Don't get discouraged. The Cleveland Cavaliers are making some progress. Think of this as taking 2 steps forward, and then one step backwards. It happens. The 3-game win streak was lovely, but playing the Denver Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back seems a bit difficult to stack up against. The overmatched Cavaliers put up a decent fight, but eventually fell 111-103.
Cavs' Leaders: Points: Irving, 26; Rebounds: Zeller, Irving, 6; Assists: Irving, 7
The stuff that happened:
Alonzo Gee went bananas in the first quarter. He hit all six of his shots, including three 3-pointers. I'm willing to bet that the Denver Nuggets had not game-planned for the inevitable Alonzo Gee eruption. This is a good sign because, honestly, Gee has been really rough on offense lately. Saturday night, it seemed as though he finally had his legs under him and was getting good lift on his jump shot. He looked energetic attacking the basket, despite the fact that he always looks slightly out of control as if somebody replaced his Nikes with rollerblades right as he's about to gather his dribble. He finished 8 of 8 from the field and contributed 20 points. He really did have a lot of energy, which is bizarre considering the fact that everybody else on the Cavs looked just a bit slow.
The players and coaches won't use it as an excuse, but playing the Nuggets on the 2nd night of a back-to-back just isn't easy to do. Denver plays at the 2nd fastest pace in the league and they were running on everything. It didn't matter whether the Cavs made shots or not -- the Nuggets were running. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were running out in transition and getting down the court before the Cavs knew what happened. This is obviously a combination of what the Nuggets do well and what the Cavs do poorly. We've talked about the helpless transition defense in Cleveland for a while now and it was on full display last night. The Cavs' bigs do a poor job getting back on defense and the Nuggets absolutely lived in the paint. Denver scored 62 points in the paint compared to the Cavaliers' 32 points in the paint. Y'all are smart enough to understand that that is a bad thing.
The Cavaliers' inability to finish shots at the rim once again reared its ugly head. Dion Waiters was just 1 of 6 from the floor and Tristan Thompson had a rough night (4 of 10 shooting) as well. The Nuggets blocked 8 shots (including one hilariously bad goaltend by JaVale McGee that went uncalled) and altered numerous others.
Wayne Ellington maintained his hot shooting (3 of 4 from deep), but Marreese Speights finally had a bad game in Wine and Gold. Speights was 1 of 10 from the field and had just 3 rebounds in his 16 minutes. The Cavs have gotten used to seeing a double-double off the bench from Speights. Speights only managed 3 rebounds and this contributed to what was perhaps the biggest problem of the night -- the rebounding differential.
The Nuggets only had a 46-38 advantage, but the Cavs were only able to rebound 64.3% of the potential defensive rebounds. That means the rest went to the Nuggets and gave them second-chance opportunities. Tristan had zero defensive rebounds. That's not good. Tyler Zeller had a hard time boxing out Kosta Koufos and holding onto the ball when it actually hit his hands. Koufos combined with Kenneth Faried for 9 offensive boards. That's not good. There was one play when Gallinari got an offensive rebound off of a free throw while there were four Cavaliers right under the hoop with him. That comes down to fundamentals (putting a body on a man) and effort. The Nuggets played harder and it showed.
Just reading everything that I have written up to this point, you'd think that the Cavs lost by 30 or 40 points. In reality, they lost by just 8 and a few calls in the other direction could have made this far closer. The reality is that the Cavs' offense is still looking quite good. I see lots of complaints about the offensive flow and rhythm on Twitter, but that hardly seems to be what is hurting the Cavs. They had scored 115+ in each of the past three games and were still able to top 100 against Denver. A team 54% true shooting is pretty decent and 24 assists on 37 baskets isn't bad. I don't typically go to Dan Gilbert for my basketball analysis, but his tweet last night was pretty spot-on.
We have made good progress recently but when the Cleveland Cavaliers arrive back to the top tier of the NBA we will be a DEFENSIVE 1st team.— Dan Gilbert (@cavsdan) February 10, 2013
The offense is getting much better and Kyrie Irving is fantastic, even on his off nights. But the defense, intensity, and toughness need to be raised to the same level. The Cavs have the 16th best offense in the NBA. But their defense is 27th. You can't just outscore teams every night -- especially teams like the Nuggets.
The Road Ahead
The Cavaliers have Sunday off and will take on the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves at the Quicken Loans Arena on Monday night. They have the Wolves, Spurs, and Hornets left on this home stand (although the Hornets are after the all star break). I want to go 2-1 in those games. Make it happen.
You guys were incredible in the game threads and I love having to make two separate threads. The community here is getting crazy. You have Sunday to rest up, but then you have to bring it on Monday and blast through 2000 comments again.