. Even so the Cavs out-rebounded Memphis 46-33.
So what did the Cavs show that fans can get excited about?
1. Much better play at the point. For all the talk that Delonte West isn’t a natural point guard he sure looked comfortable. What might have been the biggest surprise of the night was the tempo that West created early in the game. The Cavaliers pushed the ball hard off of turnovers. West proved on at least two breaks that he can get out in the open floor and keep up with LeBron. That tandem will be lethal off steals and long rebounds. Here’s hoping Mike Brown continues to let them push the tempo whenever possible. Delonte also brings it on the defensive end of the court. Speaking of that…
2. Defensive intensity. Certainly the team was energized by playing their first game together, and some of this defensive pressure disappeared in the third quarter, but when they were focused they were outstanding. Nobody plays 48 minutes of absolute in your face defense, but for moments when the Cavaliers need stops this team should be able to step up and get them.
3. Rebounding. This team is a rebounding juggernaut. There isn’t a team in the league that should win the rebounding edge on the Cavs. When Varejao comes back? Unreal. 3 of the top 20 offensive rebounders in the league now wear the wine and gold.
4. LeBron doesn’t have to do it all. His stat line looked very similar, 25 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds. What doesn’t show on the stat sheet is the ease at which he seemed to reach those numbers tonight. When LeBron leaves the floor you might not sit on the edge of your seat counting the seconds until he comes back in. There are legit scoring options on this team.
5. Depth. Dan Gilbert might have said it best. When healthy this team runs 11 deep. Not that all 11 guys are all-stars, but they are solid contributors, and when 1 guy isn’t having a good night there should be someone who is. Against Memphis Damon Jones got hot from deep, and the Cavs rode his streak. Joe Smith came in and contributed 9 points in the second quarter. Ben Wallace got many of his points off dunks when the defense ran to double other players. This team is much more difficult to double than the previous squad. West wasn’t hitting many shots, and Wally took a while to get going but the Cavs were able to utilize other options.
What might be reason for concern?
1. Wally Szczerbiak’s defensive reputation is earned. He struggled to keep up with the much more athletic guards from Memphis.
2. Spacing. There were many times that the Cavs seemed to bunch up in the middle. Obviously this is correctable, but if the tendency is for three guys to gravitate to the same spot, there could be back door issues.
3. Are there enough minutes? Keeping sharp is important for guys like Szczerbiak, Damon Jones, Daniel Gibson and even Joe Smith. Damon has demonstrated his shooting is better when he gets enough touches. Will he find the time he needs to stay hot?
4. Chemistry. The first game had a very feel-good type of vibe. What happens in three weeks? In the third quarter with 5:00 minutes left, when LeBron had only 14 points the thought passed through my mind- this trade could cost LeBron the scoring title. Now a fan of the team says so what, wins are more important. Coaches will say that doesn’t matter to a player like LeBron. James himself will say the right things. But LeBron pays pretty close attention to the stats during a game. Will he insist on scoring 30 a night? Will that be ok with the rest of the team? You would certainly hope so. Will these guys who are used to playing 30+ minutes a game be satisfied with 24 or 25?
Next up for the new-look Cavs are the Milwaukee Bucks. This should provide a better test as Milwaukee has two decent post players and Michael Redd. Then it’s off to Boston for a test that might be a little quick to see how good this new team is.