The bad news for the Cleveland Cavaliers (2-5, 12th in the East) is that once again, they are playing on the road. The good news is the game is in the Eastern Time Zone and closer to home. The even better news is that this one is this is the final game of a debilitating and demoralizing road trip.
Yes, mercy comes to the Cavaliers as they head to Brooklyn to check out the Nets’ (3-2, 4th in the East) new digs. This road trip has seen heartbreaking buzzer beaters, tough injuries, bouts with sickness and food poisoning, bitter collapses, and in general, lots of losing. I won’t be sad to see it come to an end. I’m eager to see MGK’s face on my TV again1.
This may be broken record time here again, but if you want to know why the Cavaliers are 2-5 despite playing what seems like better basketball, look no further than the defense. The Cavaliers are dead last in opponents eFG% and 23rd in the NBA in opponents FTs per FGA. Essentially, the 2 most important factors on defense (not letting the other team get good shots and not fouling them) are the 2 areas the Cavaliers have been terrible at.
The defensive FT rate statistic is particularly alarming because that speaks to a lack of systematic execution, discipline, and communication. And you can see those 3 areas exposed like a nasty wound on this Cavaliers team. At some point, Kyrie Irving will decide he wants to be a better defender and at least attempt to stop opposing players from getting around him with 1 step and 1 dribble. At some point the Cavaliers front court defenders will decide to rotate on help defense and cut off penetration. At some point the backcourt defenders will decide to close out on 3 point shooters.
Why not make that point be tonight? The Nets come into this game a little beaten up themselves. MarShon Brooks and Gerald Wallace will both miss tonight’s game, leaving the Nets without two key contributors. Sure, Joe Johnson and his 13.6 ppg on 36.2% shooting from the field are still there, as are Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, and Kris Humphries. But if the Cavaliers wanted to send this road trip out on a positive note, the bright spot is that the Nets are a team capable of blowing this game.
For the Cavaliers, things haven’t been all bad. Remember, they had every opportunity to win in Milwaukee until Brandon Jennings stunned them, they played that amazing game in LA against the Clippers, and they hung around with the defending Western Conference Champs for 3 quarters in Oklahoma City. There is progress happening right before our eyes. The frustrating part is that this team can be and should be better than what they’ve shown so far.
Kyrie Irving offensively is everything we ever could have hoped for and more. He is a superstar becoming right before our very eyes. We’ve been down this road before, but once again Cavs fans will put their title hopes on the shoulders of a young superstar, and we are ready to be lead once again. Dion Waiters has been mostly sensational on this road trip. Any fear about this pick is diminishing by the game. Anderson Varejao is a rock of consistency and effort. Daniel Gibson has raised his game off the bench.
So yeah, there’s plenty of good things to say about a 2-5 basketball team. That should be exciting to all of us. Now we just need to see them start to put it all together and learn how to win games in the 4th quarter without just always relying on Kyrie to perform heroic feats of astounding magnitude.
I’m hoping some of it comes together against Brooklyn. The Nets, without Wallace and Brooks, only have 3 guys averaging double digits, and all 3 are between 13.6 and 16.4 points per game. The Cavaliers have 4 players averaging double digits, all between 11.7 and 22.9 points per game. The Nets have been a very good defensive team, but without Brooks and Wallace, both capable defenders in their own right, there will be some opportunities for the Cavaliers to make some things happen.
But at the end of the day, it will be all about the defense. I’d imagine Brook Lopez and Deron Williams will look to run the pick and roll all day, taking advantage of the Cavaliers’ weaknesses defensively. Joe Johnson will probably have plenty of wide open looks from 3 as the Cavaliers’ defense sags to protect said weaknesses. This is all nothing new. But maybe tonight will be the night we begin to see the defense start to show some improvement.
After this game, the Cavaliers have 3 days off before returning home to play the Mavericks on Saturday night. There’s plenty of time for rest and for figuring out tweaks to the system on defense then. But that leaves tonight as a game with no excuse for a lack of effort on defense. I’m cautiously optimistic we will see a little bit of a different Cavaliers team in this game.