(Editor's note: for those new to the blog, Justin is from Winnipeg, Canada. He came to Cleveland for the first time last week and caught three Cavs games. Here is his account of the trip)
First things first, Quicken Loans Arena is an awesome venue for a basketball game. It was basically everything I hoped it would be. There were a few more Heat and LeBron jerseys the first night than I would have liked to have seen and I actually saw a Jeremy Lamb Thunder jersey for some reason. I assume the guy must have been related to Lamb or something because it startled me. Overall though, the crowd was very engaged and the game experience was phenomenal. I worried that with Kyrie Irving sidelined that I would be traveling to visit a morgue, that couldn't have been further from the truth.
Being at a basketball game is great because you get to see just how quick the game really is, as well as a bunch of stuff that you would never have caught if you were just watching the game on TV. For example, despite the flaws of Jarrett Jack (and I'll get to those) he is always talking/instructing on the sidelines. He is much more vocal than I expected him to be and he seems to really put in time explaining what he wants from his running-mates. Now, the number of times that Brown would yell out a set play, only to throw his arms in the air in frustration as Jack would scrap that and either launch a deep two or dribble too much and cause a shot clock violation or desperation heave was unsettling. There were two instances against the Thunder where the Cavs could have put up a quick shot to go for a two for one. Instead, Jack would wait for the game clock to go below 24 seconds, take a dribble inside the three point line, and heave a step back jumper. Not only was it a poor shot selection, but it gave the Thunder plenty of time to get set up and get a quality look as time expired.
Tristan Thompson is another guy that I was interested to see play live. In warm-ups the Cavs training staff is really working with him on where to catch the ball when he's around the basket and not bringing it down. If you look closely, you can see that he's going up much quicker this season than he has earlier in his career. But here's the problem with what they're doing: they hit him with mats as he's catching the ball and gathering, which has helped improve his ability to receive the ball in traffic. But when Thompson goes up to dunk he is often fully extended and vulnerable to contact swinging his body easily. He isn't a powerful/ explosive dunker and because he isn't capable of going up to dunk strong, a lot of contact gets missed and fouls get left uncalled.
What Thompson needs to do to counteract this is play below the basket more. He isn't bringing the ball down to be stripped nearly as often and does have a very strong body's he should try to mimic guys like Al Jefferson or other below the rim post finishers that use their body to create space and then quickly get the ball up onto the backboard. Whenever I would coach an undersized big I would always try to get them to use glass as there's less time/ opportunity for the opposition to block the shot. You initiate contact to throw off the timing of the shot blocker, and then lay it up.
Thompson has shown a lot of growth this season and is finishing much better at the rim. But now that he's adapted his game, opponents have adjusted to him. Whether or not he can continue to add to his game and figure out what style of play best suits him will go a long way in determining whether or not he can be a starter on this team in the future, or if he'll need to accept a role as a third big off the bench. Patience is key for big men. Thompson was a project when he was drafted and has probably come further in his three seasons with the Cavs than any other player on the roster.
The other trend I noticed last week was that early in games the Cavs looked to initiate their offense by starting inside the three point line. They would often go to Hawes in the high post or drive, kick and swing to get good quality shots. The ball movement was very encouraging. As the game went on and the possessions would become more meaningful I would still see ball movement, but it was far too perimeter orientated. By not driving or getting the ball inside the defense never really needed to move and eventually someone would just try to get a shot up in isolation. This is the difference between passing and creating. It is as though the team stops trusting in the guys they are with and only pass to situations where they know they will likely get the ball back and be able to play hero. Most NBA players have been "the man" at some point in their lives so it's natural for them to want the ball when it matters most. This is nowhere near as big of a problem as it has been in the past and you can tell the young guys are learning. But it's certainly something that needs to be addressed and monitored moving forward.
- Anthony Bennett is one big guy. You can tell he's in great shape now and he probably has the biggest shoulders I've seen in my life. He did seem engaged on the bench and seemed to point out to the play when talking to other players. This made me very happy to see.
- Kyrie Irving has an aura around him like Rick James. I was so glad to hear that his injury didn't require surgery, hope he gets back soon.
- The best thing about Kyrie getting hurt is that it has shown that Dion Waiters is ready for a starting role. He is way more engaged on both ends of the court and it's clear that he meant it when he said his job is "to go out there and kill". Kyrie and Dion had appeared to learn how to play together as of late and once Kyrie is back it would be inconceivable in my eyes for Mike Brown to not let go of the leash and release our backcourt of the future.
- Spencer Hawes is my spirit animal. I hope he isn't just playing for a contract because what he is bringing right now is exactly what the Cavaliers need and he is a perfect fit next to Tristan Thompson. If you could get him for Jarrett Jack money I wouldn't hesitate.
- Tyler Zeller looks even more impressive in person. He's in great shape and is really impressive in his ability to find and get into passing lanes (even though the pass doesn't always come), as well as his ability to move up and down the floor. If he keeps adding to his strength and midrange jumper it's hard to see him not end up as a high-end backup at the very least.
- LeBron James and Kevin Durant are really good at this sport. I recommend you go see them play against a team you don't care about, because they both feel like unstoppable death machines.
- I loved how much heart the team played with throughout this stretch, as well as the games that followed. Obviously the undermanned Cavs rattled off three consecutive wins after this stretch of games and looked to be having a ton of fun doing it. But the way they battled back against three contenders was very impressive. The general feeling I got from the players' body language as they were losing was that they were disappointed in the result, but still motivated and still fully invested. It's nice to see games that matter in March, or at least see a team still care and try this late in the season.