Undone by the red-hot, three-point shooting by the Knicks and the nightmare match-up that is PF Julius Randle, the Cleveland Cavaliers swallowed the bitter taste of defeat for the first time this season, on Tuesday. It was a deflating loss after the team delivered a smackdown of the 76ers in what looked like a statement win. However, there are reasons to remain optimistic as Cleveland heads into a grueling six-game road trip. These next six games – against Indiana, Atlanta, Orlando x2, Memphis and Milwaukee – will take Cleveland to 10 games on the season. They will be a useful indicator of who this team really is…
Going into Tuesday’s showdown against the Knicks, the Cavaliers were first in the NBA in assists by averaging a little over 31 per game. In those opening three games the Cavs were cultivating a philosophy of selfless basketball and dynamism on offense. Characterized by tremendous court vision, fluid ball movement and intense focus, the Cavaliers offense quickly developed a penchant for creating high-percentage scoring opportunities. This style of play yielded outstanding results, both in the paint and on the perimeter. After three games, the Cavs were shooting over 50% from the field and over 44% from beyond the arc, while racking up easy layups and dunks.
And it is not just the starters who have been giving a great account of themselves on the court. The Cavaliers bench has shown great utility and depth so far this season. In the three games, bench players had scored 111 points (37ppg), showing off their skills shooting, distributing and rebounding the ball.
Doing the Dirty Work Well
The Cavs were also winning the important battles in the rebounding game, especially on the offensive glass. Overall, the rebounding discrepancy was 146-128 in the first three games. Cleveland had also been taking much better care of the ball and punishing teams that didn’t. After three games, the Cavs had turned the ball over eight fewer times than their opponents. More importantly, they scored 83 points off those turnovers – good enough for number one in the league in that category.
Bump In The Road
The recipe for success came unstuck on Tuesday as the Cavs were outrebounded (66-50), looked static and flat on offense (nine fewer assists than they were averaging) and failed to capitalize on the carelessness by the Knicks (just 16 points off a massive 27 turnovers). They also shot a season-low 36% from the field and an appalling 22% from three (7-32). The bench also gave just 16 points of offense to the cause.
The Cavs defense, which had been a visible improvement, especially in transition, also took a bruising as New York shot 56% from three, which would prove the ultimate difference in the game and allowed forward Julius Randle to record just his seventh triple-double in seven career seasons.
What It All Means For The Rest Of The Season
But it’s no stretch to just throw this game, and the numbers, in the trash and believe that the team we saw go 3-0 as the team’s true identity. The New York Knicks are a bit of a mismatch for the Cavs, as evidenced by Tuesday’s display and the two preseason games they played. The Knicks were also the second-hottest shooting team in the league going into that game. So the result could also be put down to coming up against an opponent at the wrong time.
The Cavs were also without rookie SF Isaac Okoro, who has proved his worth on defense already, while finding his feet as a contributor on offense, former All-Star PF Kevin Love, who left the game against Philadelphia in the first quarter – the cause, a calf injury, will see him miss 3-4 weeks – and SF Kevin Porter Jr, who is yet to suit up for the team but was a dynamic player for the Cavs last season.
The way the Cavs were playing in their first three games and how effortless it looked, translates to a lot of wins in the NBA. Ball movement is an element of basketball every head coach in the league tries to inculcate in their team. It looks as if JB Bickerstaff has buy-in from his players for the way he wants to play ball and the squad, from top-to-bottom, has been executing it perfectly. Expect Cleveland to get back to winning ways against a Pacers team that has had a nice start to the season. But it will be the manner of victory which is more important. If Cleveland can get back to their winning formula of fluidity and dynamism on offense, while showing ruthlessness when opponents give away possession, then look for the team to return with smiles on their faces after a winning road trip.