Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
This was a really ugly game. The Cavaliers got solid performances from about a player and a half. But wins are wins, and the Cavaliers escaped the District of Columbia with an 87-84 victory.
Let's talk about the ugly first. This was not the finest night for the 2012 draft class. Dion Waiters was either absent or ineffectual for long stretches of the game. His defensive rotations were atrocious and Shelvin Mack almost put the game out of reach at one point after Waiters left him wide open from distance a few times in a row. He isn't necessarily supposed to be good at that right now, so it is probably alright. He actually played 27 minutes, but it didn't really feel like he was out there that long. He hit a couple 3's that were helpful, and give me hope he can be a helpful player when Kyrie drives to the basket. Overall though, he was 3-11 from the field. At one point, Nene swatted an attempted dunk so hard I was genuinely worried about a serious crisis of confidence Waiters might have. But, the next time down the court he attacked again. It was another block, so that wasn't great, but the guy remains fearless. It is hard to see the Cavs winning without the three he hit.
Zeller had a first half that no negative adjective could really do justice. There was simply not a positive that could be taken from it. The second half wasn't much better, but he did have a good finish at one point, and his rebounding got better. His defense improved from cataclysmic to abysmal. But the problems remain what they have been; the game still seems too fast for him, and he turns it over and takes rushed jump shots from 2-3 feet outside of his range. He made a good pass to Waiters for the late three but it was clearly a designed play and not a read he made. The screens he sets are ineffectual and he starts rolling before it is actually set, leaving more work for Kyrie Irving. Defensively there were possessions where he was left in man on the post against Emeka Okafor and he didn't even raise his arms to contest the shot. Even if he did, he wasn't strong enough to put up much of a fight anyways. An NBA offseason with an NBA training regimen will be oh so helpful. If you think I am being hard on him, go back and watch the first half again. Anyways, when rookie centers play 36 minutes against guys like Nene and Okafor who have 20 years of NBA experience and are really strong, they tend to get exposed a bit, and that is what happened.
Also ugly, pretty much everyone other than Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, and Kyrie wasn't exactly playing up to his standards after the first half. C.J. Miles was bad. Daniel Gibson mixed a little bit of good with a lot of bad. I have had about enough of Jeremy Pargo. He is a passable scorer, I guess, but can't really do anything else. He is probably the 8th or 9th best passer on the team. Alonzo Gee almost killed himself trying to dunk at one point. Luke Walton was probably our third best player. He has a pump fake that defenders bite ridiculously hard on, for some reason unbeknownst to those that love and cherish good basketball. At one point he actually attacked the basket and finished. The Cavaliers were asking him to guard either Nene or Okafor on a few occasions, and that didn't go very well for us, but the Washington guards were bad enough that they couldn't get the ball inside consistently. Walton and Zeller probably made the worst rebounding front court used in the NBA in a long time.
Kyrie Irving didn't have his most efficient shooting night ever, and missed some free throws that could have cost us the game. His defense was pretty darn good, though again, Washington's guards are not exactly good, or even average. The Cavaliers started the game really poorly, though, and Irving's first half scoring kept Cleveland in the game. His ball handling was outstanding, and in the first half he was passing at a high level too. The second half was a bit more shaky, though he did find our hero Tristan Thompson down low late for a three-point play that effectively won the game for Cleveland. The clearest difference between Washington and the Cavs last night was Cleveland having a functional guard, and Washington being forced to ride Jordan Crawford for as long as he could carry them. The team with Kyrie Irving won.
Which leaves us with Tristan Thompson. The Cavaliers defense early on in the game was terrible, especially in transition, and Nene was bullying Tristan a bit. It didn't last long though. Tristan was able to really slow down Nene for the rest of the game when they were matched up. Coach Scott in the post game press conference said it was a matter of Thompson executing the game plan and fronting a bit more. I also think Tristan was using his body better and keeping Nene and Okafor further from the basket and with tougher angles. Tristan's defensive rebounding continues to be leaps and bounds better than it was last season. There were stretches when he was the only guy even fighting for them on Cleveland's team. His energy level was excellent.
Notice how I am not talking about his free throws or scoring? I don't really care that much. His free throw shooting is up to 59% on the season, and it is possible he will get to 64-65% for a season at some point in his career. This was his 5th straight game scoring over 10 points. In December he is shooting 50%. But again, that is not why Cleveland drafted him. They drafted him because they thought he could rebound, be active, play defense, and get extra possessions for the Cavs. At 21 years old, he is doing just that.