The Cavaliers, as they last night seemed to insinuate they might, came out aggressively and put together a pretty solid performance in defeating the NBA's top road team 111-95. Like many so far this season, this was an imperfect victory (and it came against a Dallas team missing two starters). But it was also a sign of resilience from the Cavaliers, who have gone through a lot early in this season, and have each time found ways to bounce back. Now let me jump ahead and make this intro sound like a conclusion:
Are the Cavs playing at the level they'll need to play at to win a championship? No, not even close. But perhaps they shouldn't be. The most important lesson they seem to be learning now is how to roll with the punches (something they perhaps never learned last year), and it's something that could eventually make them a very difficult team to handle. As they're hinting at now...come the end of the season, it will take more then one punch to knock this bunch out.
One final introductory note: Literally everyone I called out in anyway during my review of last night's game came through tonight with a monster performance. Conversely, the one player I kind of complemented was J.J. Hickson, and he struggled a bit. So in the spirit of that revelation, I'd like to preface this installment of Game Review with the following:
I think every single member of the Cavs played horribly tonight.
I'm coming to believe that the Cavaliers are best served by The Diesel when they use him discriminately. It's an environmentally conscious theory that I'd like to coin "The Shaq-house Effect."
- So far in the season, I've liked Shaquille O'Neal best when he's serving as the means to a very specific end. Such as physically engaging Dwight Howard, or physically dominating teams that play undersized 5's and making them adjust, or in tonight's case...making a concerted effort to make use of his size advantage by drawing fouls. Tonight, the Cavs opened the fourth by pounding the ball into The Diesel where he was able to take advantage of a depleted Dallas front court and quickly place the Mavs near the penalty. The 9, 6, and 4 he posted was not at all what one might associate with Shaq being dominant, but he set the stage for a very productive fourth quarter...and setting the stage for LBJ and others to take advantage is where #33 can provide his greatest returns. Remember, the goal of Shaq's being in Cleveland is not really for Shaq to dominate himself, but to level the size advantage of opposing teams to such an extent that LeBron's dominance can shine through. At least that's how I interpret Shaq's being here. There still isn't a great deal of cohesion between Shaq and the rest of the team, and he does bog down the offense when the Cavs throw him the ball just for the sake of inclusion. But when the Cavs play games where his purpose is obvious, he always proves to be a more effective piece.
- For one of the first times all season, the LBJumper didn't look like its normal smooth self. But encouragingly, LeBron showed a nice awareness of that by not forcing it and continuing to attack the basket. That's how you shoot 50% from the field even when your shot is off. Only so many guys in the league can do that, and most of the ones who can are 7 ft. tall. Also of note, after a one game hiatus, LeBron returned to his sensational early game form. He kept the offense moving quickly (the Cavs' ball movement was also back after a one game hiatus), and LBJ had racked up 11 assists in the first half (and I believe 8 after the first quarter). LeBron's assist totals seem to consistently be a microcosm of how well the Cavs are moving the ball (the Cavs had 23 assists at halftime). They seem to tail off a bit as the games move along, but boy, when you start out that well, you can still tail off to a pretty good place. That said, I'm waiting for the game where the Cavs keep it going for all 48, and LeBron subsequently picks up 20-plus assists.
- Early in the season, and last night, I spent a pretty substantial deal of time picking on Jamario Moon for what he isn't. But what he does bring is really good. (And strangely enough, I'm pretty sure I've written exactly that in this blog earlier in the season. How soon I forget...) He's hyper-athletic, wants to do the dirty work, and consistently bring top notch energy and attitude. A team can never have enough of those guys. On my only real criticism of him: He can't guard physically dominant slashers, or tough, aggressive post players. But there are only so many physically dominant slashers/aggressive post players in the league...we'll just have to find other ways to defend against them.
