The Cleveland Cavaliers faced off against the Eastern Conference’s 4th-best team in the Charlotte Hornets tonight. They were without their two starting guards, as Kyrie Irving joined J.R. Smith on the sideline with a hamstring injury. You’d think this would be a problem, but the Cavs won 121-109 anyway.
The Cavs needed two things to compensate for Irving’s absence: Competence from the trio of DeAndre Liggins, Jordan McRae, and Kay Felder, and big scoring games from LeBron James and Kevin Love. The Cavs got both. The latter was expected, as LeBron had 32 points on 12-25 shooting, and Kevin Love pitched in 28 points on 8-20 from the field to go along with 10 rebounds. But the real story was the trio of D-League veterans, who all played a important role in building, maintaining, and extending the Cavs’ lead.
Liggins got the primary assignment on Kemba Walker for most of the game. While he certainly had some struggles with Walker (37/5/5 for Kemba), Liggins did a good job of walling off the paint in one-on-one situations early on, and worked well with the Cavs’ bigs to prevent Walker from penetrating off the dribble, which bogged the Hornets’ offense down.
McRae, and Felder, meanwhile, shined offensively, combining for 31 points on 12-17 shooting to add the scoring punch the Cavs were going to miss with Irving. McRae got his first start of the year in Irving’s place, and played a smart game offensively, hitting a pair of spot-up threes in the first half and generally making smart passes and decisions when he got his chances. He had nine in the third frame, taking over some of the offensive initiation and burning Walker and Jeremy Lamb off the dribble repeatedly.
Felder, meanwhile, had perhaps his best game of the season, finishing with 13 points. The Cavs notably open their offense a little wider for Felder when he was the primary ball-handler, initiating high screens around 27-28 feet from the basket. These spread pick-and-roll looks are more what Felder is used to running from his Oakland days, and he did a nice job of attacking out of these sets. He too hit a pair of spot-up threes, which was nice to see.
The Cavs had some trouble putting the Hornets away, letting the Hornets flirt with a pair of miniature comebacks in the 4th quarter. This was mostly thanks to Walker and Frank Kaminsky, who had a nice effort with 15 points off the bench for Charlotte. But the Cavs were able to respond, attacking Kaminsky with small-ball lineups that continually found Frank’s defensive assignment and let him work. The Hornets are yet to figure out how to stop the Cavs’ offense consistently through three games this season, and a lot of that has to do with the Cavs’ success in attacking the Hornets with small-ball.
The Cavs will return in 2017 with a home matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans. Have a safe and happy New Year’s.