7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Houston -4
A pair of contenders going through some hard times meet tonight in Cleveland as the Cavaliers host the Houston Rockets in what would have likely been billed as a potential Finals preview two months ago. After a stretch in which they won nine out of twelve games, the Rockets (23-11, Third in Southwest) have since stumbled of late, dropping four out of their last six outings. Their fortunes turned Monday Night after shellacking Miami in a 115-79 demolition, traveling to the United Center to face the Bulls, who took them to task in the second half, pulling away in the Fourth Quarter of a 114-105 victory. Leading 89-83 after three periods, the visitors were outscored 31-16 in the final stanza, as the well ran dry on the offensive end, as they were outscored 19-5 over the final 3:19 of play. Houston shot a dismal 6-of-23 from the field in the final twelve minutes (26.1%), including a scant 2-of-12 from beyond the arc (16.7%), while the Bulls in turn, made a living from the charity stripe. On the night, Kevin McHale’s charges saw their opponent net 27-of-30 free-throws (90.0%), an outrageous twenty-four-point difference on the scoreboard. One could simply blame the officiating for such a disparity in free-throws, but the fact is that Houston settled for far too many jumpers Monday Night, whereas the hosts were rewarded for being aggressive and driving to the rim. James Harden poured in twenty points, but did so on 7-of-22 shooting from the field (31.8%), along with a pair of rebounds, three assists, and a steal, but was a horrid 0-for-9 over the final two quarters. However, it was Josh Smith, who was acquired the previous week after being released by the Pistons, that made the biggest impact; coming off the bench, the athletic Forward totaled a team-high 21 points on 10-of-20 shooting from the field (50.0%), while posting six rebounds, two assists, and three steals. Defensively, McHale saw his team’s curious regression continue in the Windy City, as Chicago shot 48.2% from the field, all the while amassing a whopping twenty-seven assists, proof that the defensive pressure was virtually nonexistent. Pau Gasol tortured his former teammate Dwight Howard in the paint, scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting (62.5%), with fourteen rebounds and a pair of blocks, while Jimmy Butler met little resistance on the perimeter, putting up 22 points to boot. What makes this particularly disappointing for McHale is the fact that those two were defended by Howard and Trevor Ariza, arguably the two top defenders on the team, and it still didn’t make much of a difference.
During this recent stretch, that has been the biggest problem for the Rockets; they simply haven’t shown much interest on the defensive end of the court over the last ten contests. On the season, they carry the image of a stout defensive team, allowing 97.3 points (3rd Overall) on 43.6% shooting from the field (5th Overall), including 48.1% from within the three-point arc (11th Overall) and 30.5% from beyond it (2nd Overall), all the while yielding 21.1 assists (10th Overall), and forcing 16.7 turnovers (5th Overall). Furthermore, they rank fourth in defensive effective Field goal percentage (4th Overall) and third in turnover percentage (3rd Overall). Coincidentally, McHale inked a contract extension, followed shortly by the acquisition of Smith, which was only to augment their play on that end, given the 29-year old’s propensity for making game-changing play on defense. But that hasn’t quite been the case, as no sooner than Smith was added to the rotation, the team’s defensive prowess plummeted. In the seven games since Smith’s arrival, Houston has relinquished 101.0 points on 46.1% shooting. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting acclimated to his new teammates, particularly given the state of the Pistons in the 104 games he spent in the Motor City, but in the long run the Rockets should be all the better for it. At 6-9, 225 lbs, Smith can play either Forward position, and there are few players in the league at his measurables that are as athletic, making him an ideal fit for McHale’s up-tempo attack. Over the course of his eleven-year career, Smith has proven adept at filling up a stat sheet, averaging 15.3 points on 45.6% shooting from the field, along with 7.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.0 blocks, but since coming to South Texas has posted averages of 10.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.6 steals in just 25.4 minutes of action. While it’s only a matter of time before he is inserted into the starting lineup, it remains to be seen just how he will fit in with the likes of Harden and more specifically Howard. Childhood friends dating back to their time growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Smith and Howard have the look of an elite defensive pairing, particularly is McHale chooses to play him at Power Forward, but many around the league sincerely doubt that he is the answer to Houston’s long search for a Stretch Four to provide Howard with more spacing. The issue is that Smith simply can’t, and hasn’t proven any consistent ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. And by no means has that dissuaded him from trying; Smith is a career 27.7% shooter from downtown, and has netted over 30.0% of his attempts just twice in eleven years, despite taking nearly three such shots over the last year and some change. Conventional thinking would lead one to believe that since Houston is one of the most prolific three-point shooting teams in the league, he would have plenty of spacing to slash to the rim, which he does so well, but the reality is that after seeing so many of his teammates get the green light from three, he could be persuaded to take even more of them. After all, no team in the NBA has taken (33.1 attempts/game) or made (11.6 field goals/game) more three-pointers than the Rockets thus far.
