The LeBron James circus is in town Friday as the Miami Heat (23-7, 2nd in the East) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (11-16, 10th in the East) square off for the final time this season.
In each of the first two matchups between these two teams, the Cavaliers played tough, hanging in there with Miami through 3+ quarters. But just as an older brother sometimes lets his younger brother hang around before ultimately playing hard at the end to beat him, so too did the Miami Heat manage to play hard in the final minutes and put the Cavaliers away. We’ll see if the 3rd time is the charge for Cleveland or if the injuries and talent deficiency will just be too much to overcome yet again.
Cleveland will once again be without Anderson Varejao, Anthony Parker, and Daniel Gibson. With their only two true SGs on the team out, the Cavaliers will turn to Alonzo Gee to start at SG, leaving Ramon Sessions and Ben Uzoh as the only guards on the bench, and both of them are PGs. I’d expect to see a lot of Sessions at PG with Irving sliding over to SG when Gee is needed either at SF or on the bench. It’s not an ideal situation to move guys around when playing a team as tough as the Heat, but this is part of why the Cavaliers’ flexibility was listed as a team strength before the season. There are a lot of interchangeable combo players on this roster, and it should make things a little easier to adjust.
The Heat will be without Dexter Pittman, but otherwise are fully healthy. Coach Erik Spoelstra will feature a starting lineup of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Joel Anthony.
Miami comes into this game playing really, really great ball of late, having won 15 of their last 18 games since their early season 3 game skid. Realizing teams were able to neutralize the Heat last year in the half court sets, particularly with zone defense, Spoelstra wisely implored his team to crank up the pace and the team listened. The Heat were 20th in Pace factor (90.9 possessions per 48) last season and are 6th (93.2 possessions per 48) this season. They are first in points per game, first in eFG%, and 2nd in FT/FGA. In other words, they are playing fast and getting to the rim at will.
The area the Heat have dropped a bit is on defense, where they are down from 5th in defensive efficiency last year to 9th this year. Part of it is a consequence of playing faster. The Heat gamble a lot more on defense, choosing to go for the turnover and easy basket as opposed to grinding the game down by tough on ball defense. Typically the way to beat an over-aggressive defense is to use the simple back door cut. Alonzo Gee actually uses cuts a lot in his game, and if the Heat are in a particularly gambling mood tonight, we’ll see if Gee can open things up on offense.
The Cavaliers like to push the tempo themselves, but Miami is a team the Cavaliers can’t afford to run with. Especially not as short-handed as they are. This is one game I would encourage the Cavaliers to slow things down, force a half court game, and be patient with the passes.
Last game against Miami the Cavaliers tried running with them early and it wasn’t pretty. Only when they settled into a slower pace did they really begin to pester Miami and make a game of it. The team should still be well rested having only played one game this week. Hopefully they can use it to their advantage to stay focused and make this a close, contested ball game.
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