- Boy, am I pulling for Delonte. I just love seeing him on the court, and tonight (displaying just supreme timing after my large, downtrodden rumination on his status last night), he showed some substantial glimpses of his old self. Tough defense, and his 9th career double-double in 28 minutes off the bench. Whether he's a starter or not on this team, I don't know. But if Delonte's a bench guy for this season, he can make that bench. Mike Brown just needs to find him some consistent minutes, and some consistent lineups to play with so he can find a level of comfort there.
- Andy Varejao was masterful tonight. Not even taking his scoring into consideration, AV was able to make hustle play after hustle play to consistently quell any semblance of momentum the Mavericks might have been on the verge of harnessing. On the offensive glass, he looked like Dennis Rodman in his prime. Andy would consistently get his hands on the ball, and tap it through traffic until he could secure another possession for the Cavs. Just phenomenal. His energy was great, and it never once wavered in his 32 minutes. I always feel this way watching Manu Ginobili, but Andy plays at a different pace, and with a different rhythm then American-bred players. He's just craftier, and it can make him very difficult to play against.
- Kind of related to Andy's big night was that we only saw 14 minutes of J.J. tonight. I hope we continue to push him forward, to push him to grow as a player...but I'm okay with a night like this every once in a while. J.J. isn't forcing the action just to get his (encouraging), and perhaps he'll learn how to make himself completely indispensable (offensive rebound perhaps?) if he needs to in order to stay on the court.
- Mo Williams (2008-09) 17.8 ppg (46.7% fgs, 43.6% 3pt fgs), 4.1 asst vs. 2.2 turnovers. Mo Williams (2009-10) 17.8 ppg (46.2% fgs, 48.8% 3pt fgs), 4.7 asst vs. 2.9 turnovers. Just thought that was of note, particularly when at the beginning of the season, Mo seemed to be struggling more then anyone in trying both to adjust to Shaq and replicate his All-Star season of last year. Mo was 7-7 from downtown tonight. Huge performance. I don't like it when the Cavs have to rely on him to play that well, but when Mo has it going like he did tonight, the Cavs are pretty tough to beat.
- I wrote this down in the third quarter: I like that the Cavs are winning, but I'm still not entirely comfortable with how they're winning. They're still too reliant on outscoring their opponents. Why is this? Is the Cavs defense weakening, or is the offense getting better and thus rendering the defense less important? Or is it the league changing? The more I watch NBA basketball this year, the more I think the latter must be taken into account. It's getting increasingly difficult to play defense in the NBA, and that's by design. As it pertains to the Cavs, I think all three factor into play. There's a whole season for the Cavs to figure out how to stop people, but I hope they're analyzing it as much as I am. Mike Brown is their coach, so I'm pretty sure that they are. The Cavs were 9th in the league in FG% defense prior to the Dallas game (44.2%)...which actually was surprisingly high in relation to how they've seemed to be performing of late. The magic number that Mike Brown always harps on is 42%. What frightened me further was to discover who is at 42% in FG % defense. The league leading Los Angeles Lakers (42.1%).
Z did not enter the game tonight (aka Danny Ferry's record lives another day), while Delonte West played well. There was an article on the Plain Dealer's website about Leon Powe's rehab progressing nicely, which got me thinking that when he returns, I don't know where he gets any minutes. These types of logjams are prevalent throughout the roster, and I think the Cavs need to be looking at ways to transition their roster's bottlenecks into fewer, but better players. Far easier said then done, but they have the trade chips to get creative with this. When the meaningful games come, at least one of the trio of Jamario Moon, Daniel Gibson, and Delonte West will get resigned to the bench. The same goes for J.J. Hickson and Leon Powe.
This is all related to my "the Cavs need to land an integral young all-star/borderline all-star-type player to the roster" campaign. I'll grant you that I'm a little bit of a dreamer, but that said, I do think there are very real issues here to consider. I'm not sure that I see this current team as the one that crosses the finish line.
The Cavs are in Cleveland for two more games, the first of which takes place this Wednesday when Phoenix comes to town. A lot to take into consideration in regards to this game, but perhaps most prominently, it's the first time the Big Cactus will have seen his old mates this season. Also once again, I'm glad the Cavs have an extended layoff to work on their issues.