Pindowns: Defense (again) does in slow-starting Cavs

George Hill and the Cavaliers, yet again, found a victory out of reach.

Random pindowns after the hot-shooting Denver Nuggets gunned down the Cleveland Cavaliers, 126-117, on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena…

1. The Cavaliers didn’t lose this game in the highly entertaining, down-the-stretch run to the wire. Simply put, this team has had a maddening habit of being lethargic and lacking energy and effort to begin games, especially when it comes to playing middle-of-the-road teams such as Denver, and it continued on this night.

2. It’s well past time this team realizes it, too, is one of the teams described in the previous item — middle of the road. Denver is 35-28 on the season, the Cavaliers are 36-26.

3. The Cavaliers didn’t lose this game in the highly entertaining, back-and-roth rush to the wire. They lost it in the first half, mainly for playing defense like their feet were stuck in quicksand. Whether it was going under screens on pick-and-roll situations, poor decisions to switch or, worst of all, being simply awful on closeouts. The Cavaliers often resemble Frankenstein, lumbering arms outstretched when a shooter goes up for a 3.

4. Therein lies the problem, which has been an all-too-familiar refrain for this team all season — defense, or lack thereof, more specifically.

5. The Nuggets put 73 points on the scoreboard in the first half, alone, scoring 37 in the first quarter and 36 in the second. Throw in 30 more in the third and Cleveland had allowed 30 or more points in nine of its last 12 quarters.

6. Down 15 points two-thirds of the way through the third quarter, the Cavaliers finally got it in gear, closing the period on a 13-4 run to get to within 103-97 entering the fourth quarter. Amazingly, LeBron James, who had 15 points at halftime, did not score in the third quarter. By the way, Cleveland has now lost 19 consecutive games in which it trailed entering the fourth quarter.

7. But by the time Cleveland got its act together and began scratching and clawing on every possession, it was simply too late. The Cavaliers in the fourth quarter paid for the sins they committed defensively in the first three. Their legs, made weary by the effort that was exerted to get back into the game, trailing only 115-114 with 2:40 to play, were shot. Denver put together an 11-3 run the rest of the way to seal the deal.

8. The ironic thing is the Cavaliers were more rested and playing at home, on the eighth day of a 10-day stretch in Cleveland. Meanwhile, the Nuggets played the night before in Memphis and were playing their third game in a five-night stretch on the road… and still had more bounce in their step, had the fresher legs.

9. While the Cavaliers lost this game in the first three quarters, the Nuggets won it from the 3-point line throughout. Denver blazed away from deep, making 19 of 35 attempts (54.3 percent), marking the third time this season Cleveland has allowed 19 triples in a game.

10. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers — again — struggled from 3, making shooting 9-of-24 (37.5 percent) from beyond the arc. When all was said and done, that was the difference in this one. Denver made 10 more 3-pointers than Cleveland… and won by nine points.

11. Gary Harris led all scorers with 32 points for Denver, shooting 6-of-10 from deep. Will Barton had 23 points off the bench, making 4-of-10 from 3, Wilson Chandler had 16 (shooting 2-of-4 from long distance), as did Jamal Murray, who made good on 3-of-4 from the arc. Paul Millsap, playing in his second game since a lengthy absence because of an injured wrist, had 11 points, including a crucial 3-ball with 2:25 to play after the Cavaliers had gotten to within 115-114 on two free throws by James.

12.“They had it going tonight offensively, so we just tried to throw everything at them,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We switched, we blitzed, we showed, we did a little of everything. They got hot.”

13. Speaking of James, he was his usual magnificent self, posting the 68th triple-double of his career — tying a career high with his 13th this season — with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists in 43 minutes. He played the entire second half, save for the final 20.7 seconds when the verdict had been rendered. James’ teams usually win when he has a triple-double — his teams were 52-15 in games in their first 67 games he reached the milestone. Emphasis on “were.” They’re now 52-16.

14. J.R. Smith had 19 points, two rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block… all in the second half. After playing The Invisible Man in the first half, when he went the first 11 minutes without recording a single statistic, as in, none, he did manage two rebounds and two assists in 14 minutes by halftime.

15. In the second half, Smith must’ve found an antique (a phone booth) and changed into, well, Souperman, shooting 7-of-12, 2-of-5 from beyond the arc, in 21 energetic minutes.

16. “In the second half, I just figured to hell with it, just be more aggressive,” Smith said. “If they double me, try to get around them and then make a play. Just a different mindset, I guess.”

