Notes, quotes and observations after the Cavaliers pulled out a 121-114 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena, extending the league’s longest active winning streak to 10 games.
1. LeBron James will enter December averaging at least 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for the first time in his career, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
2. But just as significant is what’s being asked of James on defense.
3. The four-time league MVP turns 33 on Dec. 30. And instead of letting him save his effort on the defensive end for the postseason, James is being asked to guard the opponents’ best player in the fourth quarter.
4. On Nov. 13 at New York against the Knicks, he was assigned to Kristaps Porzingis. On Nov. 17 against the Los Angeles Clippers it was Blake Griffin. On Thursday it was the Hawks’ Dennis Schroder, who gashed the Cavs for 17 of his 27 points in the first half and shot 8 of 12 from the field in the first 24 minutes.
5. In the fourth quarter, Schroder scored 10, but four of those came from the free throw line. He hit 3 of 7 from the field. And James came up with what Kevin Love thought was the play of the game, a chase-down block of Schroder that James hit against the glass with 24 seconds remaining and the Cavs up by six.
6. As an aside, it was not James’ most spectacular block of the game. That came with 3:32 left in the second quarter when James did his best impersonation of an Olympic volleyball player, using all of his might to spike a Taurean Prince driving layup attempt.
7. “When he’s playing like that, definitely it gets us motivated, energized when he’s getting chase-down blocks or big blocks like he did tonight,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “We feed off of him and he’s been great.”
8. Lue said James’ effort on Schroder was “an unbelievable job. One of the best I’ve seen all year. That was big time for us for him to guard Schroder. Got some big stops.”
9. In the previous three seasons, Lue wanted James to rest on defense. James probably preferred that as well so he could preserve his body for the playoffs, even though it sent a bad message to the rest of the team.
10. But James’ three biggest defensive assignments have come during the Cavs’ 10-game winning streak as the Cavs snapped out of a 3-5 funk to start the season.
11. Asked if his philosophy on resting James on defense has changed, Lue said, “It depends on what we need. I think each game is different and tonight we needed him to defend and guard. I think he only took 11 shots. But Kevin (Love) was good, (Jae) Crowder was good, Jeff Green. When we need him to guard point guards, he stepped up and did it and then everybody else kind of chipped in for our scoring.”
12. Lue maybe making exceptions to his old James’ rules. In this case it was because he knows James is a “great position defender” against point guards.
13. “Knowing how to give him space, but also being able to contest his shot, also be able to contest him at the basket because he’s bigger,” Lue said. “He knows how to play those point guards pretty well.”
14. James said he wanted to take the challenge against Schroder, the Hawks’ leading scorer at 20.1 points this season.
15. “He’s one of the fastest guys we’ve got in our league and once he gets a full head of steam he can finish at the rim,” James said. “He was kicking our butts in the first half. Just tried to use my intelligence against him with the help of my teammates. Just tried to do a good job on him. I felt like if I can turn his water down some it would have an effect on the rest of those guys and also an effect on us offensively. That’s exactly what happened.”
16. Schroder was taking advantage of the matchup against 36-year-old Jose Calderon. Lue started the third quarter with Jeff Green on Schroder before going to James, who shut down Schroder off the dribble.
17. “Listen, I take a lot of pride in my defensive abilities. No matter if I’m guarding the point guard, no matter if I’m guarding the power forward or center or shooting guard or small forward, I take the challenge,” James said. “My teammates asked me to take the challenge. I wanted the challenge, and I was just there for it so. More importantly, my teammates were there for me on the other end. They started knocking down shots, especially in that third quarter and in the fourth quarter, so it allowed me to just focus on my defense.” James scored five of his 24 points in the fourth quarter.
18. Dwyane Wade, in his fifth season with James after four in Miami from 2010-14, said no one can understand how tough it was for James to take on a point guard.
19. “He guarded Derrick Rose in the Eastern Conference finals when we needed him to,”
Wade said of James when he was with the Miami Heat. “When Derrick had his MVP season (in 2011). He guarded a 2, a 3, a 4, a 5. He’s a guy that can guard multiple positions and it’s tough. But that’s why he’s one of the greatest to ever play this game. Those great guys — you talk about him, you talk about Jordan and Magic and all these amazing guys — they did so many amazing things that everybody can’t do.”
