The Cleveland Cavaliers will face their last big challenge before the Christmas Day game against the Golden State Warriors this week. While many are looking ahead to that game already, the Cavs will first have to go to battle twice against perhaps the hottest team in the league right now, the 17-8 Memphis Grizzlies. The Cavs host Memphis on Tuesday night, and will turn around and face them again in Tennessee on Wednesday. While the Grizzlies will be a completely different challenge to what the Cavs will face in the Warriors, this appears to be their last tune-up against an elite team before they challenge the defending runners-up.
Who: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Memphis Grizzlies
When: 7:00PM ET
Where: Quicken Loans Arena - Cleveland, Ohio
TV Listings: Fox Sports Ohio
Memphis is without Mike Conley, who is recovering from a stress fracture in his low back. They’ve been starting Andrew Harrison in his absence, which means the Cavs have a significant advantage at the point guard spot. Harrison’s pretty good defensively this year - there’s only a 0.4-point drop-off in team defense when he’s on the floor - but he's been a horrendous shooter, hitting just 28.5 percent from the field this season. Kyrie Irving will be an important player for the Cavaliers in this matchup, as he will be charged with scoring against Harrison and Tony Allen, and potentially will spend some time on the ball defending the Grizzlies' weakest scorer. He'll have to take advantage of the minutes he gets against Harrison, because Allen will prove much more difficult to score against.
How the Cavs rebound on Tuesday will also be an important area of the game. The Cavs haven't been nearly as good on the offensive glass this year, with Tristan Thompson holding steady but the rest of the team ceding rebounds. They're 12th in offensive rebound rate, while the Grizzlies are one of the league's best defensive rebounding teams, grabbing 79.8 percent of opponent misses. They will almost always have one of Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph on the floor, meaning that they'll have a strong answer for Thompson or Kevin Love crashing the boards at all times. Memphis is very good at making you grind out possessions one at a time, which helps them stay in games despite having the league's 27th-most efficient offense.
But where the Cavs could have the biggest issues may be against Memphis's bench units, which have been strong all season, and present the Cavs with some difficult mismatches. A lineup of Harrison, Gasol, Troys Williams and Daniels, and JaMychal Green has been incredible over the last few games, posting a defensive rating of 84.9 in 16 minutes of action. Ditto for the starting lineup with Daniels in place of Williams, which has a net rating of +27.9 in 54 minutes. The Grizzlies are able to bring in athletic and dangerous shooters off the bench, while still maintaining a few of their defensively stalwart starters on the floor at all times, which gives them good balance against bench units that are strong in some areas and weak in others. It will be difficult for the Cavs to go many minutes with a LeBron James/Love or Love/Channing Frye frontcourt, because the Grizzlies can counter that with one of Gasol or Randolph paired with the bruising Jarell Martin. I'm also nervous for a matchup between Wade-Baldwin and Irving or Kay Felder, because while Baldwin hasn't been good offensively, he has such a physical advantage over both players that it could present issues for either attempting to drive on him.
Ultimately this game may come down to the Cavs’ ability to hit outside shots and keep the Grizzlies off the offensive glass. Memphis does allow a ton of three-point attempts, but they're rarely the wide-open ones the Cavs are able to generate against almost anyone. Maintaining production of their easiest baskets, and keeping Memphis from getting their easiest, will be key.
Fear the Sword's Fearless Prediction: A fun game that should see a drastic contrast of styles. Memphis will frustrate parts of the Cavs' offense and the Cavs will have defensive success against the Grizzlies' anemic O. But ultimately I think that the mismatch of Kyrie against Harrison and Love and Frye dragging Gasol out of the paint will be enough. I have Cavaliers 101, Grizzlies 97 Tuesday night, and we'll see how it sets up Wednesday’s re-match in Memphis.