Ladies and gentleman, it is ON. Like “Mother’s Little Helper” the Cavaliers are here to relieve Cleveland of the burden that is the Browns, and shine a light into our otherwise sad and pitiful sports life. No judgment. We’ve all been there, though not everyone can turn it into song like Morrissey.
The Cavaliers kicked off their preseason last night in Cincinnati with a 98-96 loss to their Eastern Conference Finals foe the Atlanta Hawks on the campus of Xavier University. It was the first real basketball since Golden State won the championship at the Q in June, and despite the loss, the team came away with a lot of positives.
“The guys played hard, I thought they played right and for us that was a pretty good game,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. “I can’t say I’m happy we didn’t win it in the end, but we came out of that game pretty much exactly how we wanted to.
“We played the way I wanted us to play with the exception of a few things,” he added a moment later. “I was happy with the way we moved and the ball moved and the way the team played together.”
Blatt said that they’ve worked on ball movement from the first day of camp, and it showed. While it without doubt got sloppy at times (17 turnovers), the team really moved the ball adding 28 assists. It was at times pell-mell, but nothing unexpected for the first preseason game.
It also offered Anderson Varejão his first action since going down with in December (with a torn Achilles tendon). That was particularly welcome for the Wild Thing.
“It felt great to be back out there. It’s been a long time, you know,” said the curly mop-topped Brazilian. “Last year was tough for me, getting injured after 27 games. It was really, really tough to not be there and be able to help the team and be with the team.”
Varejão was one of the feel-good stories of the evening as he looked very lively and arguably the most willing passer on the team. Playing with the second squad, he helped the unit move the ball. It really didn’t produce much in the first half as the offensive limitations of the unit were on bright display.
With Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving sitting, the squad consisted of Matthew Dellavedova, Varejão, newcomers Sasha Kaun and Richard Jefferson, and either point guard Quinn Cook or shooting guard Jared Cunningham, both competing for the final non-guaranteed roster spot. Urkel would have an easier time scoring.
Some might scoff at that 15th lineup spot but with so many injuries (and holdouts), the Cavs are reduced to three legitimate wings – Jefferson, LeBron and JR Smith. While Delly can play some off-guard because of his size, his offensive limitations make him a better point guard fit. This leaves a hole that someone like Cook, Cunningham or Austin Daye might fill.
All three played well, though to these eyes, Cunningham shone brighter than his mates. He nailed a three, took the ball to the hole and drew three fouls for five three throws, as well as dishing out three assist, to go with a steal and three turnovers. Cunningham finished with 10 points and +6 in +/- to lead the reserves.
Former Duke undrafted free agent Quinn Cook had 2 points, four assists and a steal with only one turnover. He knows how to handle the ball and showed some fancy dribbling, but looked challenged trying finish at the rim, which at his size and with his spotty jumper is a bad sign.
Austin Daye drained four treys, grabbed three boards, blocked a shot and got a steal. Those last two are a bit revelatory because Daye’s a good outside shooter, but his inability to guard PFs or SFs has limited the 6-11 son of NBA veteran Darren Daye. His outside shot is attractive and he spent time in San Antonio, but for a guy who has been around the sport all his life, he doesn’t have the basketball IQ you might expect.
James Jones started at PF and did a surprisingly apt job covering Paul Milsap. Jones has these praying mantis like limbs that make up for some of his elderly footspeed, and allow him to slither in front of post players. Yet once they get the ball on the block it’s usually over.
Still, Jones faced up and blocked Milsap at one point, demonstrating again, that he’s not as bad defensively as he’s sometimes credited (by people like me for much of last year). He’s still a defensive liability, but not so much as he seemed during parts of last season. Milsap finished with 5 points, though he grabbed 7 boards. (Jones had but one board and would be challenged trying to out-rebound Danny DeVito; it’s just not his thing.)
Timofey Mozgov looked very good and had a couple great cuts to the basket that resulted in dunks. He caught a bounce pass from Mo Williams that he flushed, rolled into the lane to receive a LeBron pass and caught another one coming down the baseline. In all he finished with 13 points, five boards and a blocked shot. He even caught two bounce passes he converted into jams.
