CLEVELAND, Ohio — In the past, a meeting with the Miami Heat would be meaningful for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, as there’s plenty of history between the two sides.
But those ties are thing of the past.
Dwyane Wade is in Chicago. Chris Bosh’s health is keeping him sidelined. Udonis Haslem, a Heat lifer, didn’t even play because of personal reasons. Miami, in full rebuild mode, had eight players dressed and the Cavaliers took advantage, cruising to a 114-84 win.
Here are five observations:
Defensive change – Poor defense was at the center of the Cavs’ three-game losing streak. But they appear to have gotten those issues under control.
“We’re just having each other’s back,” Tristan Thompson said. “Multiple efforts. I think that was something we weren’t doing last week, not having each other’s back. We know we’re capable of doing it, we just have to do it every night.”
During last week’s losing skid, the Cavs were giving up 114 points on 49.8 percent from the field.
Since the loss against the Bulls, a night James proclaimed the honeymoon stage to be over, the Cavs are holding opponents to 96.6 points on 39.4 percent from the field, which ranks third best over that stretch.
It’s a small sample size, with games against New York, playing the third game in four nights, and short-handed Miami mixed in. But it’s a start. And it’s hard to overlook DeAndre Liggins’ role in the reversal.
“That pitbull mentality,” Thompson said of Liggins. “Defense wins games and that’s what Liggs hangs hit hat on and that’s his niche in the league.”
On Friday, the Cavs highlighted two players on the pregame scouting report: Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic.
Liggins, starting his second straight game in J.R. Smith’s absence, took the Dragic assignment, allowing Kyrie Irving to check Wayne Ellington instead.
Dragic scored 15 points on 4-of-11 from the field, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc. He also committed four turnovers, matching his assist total. In the past, Dragic has shredded Irving and the Cavs’ defense.
Tyler Johnson, the de facto point guard, scored 12 points on just 5-of-17 from the field.
Liggins carves out role – So what happens when Smith is ready to return from his hyperextended left knee, something that could happen as soon as Saturday? Has Liggins done enough to stay in Tyronn Lue’s ever-changing rotation?
“Yes, he has,” Lue said pointedly. “He’s done a great job for us and he’s a big part of this three-game winning streak we have right now. His defense and his deflections, it’s contagious. The way he plays and plays hard, guys respect that. I thought it was good for Kyrie to get off the ball, not having to guard too many pick-and-rolls. Put Liggs on those point guards and move Ky off the ball. He’s been great for us these last three games and I know Kyrie appreciates it.”
Liggins, a two-time D-League Defensive Player of the Year, hasn’t always had defense-first mentality. Back in high school, Liggins was a star at Findlay Prep in Nevada, being named a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and the sixth-best point guard in his class.
After a quiet freshman year, Kentucky hired John Calipari as head coach and that’s when Liggins’ attitude changed.
“He brung in guys like John Wall and Eric Bledsoe and he told me in order to play I had to defend,” Liggins said. “Ever since then I carried that mindset with me and that edge.”
That’s essentially what the Cavs have told Liggins as well. They have enough scoring. He understands he’s capable of doing more. But the Cavs need his defense and intangibles. Along with the occasional 3-pointer.
He finished with five points, three blocks, one steal, two rebounds and two assists.
Eliminating Hassan Whiteside – The Cavs opened the second half on an 11-4 spurt, building what looked like an insurmountable 18-point lead.
Unhappy with his team’s effort, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra made a quick substitution at the 9:18 mark of the third quarter, yanking Whiteside, who seemed frustrated all night.
Spoelstra cited a lack of energy coming from his cornerstone player. Whiteside, who entered the game averaging a double-double (17.6 points and 14.7 rebounds) finished with eight points on 4-of-10 from the field to go with 12 rebounds and four turnovers.
“We tried to just keep a body on him and that frustrates players,” Thompson said. “That frustrates me. Whenever I’m trying to go for offensive rebounds and there’s always a body — sometimes a player makes you bring your energy down. But that’s what we want. We want to get him out of his game and get him frustrated.”
With Whiteside in the game, Cleveland scored 144 points per 100 possessions, a stat tweeted out by ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh after the game.
Iman Shumpert backing up words – Shumpert vowed to bounce back this season. He shot a career-worst 29.5 percent from beyond the arc and 37.4 percent overall during an injury-riddled 2015-16 campaign.
So he worked his butt off in the summer, tweaking his shooting motion and dropping weight to get more lift on his jumper.
“He put a lot of work in, just really trusting his shot, knowing the spots where he’s going to be getting his shots,” said Irving, who spent part of the off-season with Shumpert in Miami.
Shumpert scored 10 points off the bench on Friday night, connecting on 4-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range.
He has made multiple triples in seven of 20 games. Last year, he reached that mark in just 10 of the 54 games. He’s also shooting 45.3 percent from long range, which ranks eighth in the league and second-best on the team.
While many attribute his early-season success to a strong summer, Lue thinks something else is playing a large role.
“I think winning,” Lue said. “When you win and he was a big part of what we did, and then just accepting is role. We know he can do more with the basketball, but with Kyrie, Kevin and LeBron, we really don’t need that at all times with Shump. He understands his role.”
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— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) December 10, 2016
Two rings – Prior to Friday’s blowout, Liggins and Irving received new hardware.
Following his pregame workout, Liggins was presented a D-League title ring, one that he captured last season as a member of the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
Smiling when talking about the accomplishment, Liggins told me he’s going to give it to his grandma, hoping she keeps it safe for him.
As for Irving, he was handed his Team USA ring after helping the Americans win the gold medal in Rio this summer.
“Tremendous honor, it was a tremendous honor,” Irving said. “Can’t forget the journey of thinking about how long it’s taken to even get a gold medal and let alone a USA ring. Starting on the select team, the banter with Kobe (Bryant), and getting asked to come back every single year to play for USA basketball. And for me to even join USA, it started with Coach K and guys that have come before me, it’s just nothing but respect.”