The Cleveland Cavaliers are improving. Two weeks ago, this team would have lost to the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies by a combined 45 points (also known as: the amount the Charlotte Bobcats lost by to the Oklahoma City Thunder last night). Instead, virtually every player is playing better than they were at the beginning of the season and it's quite obvious on the court. No matter the opponent, this team is playing hard every night and sooner or later, it's going to start to be reflected in the wins column.
Cavs leaders: Points: Varejao, Waiters, 15; Assists: Varejao, Waiters, Pargo, 3; Rebounds: Varejao, 22
In each of the past two games, I have predicted blowout losses. While I was correct with the loss part, they were not at all blowouts. The Cavs come away from their battles with Memphis and Miami 0-2, but they led for the majority of both games. Late game execution doomed them against Ray Allen and the Heat and it once again doomed them against Zach Randolph and the Grizz.
Through the first three quarters, the Cavs had the largest lead of the game at 10 points. By the end of the third, they were still leading by seven at 69-62. So how bad was the fourth quarter that they were able to blow the lead and lose by six? Well, really bad.
The Cavaliers scored just 9 points in the final period and shot 4 of 20 as a team. 10 of their 20 attempts came from threes -- and they weren't good threes. Their three point attempts were more of "holy crap we can't do anything, let's just chuck up a three." The Grizzlies were playing what my friend Zach Harper of CBS Sports would call "bath salts defense" -- defense so tenacious it's like they are going to eat their opponent's face off. I believe the term originated from trying to describe how active and smothering Andre Iguodala is on the wing, but it certainly applies to Tony Allen as well. The Cavs had more turnovers (5) than made field goals (4) in the fourth quarter. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know. The Cavaliers really need a star player who can initiate offense and get crucial buckets down the stretch. They happen to have one of those guys, but unfortunately, he has a broken finger. I firmly believe that if Kyrie Irving had played in these games, the Cavaliers would have won all three.
Dion Waiters felt the wrath of such defense in the fourth quarter. The Memphis announcer kept talking about how the rookie Waiters had never seen a defender like Allen before. While that's incorrect (some guy named LeBron James was guarding Waiters last game), this bit of familiarity with long-armed defensive monsters provided no relief for our first-year guard. The first three quarters were actually quite good for Dion (on the offensive end), but he couldn't do anything in the 5 and a half minutes he played down the stretch. Prior to the fourth, Dion was attacking the basket and finishing with varying levels of success. Eight of his 16 shot attempts were at the rim, and while he made only four of them, it was good to see him attacking like that. He's still having problems finishing once he gets there, but that was one of his strengths in college and I assume (and hope) that he works through these struggles. In a game that saw Waiters fail to connect on a three-pointer for the first time this season, the adjustment was encouraging. If your jumper isn't falling, just go to the basket. Waiters also showed some more impressive ability to run the offense as a point guard. Primarily in the first half, he was running pick and rolls and finding the open man as he drove. I've said it before, but Waiters' ability to create in the pick and roll is a huge plus and probably a major reason he was drafted ahead of a guy like Harrison Barnes (who is playing quite well now, for the record). Overall, it was a pretty solid game against a very tough opponent.
(I broke down an example of Dion Waiters' defensive lapses in a separate post, check it out.)
In other news, Anderson Varejao is a monster. I'll do a separate post about how ridiculous his stats are this season sometime this week. But for starters, this was Andy's 2nd game with 20+ rebounds. Everybody else in the NBA have combined for two such games so far. He outright led the team, or was tied for the lead, in points, assists, and rebounds against the Grizzlies. And he held Zach Randolph (the NBA's second leading rebounder) to under 10 rebounds for the first time this year. His offensive skills are extremely underrated and his motor is absurd. If you haven't voted for The Wild Thing to be an all-star this year, do that now.
Tristan Thompson had a pretty strong first half against an incredibly tough front court. Despite Zach Randolph's gaudy offensive numbers, I thought Tristan played really solid defense on him. Sometimes great players just make tough shots. Tristan also looked much better on the offensive end. He made some nice, simple post moves and showed a soft touch around the basket. There was one play in particular in which he got two offensive rebounds in the same possession and ultimately got the put back bucket. Both Thompson and Tyler Zeller struggled with foul trouble for much of the game and it forced Byron Scott to play Samardo Samuels. Oddly enough, the Cavs' defense collapsed and the Grizzlies went on a run when Tristan left the game. Thompson did, however, play all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter (a change that some of us at FTS have been clamoring for). It didn't make any real difference as nobody in Wine and Gold was effective in the fourth.
Fear The Sword's Player of the Game:
He was a monster. I never want him to leave. He's playing like a superstar right now. Think there's any chance we get superstar or even all star value for him in a trade? Doubt it.