CLEVELAND, Ohio — J.R. Smith’s cranky knee could end up helping the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The same with the team’s utterly embarrassing defensive performance during their three-game losing streak (Nov. 29-Dec. 2).
Tyronn Lue and his coaching staff knew the defense had to improve. The team had fallen into the habit of simply trying to outscore the opponent, something that will work most nights.
The Cavs are that gifted on offense with LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.
But the losing streak had the coaches longing for Matthew Dellavedova. It wasn’t simply the Cavs lacking a backup point guard. They also missed the relentless hustle and defensive effort of the Australian guard.
General manager David Griffin signed DeAndre Liggins partly to fill the void when Dellavedova signed with Milwaukee.
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Liggins was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the NBA’s D-League.
He is not a big scorer, but the Cavs don’t need a another guy to who can make shots.
They need someone to take defense seriously.
When Smith was hurt, the Cavs decided to give Liggins a shot to play.
In the 116-112 victory over the Toronto Raptors, Liggins was on the court for 21 minutes, and he had a team-high plus-12 in the plus/minus category for the game.
Why did the Cavs outscore the Raptors by a dozen points with Liggins? The Kentucky product scored only five points, so that wasn’t it.
Liggins defended. At different points in the game, he covered Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Patrick Peterson.
The other Cavs players could see the defensive impact made by Liggins. It is contagious.
That type of effort was what Lue stressed during some difficult and sometimes embarrassing film sessions during the losing streak.
The day after the Cavs beat Toronto, Lue showed the team several defensive highlights of the game featuring Liggins.
With Smith injured, Lue started Liggins in what was a 126-94 rout of the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden.
In that game, only James (plus-32) had a better plus/minus total than Liggins (plus-29).
It continued in Friday’s 114-84 victory over the Miami Heat. Liggins played excellent defense on Goran Dragic. The Cavs outscored Miami by 14 points in his 26 minutes on the court.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
1. This is not about turning Liggins into a starter, or even the regular backup point guard. His ball handling is not a strength. But this team needs a defensive specialist, and Liggins has a history of being exactly that. He also is a long-armed wing player, something that should help the Cavs defensively when they face teams such as the Golden State Warriors.
2. Liggins is better when playing with the starters. He can make open 3-pointers from the corner. In 95 D-League games, Liggins shot 38 percent from 3-point range. From the corner, it was 41 percent.
3. The San Antonio Spurs are one of the best teams when it comes to finding players who have been cut by other NBA teams — and then did time in the D-League. Danny Green and Jonathan Simmons are two examples.
4. The Cavs had been giving Jordan McRae a chance to show he could help, but McRae is weak defensively. He was a star of the summer league, but McRae pressed in the regular season. He fired up 54 shots in 116 minutes, making only 30 percent.
5. McRae has ability as a scorer, but he is not a good fit for the Cavs. Like Liggins, his contract is not guaranteed. One of these two players will either be traded or cut before the end of the season.
6. The way Liggins has blended in with the starters reminds me of why former Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens started Winston Bennett and Mike Sanders at small forward at different times. Wilkens brought John Williams off the bench, even though Williams was a far superior player to Bennett and Sanders.
7. During the Wilkens era (1986-93), the Cavs had a gifted scoring team: Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, Craig Ehlo, Ron Harper and Williams. But they needed defense from at least one starter. That player also needed to be totally unselfish and not interested in scoring. That was Bennett or Sanders.
8. This is a very small sample when it comes to looking at Liggins. We’re talking three games. But it’s not hard to see how Liggins can be an asset.
ABOUT THE MIAMI HEAT
When the Miami Heat came to town, I wondered who was left on that roster from the 2013-14 season. That was the last season for LeBron James in South Beach.
The answer? Udonis Haslem.
That’s right, one player left from Miami’s Big Three Era when the Heat won two titles in four years.
Furthermore, Haslem has played only seven games and is in the midst of becoming an assistant coach.
As for the old Big Three, James is with the Cavs. Dwyane Wade is with his hometown Chicago Bulls. Chris Bosh is not playing and no longer with the Heat after suffering from blood clots.
Other key players — Ray Allen and Shane Battier — are retired.
Norris Cole is playing in China. Mario Chalmers is a free agent and recovering from an Achilles injury.
Since James left for the Cavs, Miami is 92-95.
The Heat made the playoffs in 2016 with a 48-34 record. They lost in the second round to Toronto in seven games.
This season, the Heat have been hammered by injuries as they left Cleveland with a 7-16 record.
Former Cavalier Dion Waiters was signed to replace Wade. He started 16 games before suffering a groin injury. Waiters is averaging 14.2 points, shooting .384 (.342 on 3-pointers) this season.
ABOUT HEAT/CAVS CONNECTION
While Miami has only Haslem still on the roster from the 2013-14 season, the Cavs have four members of that team on their roster.
Here we go:
1. There is James, who has delivered a title and two Finals appearances in his two seasons with the Cavs.
2. There is 36-year-old James Jones, a backup forward and one of the most respected veterans on the team. He doesn’t play much, but the coaches love him. James also listens to him. Jones has scored 37 points in 58 total minutes this season, shooting 12-of-18 from the field. He can still swish those 3-pointers.
3. There is Chris “Birdman” Anderson, signed as a free agent this summer. He’s 38 and has played only 79 minutes with the Cavs this season.
4. There is Liggins, who played only one game and one minute for Miami in 2013-14.
ABOUT THE COMEBACK
I will be signing copies of my Cavs book, THE COMEBACK, at these places.
- Dec. 13: Barnes & Noble, Mentor, 7-8 p.m.
- Dec. 14: Kent State Book store, 12-2 p.m.
- Dec. 15: Learned Owl, Hudson, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
- Dec. 17: Barnes & Noble, Fairlawn, 2-3 p.m.
- Dec. 21: Barnes & Noble, Woodmere, 7-8 p.m.