CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers were in a similar position last year: playing at home against the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies.
And Memphis, missing four starters, somehow pulled the 106-103 upset.
That was the central theme of head coach Tyronn Lue’s pregame message Tuesday, reminding his team not to overlook the Grizzlies despite them being without reigning Western Conference Player of the Week Marc Gasol, point guard Mike Conley Jr. and free agent pickup Chandler Parsons.
Here are five observations:
Resting – The Cavs were missing a big piece as well. Lue didn’t play Kyrie Irving, who complained of heavy legs after Saturday’s win against the Hornets.
“If his body was hurting that much, legs were tired, makes sense to give him a little extra rest,” Lue said.
Wait. Body hurting?
A few questions later, Lue clarified, trying to squash any chatter of something being wrong with his star point guard.
“He wanted to play,” Lue said. “I just said take another game off and he’ll be ready to go, that will give him seven days to work on his game, get his legs back, get his rehab and hopefully he’ll be ready to go come Saturday.”
That’s right. Irving won’t be in the lineup Wednesday against the Grizzlies either, the second night of a unique back-to-back. He won’t even make the trip. Neither will LeBron James or Kevin Love.
“I think more and more teams do it,” Love said. “I think you look to get guys rest when you can and I guess my opinion is we are looking forward. And obviously right now in the meantime trying to win as many basketball games as you can and be first in the East and have the best record but we also want to look long term as well.”
Lue’s decision – The choice to sit the Big Three was made prior to Tuesday’s game, with Lue and the training staff meeting to discuss the best possible plan.
Along with Irving, Love has been gutting through a tight lower back and James’ workload is higher than needed in December, averaging 38.8 in the seven games.
Lue’s primary responsibility is doing what’s best for his team. And it has to be. This game made the most sense.
He’s trying to balance numerous things during a rigorous regular season and it will be hard to constantly please everyone. He has already said a few times that the rest nights for his stars are more likely to take place on the road so he doesn’t rob Cleveland fans the opportunity to see the champs at full strength.
“Come home and win this home game,” Lue said when asked why he wouldn’t space out the rest days, preventing a situation where all three sit for the same game. “We’re home, to play in front of our fans so, with two of the Big 3 I know we can win that game. It will be hard to go down and travel, and to ask one person to try to carry the team, especially the way the offense runs.”
It’s tough for Grizzlies’ fans that already purchased tickets and it’s the Cavs’ only trip there, but that’s the risk with sporting events and things happen. Injuries. Rest. It’s all part of it.
“I do whatever my coach asks me to do,” James said. “My coach wants me to rest, I don’t buck my coach. That’s what he wants and that’s what we gonna do.
“I’ve been in this league 14 years. I shouldn’t have to explain me sitting out a game or not playing games. I’ve played in every arena, including Seattle that’s no longer here. It’s not like it’s my first year. I’ve got 14 years. I’ve paid my dues and more than a lot of guys in this league. But I’ll ride with my coach.”
Side note: Poor Mike Dunleavy. How far has he fallen? He can’t even start on a night the Cavs will be missing their top three players?
Offense delivers late – Back to Tuesday’s game. The Cavs led by 15 points going into the half, scoring 58 on 20-of-42 (47.6 percent) from the field. The offense looked in rhythm and it appeared another rout was on the horizon.
Then came the ugly, sloppy third quarter.
“We turned the ball over and got away from what we were doing,” Love said. “So we just can’t get complacent.”
The Cavs scored 15 points on 5-of-20 (25 percent) from the field in the period. They also committed five turnovers.
However, they were able to regain their rhythm in the fourth, going 12-of-19 (63.2 percent) from the field en route to another 30-point quarter.
Smith uses old routine – During pregame, Smith was hoisting shots one-handed.
“One of my routines I’ve been doing since I was a kid,” he said. “Whenever I struggle I tend to go back to it a little bit.”
He’s tried a plethora of tricks to bust out of his early-season shooting funk, going 32.8 percent from beyond the arc. The latest maneuver paid off.
Smith scored 10 points in the first quarter, going 4-of-6 from the field, including 2-of-3 from 3-point range. It was his first game reaching double digits since scoring 17 on November 11 against Washington.
“Felt great,” he said. “Finally hit some shots. Felt like I was getting back to my old self a little bit.”
Smith finished with 23, his highest scoring total since April 9, 2016, a stretch that includes the entire postseason last year. He also buried a season-high six triples, moving into 14th place all-time, passing Dale Ellis on the NBA’s 3-pointer list.
“It’s a great honor,” Smith said. “Just trying to make shots. You play long enough you’re going to break a lot of records. Hopefully I can play 20 years and be No. 1.”
Highlight of the night – Late in the fourth quarter, James pushed the ball, stopped near the top of the key and bounced an incredible on-target pass that he made look entirely too easy.
LeBron with the no-look pass to Kevin Love!#DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/87QtbEsIe2
— NBA (@NBA) December 14, 2016
“I seen one guy playing two,” James said of the play. “J.R. is such a great 3-point shooter he’s got to respect that. I seen Kev running and whatever decision the defender made, it was going to be the wrong decision. If he took Kev, we was going to get J.R. for a clean look. If he took J.R., I got Kev for an open look. He didn’t have the choice to make the right decision on that play.”
Even Lue chuckled when talking about James’ latest beauty.
“Well just he’s a great player so nothing seems to amaze me, but just some of the timely passes that he makes and you know all on target, in traffic, over the top, bounce passes,” he said. “It doesn’t amaze me but it shows how great he is.”