Since last week’s edition, the Cavaliers dispatched Portland, Dallas, and Philadelphia on their way to a 3-0 week to push their season record to a completely and totally dominant and preposterous 13-2. The Cavs are, simply put, doing whatever they feel like offensively, and it looks beautiful. As always, let’s start this week’s edition off with a look at last week’s games, including Sunday’s contest against Philly.
I hope that everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, though I doubt that any of us enjoyed our Thursday feast as much as Kevin Love enjoyed eating the Blazers alive on Wednesday. Sometimes, something happens in the NBA that renders me speechless. Kevin Love’s 34 points in the first quarter of the Blazers game was one of those moments. Love was on fire from anywhere he felt like getting shots from, and the team kept feeding the hot hand. One thing that was a little worrisome is that the Cavaliers got that kind of performance from Love, and a solid all around effort on the offensive end, and prevailed only by a score of 137-125, and at points, it appeared Portland may make a run. I’m not going to be that guy, though, because sometimes, when you get to see something that special from a deluxe NBA talent, none of the rest of the game matters if you leave the building with everyone healthy. In one of the greatest “Oh, By The Way” games of all time, LeBron added in a triple double with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 13 assists. You know, for good measure. Portland is an absolutely awful defensive team, but you still have to make the plays and shots that they give you, Cleveland did that, and given Portland is only slightly outside of the playoff picture out West, I’ll count it as a good win.
On Black Friday, the Cavaliers stopped Dallas from beginning their surge out of the “red” to the tune of a 128-90 victory at home. Look, I know Dallas is bad, and I know that sample size matters, but the Cavs showed that they have the ability to do wonderful things in terms of limiting teams from getting out on the break and causing chaos. Dallas was held to just four fast break points for the game. Though he may have only played in a blowout, and was mostly uninspiring, as I predicted last week, Bird Man got some run, and did enough little things to keep the transition game under control. Sealing off well on rebounds, running the floor hard to cut down passing lanes, and generally playing hard are all things that will matter, and all things that he can do. I foresee him being a major cog in the Cavaliers transition defense improving as we creep near playoff time later this year.
On Sunday, the Wine and Gold took on Philly and found themselves in another dog fight with a team that, frankly, has no business being in the same building with them. Just like last time, Philly started strong and remained spurty and consistently competitive throughout the game to push Kyrie & Co to the limits. Speaking of Kyrie, Mr. Fourth Quarter showed up late again en route to his 39 point performance on 14/27 from the field. Kyrie is simply the single best ball handler on the planet, and in 26 years of watching NBA ball, the best that I’ve ever seen. It isn’t about fancy passes that skip around and are off target. It isn’t about explosive and elaborate dribble moves ending in flowery up and under circus act shots that rarely fall. Irving uses his handle to get to spots where he can score easily (most places) and most importantly to set up other guys. Joel Embiid was, once again, an absolute monster despite limited minutes throwing in a big time 22/9/4, including going 3/4 from deep. He’s quickly becoming one of my favorites.
This week might be the most fun we’ve had watching the Cavs, and that’s saying something. We have a handful of elite level players at their respective positions, young talent worth watching, and possibly the most advantageous time to catch a Clipper team that I ranked tops in the league in last week’s power rankings.
Things get started on Tuesday with super-human mutant Giannis Antetokounmpo and the extra long Milwaukee Bucks in Milwaukee. Giannis has found a way to become an elite level, and horrifyingly dangerous scorer, despite having essentially zero aptitude as a jump shooter. He is learning how to be a more effective and efficient playmaker as well, and that’s trouble. He is already destroying guys when they sag off of him in pick and roll. Again, not with a jumper, but by closing the gap aggressively and quickly with a first step that covers more ground than anyone in the league. Any space the defender was willing to give him is swallowed immediately. Maybe the thing I’ve talked most about in these weekly columns is transition defense, and there isn’t anyone other than LeBron who is better at covering ground and being unguardable in transition than Gianni Alphabet. Oh, and by averaging just a shade over two blocks per game, he’s also a rim protector, and in the top ten in the league in that category.
Having said that, this is likely to come down to what most interesting matchups for Cleveland do: they’re the better club. Having nearly a full 72 hours of rest (Not including travel) should help. Cavs should roll here.
You guys, the Clippers are here on Thursday. Chris Paul may well be the most complete point guard of this generation, Blake Griffin is an underrated play maker and turning into a good defender, and DeAndre Jordan is still dunking everything he gets near. This team is really…really good. They can, of course, run the pick and roll with Paul/Jordan, or Paul/Griffin, and they will try to beat the Cavs over the head with it, as Tristan Thompson is simply not athletic enough to win every time with Blake, and not big and strong enough to win every time with Jordan. One thing to watch here is that JJ Reddick is absolutely out of his mind right now. He continues to be the best in the league, maybe, at moving without the ball, he consistently improves as a defender, and his ball handling in pick and role spots has never been better. You’ll also want to check out a nifty little pin down into an elbow high pick and role with Griffin as the handler (!) and Jordan as the screener. Scary little set piece that is, and the Cavs seem like a good candidate to be susceptible to a drubbing from it. Again, as is almost always the case, Cleveland is the better club, but a victory is not as cut and dried in this one as most.
JR Smith was a disaster, at best, on Sunday against Philly, going 0/11 fom the field and 0/7 from three point distance. He never looked quite right, never got into a rhythm, and, despite his willingness to keep shooting, never looked confident after the first quarter. JR is shooting a carer low 30.4% from the field this season. This includes a particularly awful seven game stretch in which he is gunning at a 27% clip. Yikes, right? Here’s the good news: he’s still helping out on the glass, which means he’s still engaged. This is also evidence by his defensive effort still being there. It is clear, however, that he may not be 100% healthy. While it is obviously way too early to be concerned, it is worth keeping an eye on as competition steps up a bit this week.
I try not to talk about things that are so obvious in this portion, but I simply cannot go another week without a mention of what 23 is doing right now. He is playing the best basketball of his life right now, and he isn’t even the scoring focus of the offense. That job goes to Kyrie, averaging a shade under 25 a game. However, LeBron’s vision and passing have never zippier, more precise, or more deadly to opponents that get caught napping. His work on the glass is some of the best of his career, and oh, by the way, just because he can, he’s putting up 23.6 ppg on the season. It just goes to show that all of the moaning and groaning from critics and loyal fans alike during last season’s “slow” start was silly. LeBron may not be as fast or as explosive as he once was, but he might be better than he ever was. The encouraging thing is that as he gets older and needs to play less minutes, his career will extend as he settles more into a role focused on play making than killing guys scoring.