Kyrie Finds Love as Cavs Sidestep Hornets 91-87

You’ve got to walk before you run and the Cavaliers took their first tentative steps without LeBron last night beating a Charlotte Hornets team that was also missing its best player, Al Jefferson. LeBron’s two-week R&R provides a much-advertised opportunity for the second bananas to hang out, smooth their mustaches, and figure out the pecking order beyond King Alpha.

This is no small task because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love haven’t had to defer to anybody for most of their NBA career. For Love it’s less of an issue because he has very little control of the situation being as he requires someone to throw him the ball. A significant burden lands on Kyrie’s shoulders because he’s the guy typically distributing the rock (before this year).

While Kyrie is a credible passer, he excels at finishing at the basket where his creativity in the air rivals Dr. J. (There, I said it. And if you haven’t thought it, you should’ve.) He’s also shown a tremendous knack for the lob pass off the pick-and-roll, showering Tristan Thompson with love. But Love is not the alley-oop type. He’s more a drive-and-dish guy, something that’s much further down Kyrie’s to-do list.

So it’s not surprising either that in the King’s absence Irving took 27 shots (made 8) and handed out but 3 assists, or that only one found Love for one of his nine baskets (on a glaringly more efficient 15 shots).

It’s not that Irving’s particularly selfish; he’s just doing what he knows and what he does best. If you’ve followed the NBA for long enough, you’re aware that teaching a score-first PG to pass is an arduous task even by the exalted Henry Higgins’ Pymalion standards. (If it works at all.) It’s certainly going to take more than a little bit of luck.

One thing the Cavs did in the Hornets game was to frequently have someone other than Irving initiate the offense. The Cavs have been doing that all year, but generally with LeBron. Last night it was Dellavedova (3 points, 4 assists) and at later points Mike Miller (0 pts, 4 assists).

This included various novel actions (so far this season) to spring Love, particularly in the first quarter, when he saw this down-pick from Tristan Thompson spring him for a top of the key jumper.

Love’s been terrific in the first quarter this season, but has to sit at the kids table at the end of the game when Kyrie and LeBron set about taking over the game. Sharing’s hard, and like marriage, it’s something that takes time and self-reflection to negotiate.

When LeBron left he got a major taste of that with Dwyane Wade, who was already his friend. That’s not the case here. However much they may like each other – I’m not speculating –Ky, Kev and LBJ are hardly three musketeers. Certainly not yet.

It almost seems like Miller, Delly and Marion aren’t only emissaries to the first team from the reserves, but liaisons between the different camps, moving between the different cafeteria tables as everyone eases their way to the day they can all eat together. As wise Master Po once said, “Patience, grasshopper.”

Penetration continues to be an issue for whoever is guarding the point, be it Dion, Kyrie or Delly. It forces guys into the lane, really helping the Hornets get a lot of midrange jumpers. While they lack 3-point range, they’re pretty good midrange shooters, as Cody Zeller showed on this baseline play off Kemba Walker penetration.

The game changed suddenly with a 7-0 Hornets run in the final 67 seconds of the first quarter. It began with a loose ball foul on offense when Brendan Haywood pushed Hornet Jason Maxiell under the basket so obviously his own mom was shaking her head. Maxiell hit one of two.

Then Dion Waiters proceeded to make a turnover, losing the ball driving into double coverage (who does he think he is, Kyrie Irving?) and launch up a brick, both followed by Hornets baskets, one a direct result of Dion wandering too far from his man, allowing the Hornets to take a 25-16 first quarter lead.

They started out the third playing hard defense and holding the line – which has been a hallmark the last week or two of this rotation since Marion went to the bench. I can’t point to any one thing – it certainly isn’t his shooting — but the whole engine runs smoother.

Some credit goes to James Jones who’s using his long arms to his defensive advantage and getting after wings on the perimeter daring them to get around him, and proving still quite agile.

The shooting wasn’t good, but the defensive effort was and the score was tied at 31 midway through the second, thanks to a 15-6 run fueled by five free throws and two Thompson buckets.

