The Cleveland Cavaliers are about to experience the most trying two game stretch of this young season.
On Friday the Cavaliers must travel to Staples Center to take on former coach Mike Brown. But before that, the Cavaliers (4-5) must first take on the Phoenix Suns (4-5) on Thursday night.
Typically, Thursday night NBA action belongs to TNT. In the past, a Thursday night Cavs-Suns game would definitely be on TNT. Not this year. In fact, this is the first Thursday night game of the season for Cleveland, and their last Thursday night game until April 26 against the Chicago Bulls (also not on TNT, duh).
This isn’t the same Phoenix Suns we used to know, though. The run and gun, 7SOL, no defense days of the Suns. The Suns instead are focused on building on defense and with half court offensive sets. Indeed, the Suns are 22nd in the NBA in Pace. They’re 16th in ppg and 12th in offensive efficiency. The biggest surprise is their defense, though. They are 14th in defensive efficiency and 8th in opponents’ ppg.
Head coach Alvin Gentry is finally seeing his focus on defense paying dividends for this franchise and for the first time, they have the players to buy into it. For the Suns, they will feature a starting lineup of Steve Nash, Jared Dudley, Grant Hill, Channing Frye, and Marcin Gortat with bench contributions from Markieff Moris, Hakim Warrick, Shannon Brown, and Robin Lopez. But the newest name to join the Suns bench is former Ohio State great Michael Redd. Redd is expected to make his debut against the Cavaliers, the team which once tried to get him to play the Robin role to LeBron James.
Marcin Gortat is having an all around great year for the Suns and is really blossoming into the type of player many felt he could be back when we used to watch him come off the bench for Orlando. Steve Nash is still a great player, and the Suns are getting great contributions from Warrick and rookie Morris. The Kansas standout, one half of the dynamic twin duo (twin brother Marcus is on the Rockets’ D-League team), Morris has made an immediate impact in the NBA. Morris is 2nd among NBA rookies in PER (right behind Kyrie Irving…they both trail the Sixers’ Nikola Vucevic). He’s 5th overall in the NBA in 3pt shooting at 54.5%.
The Cavaliers will likely continue to use a starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi, Antawn Jamison, and Anderson Varejao. The 2nd unit will be Ramon Sessions, Daniel Gibson, Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, and Semih Erden.
There’s no question the Cavaliers have sputtered a bit on this road trip. But they hung in there for a while against Portland, arguably the team in the West playing the best basketball, and they gave Utah a game in Salt Lake City the other night. Last year the Cavaliers were losing by 20-30 points on these road trips. This team is a much improved team that continues to find ways to improve even while losing.
If you recall my pre-season discussions about this team, I focused on improving in the margins more than improving in the W-L record. We are already seeing that happen. The Cavaliers are showing more focus, more effort, and better skill than we saw most of last season.
The Cavaliers are nearing the end of their road trip, and it would be nice to get 1 win in the last 3 games. 2 wins would be great. The game at Charlotte on Monday coming off a 2 day break is very winnable. The game tonight is somewhat winnable. Of course how well the Cavaliers shoot the 3 will be something to watch, but I want to see some improvement in interior defense from this team.
Early in the season we focused a lot on Kyrie Irving’s defensive struggles. I’ve been quite pleased with how well he and Andy have improved in communication skills. Beyond that, Kyrie has improved his defensive footwork immensely and is showing more of a knack for knowing when to go through the pick and when to slide under the screen. I’m not near as worried about Kyrie’s defense as I was early in the year. But Steve Nash is incredible if you give him even an inch. That’s a matchup to watch.
But more importantly is how the Cavaliers are going to defend Gortat in the post. After watching Al Jefferson abuse the Cavalier interior defense, you know Gortat is going to try to replicate his success. Hopefully the Cavaliers can adapt on interior defense as well as they have on backcourt defense.