For the 2nd time this season the Cleveland Cavaliers (9-13, 9th in the East) will travel to Miami to take on the Heat (18-6, 2nd in the east). The last time out, the Cavaliers were struggling mightily and it was starting to look like their upstart season was unraveling. In many ways, that Miami game turned out to be one of the more important games of the season, as the Cavaliers were able to limit LeBron James to 18 points in a very tight 92-85 loss.
Usually you’d prefer a win be your watershed moment rather than a loss, but in this case, the Cavaliers had just been absolutely eviscerated by both the Bulls and the Hawks and some wondered if the wheels were coming off. By hanging in there and fighting tooth and nail with the Heat, the Cavaliers showed a real spirit in not giving up and not succumbing to their opponents’ will just because of the disparity in talent.
This time around, the Cavaliers face the Heat with some confidence and momentum on their side. After a week of insane 4th quarter comebacks and big wins over Boston and Dallas, the Cavaliers should feel a lot better about their chances.
But this game will be much different. Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker, and Tristan Thompson are all out for the Cavaliers while the Miami Heat are 100% healthy. That means the Cavaliers have to deal with Dwyane Wade this time. And they have to find a way to slow down Chris Bosh who embarrassed the Cavs defense last game. And they have to make sure they keep LeBron James under control again.
Last time out, Alonzo Gee did a pretty admirable job defending LeBron. The Cavs’ systematic defense was solid as well, as they were quick and decisive in their double teams on LeBron, often forcing him to merely pass the ball back out of the double. In general, LeBron looked lethargic and disengaged in the Miami offense, thanks in some part to the Cavaliers’ defense. This time, with Wade around, life is going to be so much more difficult for the Cavs’ defense.
With the Cavaliers’ bizarre decision to drop Mychel Thompson this week, combined with the injuries to Gibson and Parker, means the Cavaliers have zero SGs on the team dressing tonight. Not that Thompson was a difference maker, but with injuries to Gibson and Parker, keeping Thompson probably would have made sense, at least through Tuesday and Wednesday’s games before releasing him in time before the Feb 10 guaranteed contract deadline kicks in. Instead, the Cavaliers will ask Alonzo Gee to slide over to start at SG.
This has a sort of trickle down effect. Now Omri Casspi has no real backup, especially defensively, to help with LeBron. Gee, whose body frame and defensive style fits LeBron’s brute force approach to basketball, will now have to deal with the lateral quickness and work off screens that Wade brings to the table.
The Cavaliers’ bench, often a source of competitve advantage for the team, is essentially now down to Ramon Sessions and on his good days, Samardo Samuels. Sprinkle in some Ryan Hollins, Semih Erden, and Luke Harangody, and you’ve got a pretty shockingly bad bench unit. Compare this to the healthy Miami team, who will feature a bench of Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Mike Miller, and James Jones, and well, you get the point.
So what do the Cavaliers need to do to be successful in this game? They must be efficient. No careless passes, no unnecessary gambles. Take care of the ball. Rebound. Attack the offensive glass to create extra possessions for the team. At the same time, always make sure at least 2 players are back ready to counter a Miami fast break opportunity.
One of the more well known and frequently discussed ways of beating Miami is to play a lot of zone defense against them. With the Cavaliers being shorthanded, playing zone might give guys a chance to preserve a little energy. However, Byron Scott doesn’t seem to be a coach who believes in zone in the NBA as the Cavaliers virtually never play zone. I’ll be interested to see if he tries to shake things up a bit by implementing some surprise zone.
Finally, Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao need to both be on and playing their A games tonight. If they can find a rhythm in their pick and roll partnership in this game, they will open the door to drawing more fouls on Miami and ideally getting some of their stars into foul trouble. If this game goes strength-on-strength, Miami will win handily. Cleveland needs to outplay Miami by creating opportunities for themselves any way they can. If that means getting guys into foul trouble or using gimmicks on defense, that might be what it takes. The Cavaliers are in for a very difficult test in this game.
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