8:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Cleveland -4.5
A pair of teams carrying huge expectations clash tonight in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers host the Los Angeles Clippers for their second meeting in nearly three weeks. Back on January 16th at STAPLES Center, a nip and tuck affair was ultimately decided in the fourth quarter, as the visiting Cavaliers (30-20, 5th in Eastern Conference) put together a furious run to pull away late, earning a narrow 126-121 victory. With the hosts clinging to a slim 95-92 lead at the end of the third quarter, Cleveland would go on to outscore Los Angeles 34-26 over the final twelve minutes of play, putting a bow on an impressive offensive display. On the night, David Blatt’s charges shot a ridiculous 55.4% from the field, including 10-of-23 from beyond the arc (43.5%), assisting on twenty-three of their forty-six field goals, while also draining twenty-four of their thirty-one free-throw attempts (77.4%). Kyrie Irving and LeBron James had their way with the wayward Clippers’ (33-16, 4th in Western Conference) defense, scoring thirty-seven and thirty-two points respectively, with the latter nearly racking up a triple-double, amassing eleven rebounds, seven assists, along with three steals. Surprisingly, the third wheel turned out to be Tristan Thompson, who in place of an ailing Kevin Love, really put together a solid performance against the likes of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, scoring twenty-four points on a blistering 10-of-12 shooting (83.3%), while securing a dozen rebounds and blocking a pair of shots. On the flipside, the Clippers weren’t exactly shopped liver, shooting a healthy 47.3% themselves, while also knocking down ten three-pointers, but needed twenty-nine attempts to do so (34.5%). All five of Doc Rivers starters finished the night in double-figures, led by Griffin’s thirty-four points on 14-of-23 shooting (60.9%). Los Angeles worked hard on the glass, pulling down seventeen offensive rebounds, allowing them to attempt eight more shots, but the difference in the contest ultimately proved to be the charity stripe where, Rivers’ charges squandered too many of their opportunities; despite attempting thirty-six free-throws, the hosts missed eleven of them, with seven of said misses attributed to Jordan who attempted a dozen freebies himself. In a close game, you have to make good at the free-throw line, as this continues to be an issue for the Clippers and their big men.
And such is the dilemma for Rivers, who needs to keep DeAndre Jordan on the court in late game situations due to his stellar defensive prowess, but continues to see the athletic Center cost his team games with each missed free-throw. On the surface, it appears to be a no-brainer in deciding whether or not to keep a legitimate 6-11 big man averaging 10.4 points on 73.2% shooting, 13.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks on the floor at the end of close games. However, when that same player is netting a pitiful 39.0% of his free-throw attempts (seriously!), and opponents are resorting to hacking him to get back into games, it becomes time to rethink your strategy. Compounding the issue for Rivers is the fact that on a team full of shining stars, Jordan is really the only defensive-minded player at his disposal, which is even more imperative when you consider he is playing next to Griffin, whom he keeps clean throughout the contest. Los Angeles hasn’t been terrible defensively, but there are plenty of stretches where as a whole they look disinterested on the defensive end of the court. On the season, they have allowed 99.7 points (17th Overall) on 45.1% shooting from the field (16th Overall), including 49.2% from within the three-point arc (19th Overall) and 35.1% from beyond it (17th Overall), all the while yielding 23.7 assists (25th Overall) and getting outrebounded by 0.3 boards per game. Now, after taking a moment to digest those numbers, picture what they would look like without Jordan serving as the team’s soul deterrent in the paint. And that’s what happens to them when Rivers is forced to yank him out of the game in crunch time; basically, the Clippers are a sieve defensively in such situations. Case in point; in Monday’s disappointing 102-100 loss at Brooklyn, the visitors led by nine points with 1:35 left on the clock, yet proceeded to cough up that lead from the charity stripe, where they managed to make a mere eight of their twenty-five free-throw attempts (32.0%). As a result, the Nets closed the gap, and with 1.3 seconds remaining, Jarret Jack calmly ended the contest with seventeen-foot dagger at the buzzer. As fate would have it, Jordan missed ten out of his twelve free-throw attempts (16.7%), many of them coming in the final stanza. It’s awfully telling that Rivers only plays this kid 33.5 minutes a night despite being just twenty-six years old and posting the defensive statistics he does, because he is capable of giving so much more. Los Angeles will need him to be active in the paint so that he can protect the rim against he likes of James and Irving, because if their previous encounter proved anything, it’s that his cohorts on the perimeter are incapable of corralling them.
Meanwhile, with the All-Star Break on the horizon, the Cleveland Cavaliers are shaping up to be the team we expected them to be. A season-best eleven-game winning streak has many around the league predicting that the Cavs will indeed end up where they were originally forecasted to be: in the NBA Finals. And to nobody’s surprise, the catalyst for this particular resurgence has been none other than LeBron James. Upon returning from an eight-game stretch in which he was sidelined with a litany of ailments, the four-time MVP has yet to see his team lose; in his first eight games back, James averaged 30.5 points, yet dialed it back a bit over the following three outings, scoring below twenty points twice as Kyrie Irving took the floor, scoring fifty-five points in a 99-94 victory at Portland last week. The offensive chemistry that many have been clamoring for has finally begun to come to the forefront, with David Blatt’s charges running roughshod over the opposition during this stretch, winning by an average margin of 20.9 points per 100 possessions with James, Irving, Love, J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov all on the floor together. However, the most frightening thing about that lineup is that they’ve had such success even with Love visibly struggling to find his place; the versatile big man is shooting a dreadful 37.2% from the floor in the ten games he’s been available during this streak, including a miserable 29.4% from downtown. Granted, a habitually sore back has really robbed him of much of his mobility at times, but anyone with a pulse could tell you that he has struggled more so than any of the other members of the Cleveland’s Big Three in adjusting their respective games to complement one another.
Just take a look at the numbers; in his final season in Minnesota, the 26-year old Power Forward averaged a career-high 26.1 points on 45.7% shooting from the field, including 37.6% from three, along with 12.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and a sterling PER of 26.9. Cynics will point to the fact that he was a good player on a perennially bad team, which in turn inflated his value. In essence, he wasn’t quite as good as his numbers would suggest. Love’s first season playing with James and Irving is not unlike the situation that Chris Bosh went through in Miami upon teaming up with James and Dwyane Wade four years ago. Eventually, the All-Star Forward found his way and became a deadly spot-up shooter from the elbow and beyond, which would be Love’s natural role, considering his excellent shooting prowess for a player at his size. However, as we mentioned earlier, that just hasn’t been the case thus far, as he has seen his statistics drop across the board, averaging 16.9 points on 42.4% shooting, including 33.0% from three, along with 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and a PER of 18.7. In fact, his scoring average is the lowest since his Sophomore campaign, and his field goal percentage is the worst of his career. Monday Night against woeful Philadelphia, it was a humbling experience for the three-time All-Star, who managed a scant five points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field (14.3%) in nearly thirty-three minutes of action. The question now is whether his issues are mental; Love attempted all seven of his shots in the first quarter, neglecting to attempt another field goal throughout the remainder of the game. Further examination suggest that he and James simply aren’t on the same page. With LeBron flourishing in more a hybrid Point Forward role, less and less of his passes have been directed at Love; only 16% of his dishes went to the big man, after more than 21% of his total passes went Love’s way in each of the previous three months of the season. Again, a bulky back has a lot to do with this, but it could also be a case of a player getting lost in the shuffle, as Cleveland has acquired so many different faces over the past month; J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov were all brought on board within a week of each other, further altering the already delicate chemistry of the club.