The Cleveland Cavaliers had an interesting Thanksgiving weekend. Last Wednesday they got things started with a big win at home against Philadelphia to end their losing streak. Jeremy Pargo had an absolutely insane breakout game in filling in for Kyrie Irving.
Unfortunately, the Cavaliers had to follow that up with another road trip. This one a three-game trip, and they have already lost the first two. Now they have to recover and try to beat one of the best teams in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies.
The good news for the Cavaliers is that they’ve been playing pretty decent basketball without Kyrie. I know, giving up 108+ points in consecutive losses hardly sounds like decent basketball, but really, it hasn’t been so bad. The team has stepped up and been able to get really even scoring distribution and have had their chances to win each of the last two games.
In fact, against the Heat the Cavaliers had eight (EIGHT!) players score in double digits and picked up 21 assists to just 10 turnovers. The problem, as always, is defense. The Cavaliers just can’t help themselves and routinely give up 50%+ from the field and 100+ points like it was nothing.
The Cavaliers give up the second-most points, have the third-worst defensive efficiency, give up the worst eFG%, and allow the sixth-most fastbreak points per game in the NBA. I know this isn’t news, but these rankings are atrocious and they tell the story. Until the Cavaliers can learn to get some stops, particularly in the fourth quarter, they are going to continue to lose games.
The Grizzlies are going to be an especially difficult challenge. Coming in with the NBA’s best record at 9-2, the Grizzlies create so many problems for their opponents. The Grizzlies are fourth in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency. They don’t turn the ball over, they get 2nd chance opportunities from offensive rebounds, and they excel at getting to the free throw line.
The Grizzlies frontcourt of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol might be the best frontcourt in the NBA. Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are definitely going to have their work cut out for them. The Grizzlies are the 3rd best offensive rebounding team and the Cavaliers are the 5th best defensive rebounding team. Whichever side can control the glass when the Cavaliers are on defense will go a long way toward building an advantage by neutralizing their opponent’s strength.
It’s not just the frontcourt that can hurt you, though. The Grizzlies backcourt tandem is not one to be overlooked. Point guard Mike Conley is having another solid season and small forward Rudy Gay is still one of the best offensive small forwards in the NBA. With so many different ways to score and create from so many different positions, the Grizzlies should give the Cavaliers defense nightmares.
The Grizzlies defense is exceptionally stout in the half court set. But they are vulnerable to teams who can get out and run and create some transition opportunities. This is further reason why the Cavaliers’ defensive rebounding in this game will be so important. The Cavaliers need to limit the Grizzlies’ scoring chances, and then create fastbreak chances the other way off Memphis misses.
If you give the Grizzlies a chance to get their defense set, it’s tough to get much inside with Gasol in the paint. Randolph isn’t known for his defense by any means, but he’s another big body that can clog the lane defensively. Mike Conley is a capable defender at the point as well. Essentially, you don’t want to let the Grizzlies dictate style of play.
The Grizzlies have only failed to score 100 points four times, going 2-2 in those games. They’re 7-0 in the games they do score 100. They’ve only given up 100 points once (an opening night loss in Los Angeles to the Clippers). The Grizzlies will impose their will on you, and it’s tough to stop.
So what can the Cavaliers do to win this game without Kyrie Irving? They’ll need a few things to happen. The two teams to beat the Grizzlies did it with their defense. The Cavaliers will need Varejao/Thompson/Tyler Zeller/Samardo Samuels (or whoever the fourth man Byron Scott decides to use happens to be) to limit the damage from Z-Bo and Gasol inside. Someone on the Cavaliers’ backcourt will need to disrupt Conley from setting things up as much as possible.
On offense, the Cavaliers need to be efficient in transition, and they will likely need a couple guys to get hot from outside. The Grizzlies focus on making life difficult inside in the half court set, but they will give teams a decent look every now and then from three. Whether it be Gibson, Waiters, Pargo, or Gee, someone needs to be ready to knock down those open looks when there.
Make no mistake, this is a tough matchup for the Cavaliers. A lot needs to go their way to win this game. The biggest thing will be whether the Cavaliers can find a way to get stops on defense. You have to beat the Grizzlies with defense, and beating teams with defense hasn’t been the Cavaliers’ M.O. But as they say, that’s why they play the games. Anything can happen. Nobody thought the Cavaliers could compete with Miami in South Beach, but they did. Now they need to play just a little bit better in Memphis.