Cleveland’s musketeer trio – Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James — scored 61 of the team’s 67 second half points, and overcame an overall inconsistent defensive effort to beat Anthony “The Brow” Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans 118-111 last night.
James in particular was fantastic, finishing with a triple-double – 32 points (13-17 from the line), 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He initiated the offense much of the night, and found the kind of balance between passing and scoring that has sometimes eluded Irving, who finished with 32 points and 9 assists of his own.
“[James] distributed the ball extremely well,” said Coach David Blatt during the post-game press conference. “He made use of his possessions efficiently and intelligently, and he played the game with a lot of passion and our guys fed off of that.”
James’ energy carried the team during a mediocre first half that ended with the Cavs trailing 56-51. His passing was nothing short of a clinic:
He found Virginia rookie Joe Harris for his 1st NBA 3-pointer.
He repeatedly found Anderson Varejao on pick and roll plays...
….or slalomed around defenders on his way to a thunderous slam, as on this play that closed the third quarter with a 16-1 run and gave the Cavs an 85-79 lead.
Coach Blatt played a key role in the team’s turnaround, seemingly finding the perfect combination with a small lineup of Tristan Thompson, Shawn Marion, James, Harris and Irving during the run that began down by 9 with four minutes left in the frame.
That five managed to slow the Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson, who torched the Cavs for 32 points, including 8 threes. Several of the threes came on fastbreak kick-outs where transition D collapsed and the penetrating player kicked it out for an open three.
“We were having trouble with Anderson all night,” said Coach Blatt. “I wanted to put a lineup in there that would allow us to defend him – that was the only quarter we defended him. The rest of the game he killed us. That was the quarter we turned it around and I thought that Joe Harris in addition to playing really well, played the game with great energy.”
The team still looked lost on defense at times, particularly during transition, giving up drives to the basket on rebounds and even made shots. Sometimes they simply never found their man.
Harris wound up playing 20 minutes, after logging only 7 minutes before tonight, and showed lots of moxie, notching his second and third baskets of the season.
“Not having Delly and Dion hurts us but it allows other guys on the team to have to step up,” said Harris after the game. “Just trying to do my part and whenever my name is called I’ll be ready to go.”
Harris benefited from the absence of Dion Waiters, who is recovering from an injury on a hard foul he received in the first quarter of Friday’s game in Denver. Darrell Arthur was ejected for pushing Waiters while he was airborne for a layup. He fell on his lower back and though he finished the game, it has tightened up on Waiters since then.
Waiters’ absence has meant more of LeBron at the point. It poses serious problems for defenders when James runs a pick and roll with Love or Irving, either of whom can score off the bounce or drift to the three point line. In the second half, Irving and Love were 7 of 9 from three in large part because of the effectiveness of these pick and rolls, particularly in the center of the court.
At the same time, it’s unclear whether wings James and Marion are truly fast enough to stay with shooting guards in the new-look lineup. They have the length to still challenge players who penetrate, but the simple fact that they’re getting broken down off the dribble forces other players to rotate over, potentially leaving their man open for layups. That’s how Davis got loose for 19 second half points, and 27 on the night.
“I can honestly tell you I am disappointed in the moments of lethargy that we have on defense,” Blatt said. “Our guys need to understand if we want to consistently beat very good teams like we did tonight, we can not afford to sleep for parts of the game or parts of the quarter.”
The offense mixed isolation, one-on-one ball with passing and movement to devastating effect. When the Cavs defend and force turnovers that allow them to run, they’re a juggernaut. But they don’t play defense often or with enough passion at this point to challenge the Spurs and Clippers of the world. Of course, we’ll get a first hand look a week from Wednesday when the Spurs come to town.