Cavs Show Heart in Comeback Despite Loss to the Thunder

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It doesn’t look any better in the loss column but the grit the Cavaliers showed in a 103-94 loss to the Thunder last night will pay off down the road. Playing without their leader LeBron James – who sat out this, their third game in four nights, with a sore knee – the Cavs trailed in nearly every statistical category but heart.The eight-game winning streak comes to an end, but they didn’t go quietly.

This was epitomized by the scrappy play of Aussie fireplug Matthew Dellavedova. Starting in place of James, Dellavedova scored 14 points, drained four 3s, had four assists, and a steal posting a team high +7 plus/minus when he was on the court.

Coach David Blatt revisited a ploy he’s tried before on stretch 4s like the Pelicans' Ryan Anderson (look for it tonight too) – putting the smaller Delly on Durant. (Shawn Marion also did a fine job on KD.) Dellavedova’s quick enough to crowd Durant and a strong enough defensive player to generally stay with him on pick and rolls.

Unfortunately the Thunder switched to get Kyrie Irving onto Durant three of the final four possessions, each resulting in a score for Durant. For the night Durant was 4-4 when Irving was on him, and 2-10 when anyone else covered him.

It’s easy to harp on Irving’s defense because it’s his most glaring weakness. But sometimes it’s simply a matter of focus and awareness – something a young player naturally has to learn. Here Kyrie lays low on the pick giving Durant more than enough room to toast him in.

Here the Thunder drive and dish to the 3 point-line in transition. (We’ll talk about the Transition D in a moment.) Kyrie jogs back, not looking for his man and doesn’t read the situation until the ball is coming back to a wide-open, feet-set Anthony Morrow.

But whatever Kyrie Irving’s deficiencies, he doesn’t make excuses and he is as tenacious an offensive player as there is in the league. He happened to run up against the second-best point guard in the league, and a player who’s physicality was a match for Irving's creativity around the basket. And the Thunder are long with Adams, Ibaka and Perkins, blocking 11 of the Cavs shots during the night.

After making his first shot of the game, Kyrie proceeded to go 1-10 before hitting his last shot of the third quarter. It wasn’t even bad shots, or necessarily difficult shots, though Irving makes everything he does around the basket look easy. Here are six of those nine misses. (He finished 7-21 from the field for 20 pts, 6 assists.)

The team had their traditional issues off the dribble, which is a particularly nettlesome problem with Thunder guards Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson being so good off the bounce. Shawn Marion in particular seems poorly matched up on combo guards, though obviously you have to stay back on Westbrook to account for his speed, which is another problem as his developing mid-range jumper is making people pay.

As a result of the penetration, they were getting clobbered in the paint. They got beat 48-28 in the paint – yet the entire Thunder frontcourt outside Durant (19 pts, 6 bds, 5 ast, 2 stl, 2 blk) only had 6 baskets. That means a lot of guards finishing at the rim. It helped that OKC shot terribly from 3 (26.9%), but in the second half they did start hitting the drive and dish going 6-13 from outside the line after halftime.

The team jumped out to a 26-18 lead in the first quarter, powered in part by seven Thunder turnovers. They’d only force four more the rest of the way. The Cavs led 36-27 after a Dellavedova 3 off a Kyrie fastbreak drive & dish with 8:11 left in the 3rd. The Thunder then made a 16-4 run. Six of those points game on transition plays of various level of defensibility.

Yet despite all the defensive problems and the occasional discontinuity on offense, the team scrapped and clawed their way to a 47-47 tie at halftime. They were shooting 33%, but because they rebounded (Love 16, Thompson 13) and got to the line (30 times for the game) they managed to keep it close. Everyone caught their breath when Kyrie hurt his knee near the end of the second quarter, but he came back out for the second half okay.

They opened the third quarter well, and ran some nice pick and rolls and screens for Love with Dellavedova, and Irving and Varejao, as Love scored 8 of his 18 points in the first half of the third quarter. He had another basket taken away on an offensive foul call on Thompson. Meanwhile their defense got sloppier, including missed assignments like this one.

The Thunder finished an 18-5 run just before the end of the third quarter, all of the points either threes (3), layups/dunks (2) or free throws (5). Tristan Thompson’s five points were all the team could manage as Irving continued to suffer through his scoring drought.

Things didn’t improve to open the fourth either, as the Thunder hit their first three shots, including two triples to push the lead to 20. Here is where you Cavaliers showed heart. They could’ve just given up, but guess who wouldn’t?

Matthew Dellavedova hit two threes closing the lead to 14. Irving hit a driving layup and then with the lead back at 17 drew the sixth foul on the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka with 6:43 left, moments after Thompson had drawn his fifth.

Irving pressed him hard on a pick and roll and Ibaka brushed the crafty point gaurd too closely. The Thunder’s imposing defensive presence gone, the Cavs went on a 17-4 run in which everyone contributed: Varejao 5, Love 4, Kyrie 4, Delly 2, and Thompson 2, on this beautiful putback.

Sadly, this is where Durant decided to take over, repeatedly abusing Kyrie. Giving up six inches to the finest scorer in the league, even if he is less than a week back from injury, is a difficult task, and one wonders if some help might not have been forthcoming.

So what do you come away from this tough loss with? A sense that this team is more than just LeBron. They played one of the West Conference elite to a draw for most of the game, and were even able to take their biggest punches and not back down.

They showed it against the Knicks when they didn’t play a good game but hung tough, and they showed it putting away the Raptors on Tuesday. They may have lost but they showed a lot of grit.

We also discovered that Dellavedova – only in his second year out of St. Mary’s, where he was three time All-WAC and senior Academic All-American – has the kind of intangibles that can keep a team afloat through adversity. He played 34 minutes, and despite below average foot speed, his intensity buoyed the team through the rough spots.

We still haven’t found out how to get Kevin Love involved for the whole game. And James Jones’ slow, ineffectual defense (-17 plus/minus during his 14 minutes) was amplified by his goose egg on three shots. Mike Miller’s absence (concussion) is felt, though he did participate in shoot-around, so hopefully he’s close to returning.

The team could still use one more bench scorer, especially not one so ball dominant as Dion Waiters. Somebody with some size to match up against big guards, and some championship savvy. Oh, and they’d need to be a good three point shooter. This would be a good time to say a prayer for Jesus (Shuttlesworth)

The Cavs get the New Orleans Pelicans tonight. Anthony Davis is a darkhorse candidate for MVP with an impressive line: 25 ppg, 10.6 rbd, 1.7 ast, 1.95 stl, 2.9 blk. They’re missing ever-injured shooting guard Eric Gordon, and they’re bench is among the worst in the league, but their starting five is very good. Particularly watch how they play Ryan Anderson, a deadly 3 point shooter, and swingman Tyreke Evans, who can get to the basket off the dribble.

I’ll be live tweeting during the contest at @CRS_1ne. Should be a good game even if LeBron doesn’t play. (They say he’s 50-50.) Kyrie’s expected to be a go.
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