A tough week for the Cleveland Cavaliers ended on Saturday night with a fun win over a toiling Portland team. Whipped in New York, Miami, and Dallas, the team needed a victory for their psyche. The schedule is brutal for a struggling team. The games keep coming and the losses can mount. Self doubt is a sickness that spreads when getting throttled by 40.
For the Cavs to win, they have to outwork their opponents. They lack in talent in almost every matchup; if the energy level is low, they will get blown out. The wins are important to sustain belief. Losing causes doubt. Doubt creates lethargy. Two game losing streaks turn into 10 game streaks in a hurry. Cleveland needs wins to prove what they’re doing can work. The coaching staff needs stuff to point to in film sessions that work. If the young guys lose confidence, they may never regain it. This is John Beilein’s toughest assignment. How do you keep spirits up when you’re losing by double digits on the regular?
To come home after the beat downs on the road and post a win, even against a struggling Blazers unit, is encouraging. Watching the beatings is frustrating, but remember where the Cavs are in the rebuild. Three 20-year-olds are playing significant minutes. A fourth (Dylan Windler) will be once he’s healthy. The improvements made by Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr. occur in fits and starts. It is tough, but necessary. No perennial MVP candidate is coming back in free agency. An All-Star duo will not team up in Cleveland. Those players will come through drafts and development.
Oklahoma City is the model. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden were drafted in consecutive years at 2, 4, and 3 overall. They won 20 and 23 games in Durant’s and Westbrook’s rookie years before surging to 50 in Durant’s third year. It doesn’t happen overnight, even for the greats.
When the team is struggling, Tristan Thompson tries to put the offense on his shoulders. This isn’t ideal. Too many possessions end with Thompson dribbling 6,8, even 10 times, probing his way into the paint before turning it over or unleashing an errand shot. Thompson has been fantastic this year. His leadership and effort are a godsend for this young squad, but there’s a point of diminishing returns when he has the ball in his hands on offense. Any possession in which he’s dribbling is asking for trouble.
Thompson is vital to the success of the offense, but use him without the ball in his hands. Pick and rolls with Collin Sexton, Garland, and Jordan Clarkson play to his strengths. Those three are quick with the ball and have shown a propensity to get to the rim. TT provides an outlet if the lane is closed. Thompson has always been a fantastic rim runner, and his improved hooks with either hand give him another weapon to finish in the paint off passes from the guards. Beilein seems to favor dribble handoffs involving a big and a guard versus the traditional pick and roll. These are plays are fine. They help the guards get to the basket, but also make it harder for the big to cut because of the way the defense guards the roll man. Run the hand offs with Kevin Love. He can pop off the pick to the three point line. Give the traditional pick and rolls to Thompson, who’s more dynamic going toward the rim.
While Beilein harps on ball movement and the point guard has to set that example, Darius Garland should take a few games and fire at will from all over the court. He’s still tentative, hoping to satisfy his coaches and teammates instead of playing to his strengths. It’s important for his future development that he sees the floor and gets his teammates involved, but for his confidence today he needs to be more selfish. His aggression peaked in garbage time against Dallas when he posted a career high and lead the team in scoring with 23. Garland’s shooting led the Cavs to take him 5th overall in the draft, and it’ll be the reason he succeeds or fails in the league. Allow him to gain some confidence from his shot. Once he sees his scoring numbers increase, the playmaking will open up.
What’s What Around the League
1. De’Andre Hunter is a perfect compliment to Trae Young in Atlanta. The rookie has had a big week, posting a 27 and 11 against Milwaukee followed by an 18 point performance in Detroit. He’s found his footing in the league, reaching double figures in scoring in his last seven games, with a six steal game thrown in. Most expected Hunter to be a defensive force, and while he’s struggled on that end, his offensive game has Hawks’ fans salivating. The team’s offensive rating is 12.4 points better when he’s on the floor; he’s doing everything on that end. Hunter attacks the basket, a good dribbler who sees the defense well and attacks when a crack in the defense forms for him to exploit. He’s strong when he gets to the rim, able to finish over shot blockers. He shoots 35% from 3 and can post up when smaller defenders switch onto him. With Hunter and Young in the fold, Atlanta is a future contender.
