This might be a little Inside Baseball (or Inside Basketball, if you will) or even meta, but in case you didn't know, Fear the Sword is only occasionally a credentialed media outlet by the Cleveland Cavaliers (this is, in part, due to the fact that we don't actually have any writers living in Cleveland). That means the great crew here is largely doing our writing and reporting without routine access to players and coaches. While spots at games are limited and there are many traditional forms of media willing to fill them, lacking that unfiltered access to the players, coaches and the team we spend so much time writing about limits our coverage in a way. Someday, hopefully, that changes and we have a man on the scene at all times, but for now it is what it is.
Since I'm based in Minneapolis (primarily covering the Minnesota Timberwolves) and blessed to work at a great blog with a full credential, I was able to have access for a night, playing double agent for everyone at Fear the Sword. So here's what I observed and heard from the locker room and sideline as the Cavaliers tangled with the Timberwolves.
Let me tell you something about the Target Center this season: it's been, um, quiet. Having the worst record in the league will do that to you. The opener was a sellout and there have been a few perky crowds here and there, but even two hours prior to tip, it was clear this night was going to be different. There was a buzz, an electricity in the building. Even though this was just another game for the Cavs, their fourth in five nights and their last before playing four of five at the Q, this was pretty much the Wolves' Super Bowl - er, NBA Finals, I suppose.
Love acknowledged practical rather than emotional examples of why his return to Minnesota would be strange. "Obviously first walking in here to the visitor’s side, staying in the hotel, going to the bus to the arena," he said. "I’m sure going out there and getting shots up on the opposite side, I’m not accustomed to (that). Visitor’s bench. It’s going to be different." He didn't bite on many questions about nostalgia, except for one. When asked if he wishes his time in Minnesota had ended on a better note, he replied "I mean, sure. It’s only human nature to want it to always be sunshine and blue skies, but that’s just not the case." For the most part, though, he preferred to stick to his main talking point. "Like I keep saying, we’re just trying to win a basketball game."
Cavs coach David Blatt was peppered primarily with questions about Love's return and was willing to indulge them a bit further than the player was. "I think Kevin has been great from day one. He's embraced what we're trying to do. He's embraced a very different situation than he was involved in here in Minnesota. And he's made every effort to sacrifice when necessary to bring his skill set to form and to be part of a group that obviously is trying very hard to achieve maximum results."
"Kevin is being asked to do things here that maybe in the past he wasn't asked to do because of the load on him offensively," Blatt continued. "He's really, really improved and embraced his defensive role within the team, as well. I see that as a big upgrade on his play from before."
The Cavs were booed loudly as they took the floor. Kevin Love was booed loudly as he was introduced in the starting lineup, followed by loud cheers for LeBron James. And because, as Steve McPherson put it, fans are "intent on showing how their new girlfriend is SO MUCH HOTTER than their old one," Andrew Wiggins was met with deafening cheers in introductions, whenever he did something good (which happened a lot through the first three quarters) and when he checked out with a minute to go in the fourth, which coincidentally enough, was the same time Love exited the game.
All of the weird dynamics led to a loud, mostly hostile environment. Love was booed every time he touched the ball, and especially when he hit shots or grabbed rebounds. Minnesota fans were ready to boo the crap out of the tribute video the Wolves had prepared for Love, but the team smartly led off the in-arena bit with a detailed rundown of the guy's charity work, which was both shrewd and appropriate. Kind of hard to boo a guy who spent a lot of time making sure homeless and underprivileged people had coats, right?
THE ACTUAL GAME ITSELF
Right, so, apart from the Love hullabaloo, an NBA basketball game happened.
One thing I pay close attention to is how opposing teams talk on defense, or if they talk at all. I sit pretty much right behind the Wolves' bench, so I hear a lot of what's being said on that end of the floor. The Bulls, Pacers, Grizzlies, Spurs,
Nets Kevin Garnett and recently the Mavericks have been especially communicative, loudly calling out pick and roll strategy and switches.
