The good news is that Kyrie Irving will be back in the starting lineup for the Cleveland Cavaliers (17-33, 12th in the East) tonight. The bad news is the Cavaliers are playing the San Antonio Spurs (36-14, 2nd in the East).
It’s funny that the Spurs can continue to fly under everyone’s radar. Hardly anyone seems to be talking about them or taking them seriously. Maybe it’s because they lost the opening round as a #1 seed last year. Maybe it’s because people think that because Tim Duncan is old the Spurs are finished. Maybe it’s because the Spurs are just there every year and everyone just kind of got used to seeing them at the top.
Whatever the case may be, the Spurs are sitting just 2.5 games back of Oklahoma City for the top spot in the West. It’s no fluke or happenstance. The Spurs are one of, if not the, best coached teams in the NBA, they have a smart, savvy, veteran core who know how to win Championships, and they sprinkle in the right kind of young players who can learn how to play their role.
In other words, the Spurs are legitimate title contenders. The core trio of Tony Parker, Time Duncan, and Manu Ginobili added Stephen Jackson at the trade deadline to bring in yet another player with Championship experience on the Spurs. Then you add in the young guys like Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, and Kawhi Leonard and you’re looking at a team that is going to give our Cavaliers a lot of problems.
The Cavaliers will be happy to have Irving back, but as long as Daniel Gibson and Anderson Varejao remain out, the Cavaliers just don’t have enough offensive options to score. Irving and Antawn Jamison are the only consistent scorers on the team right now. On any given night the Cavaliers might get offensive help from Alonzo Gee, Tristan Thompson, or Samardo Samuels, but they need consistent scoring to have a chance against teams like San Antonio.
So rather than looking for a win in this game, I want to keep on eye on the psyche of this roster. Can they come out and play hard at home against an elite opponent, or this be yet another game where the outcome is settled by midway through the first quarter?
Beyond that, I want to see Donald Sloan get some minutes playing against Tony Parker. I’ve been impressed by Sloan and think he is showing signs that he could be a competent backup to Kyrie Irving. As Irving’s career progresses, his minutes will continue to increase. The Cavaliers don’t need a Ramon Sessions to back him up, as there’s not enough minutes to go around. They need someone who can come in, run the offense, not turn the ball over, and just manage the game while Irving rests. So far, Sloan has shown signs of being that kind of player. The question will be consistency. The Spurs will be a tough test.
Overall, the Spurs are an interesting matchup. The Spurs are clearly better and have the type of big, physical presence that causes the Cavaliers so many problems. But contrary to stereotype, this Spurs team is different from past teams. Traditionally thought of as a defense-first franchise, the Spurs are actually an amazing offensive team and just a so-so defensive team. Watching them operate their offense is beautiful to watch, and the Cavaliers’ defense will have their hands full trying to stop it.
But when the Cavaliers have the ball, there will be opportunities to score. Tim Duncan, while still a great player, is much slower with his lateral movement these days and he allows interior holes in the defense to open up. The Spurs are far from the worst at defending the post, but quick ball movement opens up the paint sometimes against them.
The Cavaliers have been getting stale on offense lately. To win this game, they need to get back to basics and really using hard screens and crisp ball movement to succeed. Otherwise, we’re in for another long, long game.