3. Watching Luka Doncic control every aspect of each game is enthralling. Is it possible that he’s the best player in the league already? Maybe 3-4 guys are better passers, though even that seems high. He shoots 35% from three, 72% in the restricted area, and 75% from 16 to 24 feet (NBA.com). The league is witnessing the blooming of a superstar. His Mavericks are 5th in the Western Conference. He’s guiding an OK roster and has put them in contention to make noise in the playoffs as a second year 20-year-old. If you were drafting players for the next ten years, Luka is the easy 1st pick.
4. Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo provided a glimpse of what’s needed from them if the Bucks hope to make the NBA Finals Thursday against the Blazers. By posting a combined 34 points, the duo provided spacing for Giannis to attack the basket while giving him a release when the defense collapsed. With Eric Bledsoe’s inconsistency and a lack of reliable playmaking from anyone else on the roster, Milwaukee has to find role players Mike Budenholzer can count on. Giannis is life changing. The contributions on the fringes will decide Milwaukee’s fate in May and June.
5. The Timberwolves are a difficult team to figure. Karl Anthony-Towns is an offensive blowtorch, scorching teams like no 7 footer in the league’s history. Averaging 26, 12, and 3 assists, Towns is shooting 45% from 3 on nine attempts a game. Just incomprehensible. His shooting chart is a stat geek’s wet dream; nearly all his shots are 3’s or within 5 feet of the basket. Now take a gander at Andrew Wiggins’ numbers. He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists while also shooting the ball better than ever.
And the defense is okay; they’re 15th in the league in defensive rating. So why aren’t the T-Wolves better than .500? It’s too difficult running a team through the center. While Towns is unlike anything the NBA has seen, trying to develop flow through a big man is clunky. Wiggins has improved, but he’s not the guy you want at the end of games deciding wins and losses. Things seem to gum up on them in the fourth quarter. The potential for a good team is there. Will they put it together?
6. The 76ers rank 8th in the league in defensive rating, but when they turn the screws they become suffocating. In Jimmy Butler’s return Saturday night, a playoff-like atmosphere, Philly’s intensity on that end stymied the Heat. Once the playoffs roll around, will anyone be able to score with any consistency against Philadelphia? The 76ers continue to be the most fascinating story in the NBA.
7. A team known for outplaying expectations, the Blazers have reversed course this year. After making the Western Conference Finals last year, they’ve floundered in the first month of this season. Losing a bench core of Maurice Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Evan Turner, along with the underrated Al-Farouq Aminu, has hurt more than expected. Damian Lillard and C. J. McCollum are still there, however, but a 5-12 start to the season has the Blazers in a hole they may not get out of. Lillard looked disinterested in Cleveland Saturday night and, while he was returning from injury, didn’t play with the passion the team needs from him to win games. Carmelo Anthony isn’t enough to shake Portland out of the early season doldrums.
8. These neon green Timberwolves jerseys burn the retinas.
9. It’s an amazing thing when LeBron James decides he wants to play defense. The Lakers are the best team in the league because of their defense and the effort exerted by James. After the title in Cleveland, he quit playing on that end of the court and his teammates followed suit. LeBron is a force of nature. If he hustles, his teams hustle. If he loafs, his teammates loaf. No one doubted his greatness, even in his 17th season. His regular season effort level was the question. This LeBron makes the Lakers the favorites and gives him one more shot at another MVP. Will he push for 82 games?
10. Devin Booker is a “go win the game” scorer. Stuck in the mediocrity of Phoenix, the losses have mounted and questions surrounded whether Booker was a good player or just a stat sheet filler on a garbage team. With the Suns’ rise in the Western Conference, he’s proving himself All-Star worthy. Booker is one of the best pure scorers in the game and is doing it efficiently, shooting 52/45/95. When the game is on the line, he can create his own shot. At 6’5”, he has the size to shoot over defenders and the quickness to get to the rim. Despite their hot start, a playoff berth still seems unlikely. If they can sneak in, however, expect Booker to have a Kobe moment or two.