What happened during the next five minutes was just too tragic to speak of. The Cavaliers missed nine straight shots (two of them blocked), two free throws and surrendered a 12-1 run to the Hornets. After fighting gallantly back to tie it, they were looking at halftime worse off then they began, down 43-32.

That’s when Dion Waiters came to the rescue. The guy has so much talent it’s frightening, but it’s as unfocused as a three-year old after a cappuccino. He reminds me of Dudley Moore’s brilliant line in Arthur, about how beautiful his fiancée is in “when the light hits her in as certain way. Of course, you can’t depend on that light.”

Well for 50 seconds in the second quarter Dion was scintillating. Here are a couple of the plays – which were sparked by Dion’s quick hands – and showcased his ability in the open floor. The third basket (and one of Kyrie’s three assists) occurred off-screen while they were showing highlights of prior baskets. It allowed the Cavs to close the lead to 46-40.

About a minute into the third, Love got a feed from Dellavedova on the wing and after getting the ball knocked away by Cody Zeller, recovered it, and took it to the hole where he was mugged without whistle by Bismack Biyombo. Love lay on the floor for a moment before getting up and proceeding to drain three straight from downtown.

That gave the Cavs a 51-50 lead, their first lead since the first quarter, en route to a 32-point outburst, and 72-64 end of quarter lead. The balance of the quarter showed us a bit of good Dion as he got four layups abetted by a steal and an offensive rebound. (Naturally none of Dion’s baskets involved an assist.) Tristan also stepped up with a couple of hoops and a free throw.

It didn’t matter. The Cavs locked down Charlotte on defense during the quarter. Kyrie played one of his best games of the year in clamping down on Kemba Walker (4-16, 5 assists), though the absence of Jefferson obviously helped.

But the offense regressed in the fourth to a bunch of isolation plays and for the first nine and a half minutes they managed twelve points. After that breakout third quarter binge, Love had about four more scoring position touches in the third, and only two for most of the fourth, a missed six foot jumper and an easy layup on a long rebound leak-out where Kyrie found him for his only assist to Love all game.

Meanwhile Waiters and Irving were bricking their way through a combined 16-48 from the field. Everyone says, why don’t they run more Waiters and Irving pick-and-rolls with Kevin Love. I suppose that’s a good question, and I watched all night. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but this is most of the games' pick and rolls featuring the trio. As you’ll note, like that cute girl who’s always being kept on a string by someone, at this point, I’d tell Love they’re not that into you.

Above you’ll find about six or seven sequences (culled into a spare 75 seconds or so) with Waiters and Kyrie that only produce one substantial touch for Love. This is probably why you’ll see a lot more of his shots coming off action with Delly or Miller.

I’m not sure if it’s the picks or that teams are doubling Kyrie early daring him to pass the ball to Love, and he’s choosing instead to split the doubles, or even skirt the pick and go the other way (which seems to have become increasingly fashionable as teams blitz the pick more).

But what I will tell you is that you can’t make it work, it needs time to develop. Having LeBron gone is going to give them time to work on this, but it’s going to take effort. It’s against Kyrie and Dion’s very natures to look for others before themselves, and like a marriage that’s the nature of the sacrifice. It will suck for them some of the time and suck for us some of the time.

But in the end, they did find Love, and he got his second basket of the fourth quarter for only the second time this year. (Thanks to Jason Lloyd of Akron Beacon Journal for unearthing that nugget. He had four in the home loss to New Orleans November 10.) As we’ve noted here before – they don’t find him in the second half, but they did last night and it won the game for them.

It was a nice first step. Time is the biggest thing this relationship needs, but there’s the spotlight and expectations in addition to opponents to conquer. You can only go so fast as you can go – knowing your limitations is one of basketball’s most important lessons, and the Cavaliers haven’t cared enough prior to this season to look in the mirror. That’s the first step before straightening one’s hair or smoothing the mustache.

I have to apologize to my readers for the lateness of my post. I am enjoying a family holiday out-of-town and working around that poses some issues. However I will still be living tweeting during tomorrow afternoon’s 1 p.m. game against the Mavericks and will have another column on Monday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne.
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