20. As a team, the defensive tide turned when Lue called a timeout with 1:49 left in the second quarter. The Cavs ended the half with a 5-0 run as the Hawks missed all three of their field goal attempts – two by Schroder, one by Kent Bazemore – and turned the ball over on a 24-second violation.
21. “We ended the half the right way. Started with our defensive intensity,” James said.
22. “Going into the half you could feel it was going in the right direction,” Love said. “T-Lue even said at the half, ‘I like what we’re doing.’ Even walking in before we met, he’s like, ‘I like where we’re at.’ Then we came out in the second half and it carried over. We got up 99-90 and never really looked back. They made their run at the end, but we felt like we had it under control.”
23. The Cavs announced just before tip that guard Iman Shumpert will undergo arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Friday at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. While no timeline was given for his return, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Shumpert could miss six to eight weeks.
24. Until point guard Isaiah Thomas (torn labrum in right hip) and Rose (sprained left ankle, pondering retirement) are ready to play, Cedi Osman will have to help fill the void. Osman played for the first time this season when a game was close and finished with five points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal in 11 minutes.
25. The public address announcer referred to Osman as “Seedy Osman” in the first half, but that surely wouldn’t faze the rookie.
26. Asked about Osman making up for the absence of Shumpert, who has already missed nine games, Lue said, “I mean, he has. He’s stepped in and played well. The biggest thing about Cedi is he’s not scared and I like that about him. He’s going to make some mistakes, but that’s part of being young and being a rookie. But he’s going to compete and he’s not scared.”
27. When that was relayed to Osman, he said, “I was always cold-blooded. I don’t have a reason to be scared. I just have to be patient and just think, be a smart player. That’s what I worked to do, to be an NBA player. I’m playing there. The biggest part is learning … the Cleveland Cavaliers are one of the best teams in the world and have a lot of good players, it’s a big opportunity. I don’t have a reason to be scared. The only thing I can do is to work harder and harder.”
28. The Cavs are three victories from equaling the franchise record for the longest winning streak, but James didn’t seem to be caught up in it. The Hawks (4-17) battled them to the wire. On Saturday the Cavs host the Memphis Grizzlies (7-13).
29. “We know it’s 10 because everyone talks about it and everyone’s on social media and things of that nature,” James said. “But we understand how we got here. And that’s defense and the way we’ve been playing offensively.
30. “If you win 10-plus games in any major sport, that’s very, very good. But we don’t want to be (complacent), and Saturday it’s another struggling team, and we understand that. But we understand we’re going to get their best in Memphis, so we look forward to the challenge.”
31. Asked how the Cavs would prepare for Saturday, James said, “Rest. We’re old.”
32. J.R. Smith spoke briefly afterward, but was not ready to discuss the death of his cousin, reportedly in a house fire on Sunday. He did say he would not miss any games to pay his respects.
33. But he would talk about his second favorite sport and Tiger Woods, who played his first round of competitive golf in 301 days Thursday in the Hero World Challenge in Nassau, Bahamas. Woods shot 3-under par and is three strokes off the lead.
34. “It’s great for the game,” Smith said of Woods’ return from multiple back surgeries. “The crowds will be back, the purses will get higher. The younger guys need to see somebody like that. It’s like ‘Bron and Kobe and those guys, the younger guys finally get to play against one of their idols.”
35. Smith was not aware of the report by golf analyst John Feinstein this week that Bridgestone may not renew its sponsorship of the PGA Tour event played at Firestone Country Club, which will host a professional tournament for the 65th consecutive year in August. Bridgestone’s commitment expires in 2018 and with changes coming in the tour schedule, it’s possible that could be the end of golf in Akron.
36. “I’m going on strike. I’m letting people know,” Smith said. “And Tiger back? I’m going on strike.”
37. Getting dressed behind Smith was James, so Smith started to lobby for his close friend to save the tournament. He caddied for Jason Day in a practice round before the Bridgestone this year.
38. “It’s in Akron, so …,” Smith said, clearing his throat and basically speaking to James, “all they need is a sponsor. The LeBron James Family Foundation…. I just want to keep the tournament in Akron, that’s all I’m saying.”
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