If Wild Thing stays healthy, the team might not even miss their holdout backup power forward that’s looking for a max contract. (Sorry, it needs to be written because it looks even more ridiculous when you write it down.) In a similar vein Sasha Kaun moved well, on defense and offense though he didn’t finish well, or realize you need to stop at some point while setting a pick. Those crazy Europeans with their lack of regulation…
It was just a preseason game, but there were times, particularly during the second half, where the Hawks seemed to finish every play at the rim. The Cavaliers pick and roll coverage on penetration looked slow. Of course, as long-time Cavaliers fans know, that’s one of those fringe benefits of playing Mo Williams as the starting point – turnstile defense. Blatt was non-plussed, of course.
“Maybe a little bit [of trouble with pick & roll penetration]; they scored 96 points [actually 98], overall defensively we were solid,” he said. “We could’ve gotten the ball downhill a little bit more and attacked the rim and certainly we could’ve passed it inside a little bit more but it seemed like we were getting the shots that we wanted to.”
Worth mentioning the highlight of the night – Richard Jefferson skied high to slam it over the 7’3” Hawks rookie Walter Tavares.
Jefferson has become a skilled three-point shooter, but early in his career he was a high-flier who lived at the rim. Indeed you can find video online of him competing in the 1998 McDonald’s All-American and 2003 NBA All-Star Game slam dunk contests.
“Wow 2003 was a lifetime ago,” Jefferson laughed when it was brought up. “People ask me all the time, and I just try to keep my body in shape and my body healthy. I’ve been so blessed to not have any knees or crazy injuries.”
At this point Varejão got back to his locker and wanted to know if Jefferson had mentioned that his dunk was enabled by his great pass, which Jefferson assured him he had. “He’s very sensitive,” Jefferson explained.
That is just about that. One thing bears mentioning: J.R. Smith and LeBron James have become chums and in the locker room were bantering back and forth. James explained that Smith and he kid each other about their age (both 30), and as was noted by beat reporters earlier in the day, Smith and James arrived an hour early to shootaround to shoot together, something they’ve been doing for a while.
It appears Smith has become James’ project.
So far, so good. Smith had 15 points, didn’t take any bad shots, and the first time he put it on the floor he didn’t shoot but found an open guy in the corner. Smith finished with 4 assists (trailing only the King’s 5), four boards, a steal and TWO blocks. This is the kind of engagement Smith had when he was Sixth Man of the Year, and he looked close to regular season form. Even physically, where he appeared leaner.
Appearances can be deceiving. According to Smith, he’s at 220, more or less his normal playing weight, after reporting at 237. Yes, he lost 17 pounds in a little over a week of two-a-day practices. “It wasn’t crack,” Smith assured us semi-helpfully.
So the Cavs are back, and so am I. For those who maybe missed it, I covered the team all last year, and will be running it back again. My goal now as it was then is to give you something you won’t get from other Cavaliers outlets.
Mostly that means an unvarnished, sometimes cheeky, hopefully incisive perspective, with both off-the-cuff smart-assery and serious play-analysis. Many outlets want to dumb things down and appeal to the lowest common denominator. I don’t think you’re stupid and I won’t treat you that way.
There isn’t a test on any of this, I’m just trying to entertain and inform without reiterating a bunch of stuff you already know, or getting caught up with the silly, manufactured traumas that are increasingly TMZ-ing a perfectly good sport.
(This seems to be a good place to point out that for all the hand-wringing and assurances from Brian Windhorst that everyone living or dead he’s talked to said Kevin Love was leaving town, Love did EXACTLY what he told reporters for six months he was going to do. Might be something to think about when Windhorst tells you what Tristan will do: Sometimes you have a better idea which way the wind’s blowing than the so-called weathermen.)
I’m not a professional, and I don’t have a fat per diem or gratis hotel rooms. I do this because I love basketball. I can (and do) write lots of other stuff. I write about music for Billboard and have penned cover stories on Anonymous, corporate tax evasion and Medicare fraud in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston and Phoenix to name a few.
But basketball, that’s as much about love as anything else, and hopefully I can communicate that passion in a way that makes me a worthy alternative to my more corporate peers.