CLEVELAND, Ohio — A few days ago, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue was asked a few different questions about the Christmas Day showdown against the Golden State Warriors.
He rebuffed, not wanting to overlook the teams on the schedule before Sunday.
That game, the one that NBA fans have been waiting for since the schedule was released, is finally here. And the look-ahead came earlier than anticipated, as the Cavaliers made quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, building a massive 46-point lead, resting the stars in the fourth quarter and coasting to a 119-99 win.
Here are five observations:
Mulligan – By now it’s not a secret. The first play of every game is run for Kevin Love, who returned after a two-game absence because of a bruised knee. That’s the plan anyway.
On Friday, the first possession ended with a Tristan Thompson early-clock baseline jumper from 13 feet. What?
“Great shot,” Lue said with a wry smile.
After the rebound caromed out of bounds, staying with the Cavs, the players looked puzzled, wondering how Thompson — of all guys — ended up hoisting the first shot.
“It was for Kevin,” Lue admitted. “We ran the 44 for Kevin but (Brook) Lopez went all the way across the lane with Kevin to kind of like take it away so Tristan was open and Bron threw it to him. So then it went out of bounds and we came back and ran the play for Kevin the first play.”
Love missed. But at least it looked more like the Cavs’ typical set.
Mike Dunleavy makes his mark – J.R. Smith’s extended absence will lead to vast opportunities. And the Cavs are hoping that Dunleavy, acquired this off-season because of his basketball IQ, playoff experience and 3-point stroke, will be one to make the most of a potential increase in minutes.
He did on Friday, pouring in a season-high 14 points on 6-of-9 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range.
“He was good,” Lue said. “He had a great first half and having 12 points off the bench in the first half is big for us, off the bench. So, him shooting the ball well and getting to the basket, catch-and-go’s, it was good for us. That was the best I think he’s been as far as being comfortable on the floor, which was big for us tonight.”
The timing couldn’t be better. It’s Dunleavy’s third double-digit game since coming to Cleveland. It’s just the fifth time he’s made multiple triples.
While DeAndre Liggins will be the starting shooting guard, Dunleavy adds more spacing and can get flammable from beyond the arc — much the way Smith does.
“We ran a couple sets for him but other than those couple sets out of timeouts, just finding the open man,” Lue said of Dunleavy. “I thought we did a great job of moving the basketball. Sometimes overpassed, which is a good thing, but having 28 assists on 48 makes is pretty good. I thought we moved the ball well and he was just a part of getting some of those open shots.”
Long distance shooter – Known for his defensive mentality, Liggins has morphed into a reliable outside shooter, something many NBA teams have questioned about him for years.
“Last year he shot 40 percent in the D League from 3,” Lue said. “And in practice he’s making his shots, just got to be confident and take them. He’s going to get those shots and we want him taking those shots because that’s part of our offense and when it’s swing, swing, swing you get the shot you’ve got to take it. It’s surprised me that he’s turning it down because I know he can make it.”
The NBA and D-League are different and Liggins’ rise has been quite stunning — even to opposing teams that continue to leave him free, believing the original scouting report hasn’t changed. According to NBA stats, all of his triples would be classified as open (defender within 4-6 feet) or wide open (6 or more feet), with a majority getting the wide open distinction.
“I’m going to be open because I haven’t played that much for guys to be like, ‘Oh Liggins can knock down open shots,'” he said recently. “Guys still think that I’m a mediocre shooter and I have to prove I can make open shots. I have to be ready to make open shots.”
To his credit, Liggins works tirelessly on his outside shot, staying late after practice and shootaround, going through shooting sessions with rookie Kay Felder.
On Friday, Liggins buried 1-of-2 from beyond the arc. While it’s a small sample size and he has only taken more than two triples in one game this season, Liggins is now 8-of-13 from downtown.
Learning from the best – With about eight minutes remaining in the first half and the Cavaliers leading by 19 points, Kyrie Irving showed off a new move, one that he started practicing long ago.
“The first time I saw it done I think I was maybe in high school,” Irving said. “Saw C.P. (Chris Paul) do it and I was like let me try it. Saw C.P. do it a few times and couple guys have done it. If it works, good. If it doesn’t then I think coach will be a little mad at me.”
Coming off a screen with a live right-handed dribble, Irving spun the ball in front, faking one of his signature crossovers and getting the defender to pause while the ball bounced back to his right hand. To complete the maneuver, he soared to the bucket and finished with an underhanded layup, complete with extra spin.
Kyrie is a blur! #DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/SIxTS0GdzO
— NBA (@NBA) December 24, 2016
Stat of the night – For the second consecutive game, Irving led the Cavs in assists, finishing with 10 of the team’s 28.
It’s the third time in the last four games Irving has dished out double-digit helpers.
To put the leap in perspective, Irving finished with just one game of double-digit assists in 74 games, including the postseason, last year.
“Just getting in the lane and trying to make plays,” Irving said recently. “That’s all. Understanding where guys are, specifically what the defense is doing to try to limit me in the paint I know that seeing that weakside, guys are coming over, pulling over early. Teams are tilting on myself and Bron so I got to be able to make that pass to our shooters on the weakside. It’s just reading the game a lot better.”
Irving is averaging 5.5 assists.