Meanwhile, Houston’s problems must seem like a minor nuisance for the Cavaliers (19-16, 2nd in Central), who have been derailed of late courtesy of a rash of injuries that has not only caused them to drop precipitously in the standings, but put their Head Coach on the hot seat to boot. David Blatt was an unceremonious choice to lead this team given the egos consisting in the lockeroom, and many questioned the legitimacy of the league’s first foreign-born skipper when he was hired back in the Summer. Now with injuries mounting, and the media spotlight even greater, the true test of his leadership has begun, and if recent results are any indication, he may not have much time left. After an eight-game winning streak in which they finally looked greater than the sum of their parts, the Cavaliers have since lost nine of their last fifteen games, including five of the last six. Barely defeating Charlotte (91-87) is hardly a confidence builder, but any good will built from that victory immediately evaporated with 109-90 drubbing at home to the Mavericks, who absolutely dismantled the short-handed hosts, who were without LeBron James, who will reportedly miss about two weeks resting his ailing back and knees. Granted, the Mavs are one of the better teams in the league, but nobody was prepared for Monday Night’s outcome, as Blatt saw his charges fall in defeat to the previously 4-28 Philadelphia 76ers. With Kyrie Irving joining James on the disabled list, the Cavs struggled to find much offensive firepower against the Sixers, shooting a terrible 38.8% from the field, while showing absolutely zero interest in making an effort defensively. We get it, folks; as bad as Philadelphia has been, they are still a professional basketball team, but after watching the 95-92 contest, you would have thought that the two teams changed identities. Cleveland yielded 48.1% shooting, primarily on the strength of a ridiculous thirty-one assists as Guards Michael Carter Williams and Tony Wroten accounted for twenty-one themselves. To put things into proper perspective, their collective total was two shy of the Cavaliers’ as a team. But with all that said, victory was still very much attainable, only if the visitors had made the most of their opportunities from the charity stripe; twenty-four personal fouls led to twenty-two free-throws for the Cavs, who missed seven of them. Say what you want folks, but that makes all the difference in a game decided by a scant three points.
It’s easy to trace this team’s woes to their recent injury history, especially when one of those guys dressed in a suit on the sidelines is LeBron James. The impact that the five-time MVP makes on the court is impossible to truly calculate, but we’ll try our best to do so anyway. This season, the Cavaliers are 18-11 with James on the court, averaging 102.5 points on 46.5% shooting, with a healthy plus/minus of plus-3.3 points per game. On the other hand, without him they are a mere 1-5 on the strength of 91.3 points on 38.7% shooting, while getting outscored by 8.5 points. Hell, over the past six games alone, they’ve been outscored by a wide margin of 19.3 points. Yikes… A major reason for their success during their previous eight-game winning streak was his willingness to take over Point Guard duties and act as more of a distributor than a scorer, evidenced by his team-high 7.6 assists. Now without him, the team has reverted back into the disjointed individualistic team that they began the campaign as. To compound matters, others have begin to suffer from a variety of ailments as well. Longtime Cavalier Anderson Varejao tore his Achilles during practice early in December and will miss the remainder of the season, while Kyrie Irving has been slowed by a sore lower back that finally caused him to miss time during Monday’s loss. So what does Management proceed to do, you ask? Why, ship Shooting Guard Dion Waiters to Oklahoma City via a three-team trade with New York, and introduce a pair of wild cards into the mix, that’s what. It’s nearly impossible to predict what Blatt and Co. will be getting in the form of Iman Shumpert and the mercurial J.R. Smith, but one thing is for certain: it should entertaining. Smith, the former Sixth Man of the Year, has never met a shot it didn’t like, no matter how ill-advised it may appear to be, while Shumpert, who possesses immense potential defensively, has seemed more interested in his offensive game after years of playing for the dysfunctional Knicks. While nobody questions the collective talent that they bring to the table, they are a bonafide gamble from a chemistry standpoint. In four seasons in the Big Apple, Smith averaged 15.1 points on 41.6% shooting from the field, including 36.9% from downtown, with 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.1 steals in 31.4 minutes of play, but his tenure was plagued by immaturity, both on the court and off, with his coachability being a very legitimate concern. How Blatt plans to utilize him, and more importantly how he falls in line with both James and Irving should make for riveting programming (ESPN are you listening?). Shumpert on the other hand, is a much safer bet to take off in Cleveland, particularly if he relishes the opportunity to be a defensive stopper on the perimeter. The 6-5, 212 lbs wingman is an athletic freak, and now that he is on a team where he will almost certainly see less than 9.0 shots per game, he bring a defensive identity to a team that is sorely lacking one. Provided he returns healthy from a dislocated shoulder first… In the meantime, the crown falls to Kevin Love, who has struggled at times as the dreaded third wheel in Cleveland’s new Big Three. At times relegated to just a jump-shooter, Love is going through the same issues that Chris Bosh went through in his first year in Miami with LeBron and Co. Love has averaged 17.8 points on just 43.8% shooting from the field, the second-lowest figure of his career, along with 10.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. He has voiced his displeasure with his role on a number of occasions already this season, but with his cohorts sidelined for the foreseeable future, now is his time to prove his worth, particularly given this, is after all, a contract year.
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