The Cavs? Not so much, except for a few instances here and there. What does it mean? I'm not entirely sure. Portland has never struck me as particularly chatty, ditto for Houston and Milwaukee, and they're all in the top-five in defensive rating this season. But on the surface, it'd seem that a team with as many new parts as the Cavs would benefit by talking more on defense rather than less.
Speaking of great communication... during a pair of Gorgui Dieng free throws near the end of the first quarter, LeBron James was standing near the Wolves bench chatting with Flip Saunders. I have no idea how the conversation started, but I clearly heard how it ended: LeBron telling the Wolves coach, "Next time down, me and Tristan are running a side pick and roll. Just so you know." Tristan heard it, glanced over, and cackled from his spot along the lane. After Thompson rebounded Dieng's missed second free throw, the Cavs came down... and that's exactly what they did. It ended with LeBron reversing the ball to an open Iman Shumpert for a three.
The game went along, the Timberwolves hanging in there and the Cavs failing to pull away. Mozgov (10 points) carried the Cavs in the first quarter, LeBron did so in the second and Kyrie in the third. Wiggins was everything for the Wolves the entire game, with bits of help of Nikola Pekovic (who got Mozgov into foul trouble, limiting the Russian big man to just 16 minutes), Thad Young and Kevin Martin. But Wiggins was the real story for Minnesota - 33 points on 14/25 shooting. Iman Shumpert did an alright job in post-up situations on him, J.R. Smith struggled, and even LeBron wasn't terrific defending him for the first three quarters.
But in the fourth, LeBron decided the game was his, and that was that.
The most amazing thing I've seen in the season and a half since I've been covering the Wolves was Kevin Durant (48 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) single-handedly carrying the Thunder to a victory over the Wolves last season. At one point, he hit a heat check three, turned to the Wolves bench and yelled "I'm a BAD MOTHERF---ER."
LeBron's fourth quarter performance last night was the second-most amazing thing I've seen. It's common knowledge, almost to the point of being a cliche, that all-time greats take over on a regular basis and rise to the occasion when games are in the balance, but to witness it in person is still an incredibly hallowed experience. For several possessions in the game's final frame, James brought it up the floor, slowed it down, and waited to make a move until 10 seconds or so remained on the shot clock. He's done this numerous times this season, and when I watch on television, it annoys me. In person, however, it's a different experience. It's eerie and terrifying the way he lurks, casually wiping his palms on his jersey and pointing his teammates to spots, a calm, self-assured look on his face, ready to strike, knowing that he's going to get himself a bucket, an assist or a pair of free throws by sheer tyranny of will.
King James hit 5-of-8 shots, recorded one assist, three rebounds and drew three fouls (hitting 4-of-6 free throws) on his way to 16 fourth quarter points. At the other end, he clamped down on Andrew Wiggins, who ran out of gas (1-for-5, 2 points, 1 turnover) in the final period. Thanks to James, the Cavs won the fourth 30-11 and turned an otherwise close game (the Wolves were up by five with 11:00 to go) into a blowout.
After all was said and done, Love, who recorded a ho hum 14 points and 17 rebounds in his return to the Target Center, returned to his pregame talking point. "It all went well. We ended up getting a win, as we said before the game that's what we came here to do. We walked away with 10 straight so we're happy." LeBron felt Love had handled the evening just about perfectly, saying, "He responded well. Obviously he would love to have a couple of those threes back. He showed the monster that he showed in the tribute video, the monster that he is on the glass. 17 boards, 14 points and helped us get a win."
David Blatt was impressed with how his team rallied around and supported Love: "There was a lot of energy in the building because Kevin was coming back," he said. "I thought the fans gave their team great support and that lifted them. We showed some maturity tonight. We showed great professionalism and found a way to right ourselves in the game in a good fashion. (It was) not an easy game."
It wasn't easy, but the Cavaliers got a win. The streak is at ten, and all is right in The Land.
Reporting from Minneapolis, this has been William Bohl, Fear the Sword double agent extraordinaire.