17. “Different mindset” is certainly nothing new for the enigmatic Smith, whoas has been well documented, was suspended for the Cavs’ loss to Philadelphia on Thursday night for conduct detrimental to the team. It was revealed Saturday the suspension was for throwing a bowl of soup (chicken tortilla, according to Jason Lloyd of The Athletic) at Cavs assistant coach Damon Jones after shootaround Thursday. Smith sounded like a guy ready to move on from the craziness of the last two days. “Yeah, absolutely. Just do what I do. Just come in and work, play with my kids and play 2K, that’s about it,” Smith said. “I can’t really dwell on the past. I’ve never been that person. I just look forward to the next day and try to do better every day.”

18. Smith’s Dr. Jekyl-Mr. Hyde performance was typical of his play this season. Going forward, if Smith is the checked-out-mentally player on display in the first half, he should not see the floor in any meaningful minutes. If he plays as he did in the second half Saturday night, it solves a lot of problems for Lue.

19. Speaking of Lue, he has been (deserved so, in this writer’s opinion) skewered for his questionable rotations and undying loyalty he’s shown for not only Smith, but also Tristan Thompson. His faith was rewarded, at least for one night, as Smith’s souper second half and Thompson’s 12 points and seven boards were positives.

20. Speaking of hot and cold, George Hill continued his trend of playing a solid game, laying an egg, then playing another solid game, posting 17 points, four rebounds and four assists.

21. Larry Nance Jr. was the best player on the floor for the Cavaliers in the first half, tying a career high with 14 points and adding seven rebounds. His Statute of Liberty dunk to bring Cleveland to within 45-43 at the 8:11 mark of the second quarter on which he posterized Denver’s Mason Plumlee along the left baseline was the single most impressive play of the night. Nance celebrated the hammer with some finger pistoling. “It was fun. It was definitely fun,” Nance said. “They were leaving me open so I … just kind of made them pay for it.”

31. He especially enjoyed the dunk on Plumlee.

32. “Definitely. That’s kind of what I’ve been doing since I got in the league, what I enjoy doing. That will be one I’ll look at a couple times,” he said.

22. However, Nance Jr. managed just one rebound in the second half and was forced to leave the game late after banging knees with Harris. “Totally accidental kind of ran into my knee a little bit, hyperextended,” Nance said. “But it’s fine, I was ready to go back in. I just needed to come out like, ‘I’m all right, good, let’s go.’ Coach Lue decided to stay with the guys that were in, but I was ready to go.”

23. Rookie Cedi Osman (13) and Jordan Clarkson (11) also reached double figures for Cleveland. Rodney Hood struggled through a 3-of-9 shooting effort, finishing with six points, three rebounds, two assists and a block in 26 minutes. Hood missed all four of his 3-point attempts, including wide-open look in transition off a perfect pass from James that hit him right in the shooter’s pocket at a crucial moment down the stretch.

24. Kyle Korver played seven pretty much nothing first-half minutes, missing both shots he took, one from beyond the arc. He did not get off the bench in the second half.

25. Former Cavalier Richard Jefferson, a member of the 2016 NBA championship team now playing for the Nuggets, received a huge ovation when he was recognized on the Humongotron.

26. Much has been made about how Kevin Love’s return from the broken left hand he suffered Jan. 29 in Detroit will provide a big boost to the Cavaliers, and he certainly will in terms of offense, but not so on the defensive end. Cleveland scored plenty of points, but simply were powerless to stop Denver, especially in the first three quarters.

27. For what it’s worth, perhaps Cleveland should put their “The Land” jerseys in mothballs. The Cavaliers are but 1-5 when they don those jerseys.

28. Having now lost three of four games on their current five-game homestand, the lone win coming on a much-closer-than-it-should-have-been decision against the awful Brooklyn Nets, the Cavaliers will close it out Monday against Detroit. After that game against the Piston, Cleveland will embark on a six-game road trip.

29. The Cavaliers are now much closer to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase than they are the second. Third-place Cleveland is 7.5 games behind second-place Boston (44-20), but only 3.5 games ahead of eight-place Miami (33-20). Fourth-place Washington (36-27) trails Cleveland by only a half-game while fifth-place Indiana (35-27) and sixth-place Philadelphia (34-27) are only 1.0 and 1.5 games behind the Cavaliers, respectively.

30. In a big-picture view. the way things are going for the Cavs, it appears the deadline-day makeover pulled off by general manager Koby Altman may have been more about the future than the present because, well, the present simply isn’t very good.

Comments are closed.