CLEVELAND, Ohio — In their first game during this upcoming stretch without J.R. Smith, the Cleveland Cavaliers wanted to prove they are still plenty good enough to keep the wins piling up.
They did just that, cruising to a 113-102 win against the upstart Milwaukee Bucks, a team that has proven to be a very difficult matchup for the champs.
Here are five observations:
No rest – Head coach Tyronn Lue’s initial inclination was to rest both Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Playing the second of a back-to-back, with the duo logging 92 minutes in an overtime win the night before, it seemed like a wise move.
But Lue is going to trust his players. James and Irving wanted to play.
“Just to prove that we’re at a different level,” Irving said. “I’m pretty sure he wanted to sit us. But tonight it was just going against a great Bucks team. It’s really just the competition at a high level. It was just another personal game of wanting to be out there and just competing.”
No, the Cavs haven’t forgotten that November slaughter.
As for James, his minutes have been an internal topic recently, as Lue continues to look for spots to rest him. That’s why he sat James the final four-plus minutes of the second quarter Wednesday. But this early in the season, James and the Cavs believe his workload isn’t over the top. Not yet anyway.
“He knows his body better than anyone,” Lue said. “Him and Mike Mancias, that’s the plan that they want. He’s been doing this for a long time, says he feels great and nights he doesn’t feel great he won’t play. He wants around 38 or 39 minutes per night and then he said end of January or early February we will tailor him down and scale him back so as of right now that’s the plan.”
Tristan Thompson sets the tone – Going into Wednesday’s game, Lue’s points of emphasis centered on getting back in transition and keeping the Bucks from bullying them in the paint for a third straight game.
Check and check.
“Defensively just making a conscious effort of getting back, a missed shot, a turnover,” Lue said of the approach. “I thought LeBron the last couple games — we showed them on film — just set the tone. If you don’t get the foul call, just sprint back into the play. When we do that, and we load to the basketball and keep those guys out of the paint, it makes it easy on us and I thought we did a great job of shrinking the floor.”
For the first time this season, the Cavs outscored the Bucks in the paint, 48-44. In the two other games, Milwaukee had a decisive edge, 122-62.
“Tristan did a great job today of being aggressive, getting on the offensive glass,” Channing Frye said. “Now it makes that big who is leaving him hesitate. ‘Do I leave or do I go?’ When that happens, when you get a team to hesitate on a game plan that’s when you’re really going to see success.”
Committing extra bodies to keep the relentless Thompson off the glass helped slow the Bucks’ transition game. Thompson also protected the rim, swatting away four shots, tying his season high.
Singled out by Lue before the game as a key component to the Cavs’ success in this particular matchup, Thompson finished with a game-high 15 rebounds, including nine on the offensive end.
One night after telling sideline reporter Allie Clifton that the Bucks had no answers for containing him on the boards, Thompson backed up that talk. In 24 hours, Thompson pulled down 27 total rebounds, including 14 on the offensive end.
Irving’s pivotal moment – With 5:06 remaining in the second quarter and the Cavs leading by 16 points, Lue tried to steal some minutes with James resting.
It backfired. The Bucks finished the period on a 19-8 run, closing to within five points against the non-LeBrons.
Late in the third quarter, Lue tried again, pulling James for the final minute-plus so he could be fresh for the start of the fourth quarter, a time when James leads the second unit.
This time, the Cavs didn’t falter. Instead, they increased their lead from 11 to 15.
“They closed out the quarter the right way,” James said of the stretch. “I know Kyrie took the responsibility in the third quarter to close the quarter the right away. He was spectacular man.”
Irving was at the center of the late surge. Aggressive to the basket, his drive and kick to Shumpert forced the defense out of position, which led to a Jordan McRae triple. Then in isolation, with the clock winding down, Irving attacked the defense and buried a contested jumper while getting fouled. He capped the three-point play with a free throw.
“We just have to prove why we are who we are and those moments in the game and pockets of the game whether it’s the beginning of the third or end of the third, you got to be able to make a push,” Irving said.
Kyrie vs. the buzzer. You already know who wins.#DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/AuVyquTP6V
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) December 22, 2016
Stepping up – Prior to the game, Lue talked about replacing Smith with a committee approach. That’s what he got.
DeAndre Liggins started for Smith, bringing his customary defense and helping hold Milwaukee to just 22 points in the first quarter.
Iman Shumpert came off the bench, scoring 10 points. McRae added eight and Mike Dunleavy tallied five. Given the struggles of Cleveland’s second unit, that counts as a very productive night.
“It’s next man up,” James said. “And guys have to fill in, guys have to fill in and play their role. Don’t play J.R.’s role. J.R. is a special talent so you don’t try to play his role, you just try to do more on your own and try to help the team win, so, hopefully we can get that.”
Cavs honor Matthew Dellavedova
Rough return – The night started with Matthew Dellavedova receiving his championship ring and getting mobbed by former teammates at center court.
The players actually trampled General Manager David Griffin, causing the ring to fall out of the box. They found it quickly though and Dellavedova showed it off.
That was about the the only highlight during an otherwise shaky return.
Straight to the pool room [?] pic.twitter.com/p2Ip5nn9Uk
— Matthew Dellavedova (@matthewdelly) December 22, 2016
The one-time fan favorite scored just two points on 1-of-4 from the field, including 0-of-3 from beyond the arc in 25 minutes. The fans that wanted to see Delly didn’t get much of an opportunity, as he was on the bench for much of the second half.
“It’s always fun,” Irving said of playing against him. “I know it’s going to be a competitive game. It will be physical. He understands our offense, knows the plays we’re running so it’s always fun.”
That above play didn’t look too fun for Delly, however. Irving outscored him, 31-2, and out-assisted him, 13-3.