CLEVELAND, Ohio — It had the feel of an NBA Finals preview. Of course, the Golden State Warriors will have plenty to say about that.
There’s lots of time before June, which is probably good for the Cleveland Cavaliers given their late-game blunders against the short-handed San Antonio Spurs.
The two teams went back and forth in a game that featured 15 lead changes and 13 ties. But with 0.6 seconds remaining, Kevin Love’s game-tying heave fell short and the Cavs suffered the 118-115 overtime loss.
While Love’s missed 3-pointer was the final play of the game, there were plenty of reasons for the loss.
Here are five observations:
Little support – Head coach Tyronn Lue has been experimenting with different lineups, but seems to have identified a five-man group for the start of the second and fourth quarters, provided nothing screwy happens to make him adjust.
LeBron James. Richard Jefferson. DeAndre Liggins. Kyle Korver. Channing Frye.
Lue wants the floor spread out for James, the primary playmaker. Having Korver and Frye on the court creates headaches in pick actions. And Liggins needs to be a part of the crew because he guards opposing point guards.
In the three games, that lineup has played 30 minutes and scored 60 points on 21-of-48 (43.7 percent) from the field, including 11-of-28 (39.2 percent) from 3-point range.
But on Saturday, San Antonio manhandled that group, outscoring the five-man crew, 29-3, in just over seven minutes.
The fivesome went 1-of-10 from the field while committing seven turnovers.
“I thought defensively is where it really hurt us,” Lue said of the team’s bench effort. “And when they’re scoring the basketball, we can’t get out in transition and Channing and Kyle and those guys can’t get 3-point shots. It’s really the defense that let us down and hurt us in that second quarter.”
The Cavs’ bench deserved praise for its effort Thursday against Phoenix. Not Saturday, being outscored, 27-19.
Rookie point guard Dejounte Murray, a Klutch Sports client and James’ “little bro” who hung out at James’ house Friday night, led San Antonio’s second unit. Murray scored 14 points on 7-of-10 from the field to go with six assists in 22 minutes.
Slowing the All-Star – The Cavs’ comeback started in the final five minutes of regulation when James began defending Kawhi Leonard on every possession.
Sizzling for much of the night and getting to his spots at will because of James’ early foul trouble, Leonard went a chilly 0-of-5 against James late in the fourth quarter, as the Spurs offense reverted to dreadful iso attacks and panicky possessions with their offensive linchpin smothered.
“LeBron can guard him and he’s physical,” Lue said. “He can kind of beat him to his spots. He really eliminates the post-ups, which he hurt us in the post a lot (before James guarded him) and that little midrange area. LeBron’s physicality and athletic ability to be able to guard him really helps us out a lot.”
Leonard’s first shot attempt during the stretch was a contested triple. Airball.
Then came a clanked pull-up jumper from around the free throw line after James forced him to his left, a less comfortable direction. The same thing happened on Leonard’s end-of-clock step-back jumper with less than 20 seconds remaining that came up well short. Once again, James forced him left.
The Cavs’ finished the quarter on an 11-2 surge, capped by James deep 3-pointer that tied the game at 107.
But his stifling defense against Leonard seemed to be the cause of his excitement. It probably stems from James-Leonard past battles and Leonard finishing ahead in MVP voting last year.
“He’s kind of the face of their franchise now and he’s producing,” James said the other night. “He’s worked on his craft, he’s gotten better and better every year and he’s an All-Star starter for a reason.”
End of regulation – With a chance to steal the game, Lue called timeout and drew up a specific play.
But James told me after the game, he didn’t like the way things looked. So he improvised.
After getting an apathetic screen from Kyrie Irving, who seemed to be motioning that James run the called play, Danny Green switched and the four-time MVP liked the matchup.
Having just hit a 30-footer on the previous possession, James veered left and took a step-back triple that looked on target. He thought it was good. But it was a little too strong and the game went into overtime.
“That’s a shot he took, that’s a shot he can make,” Lue said. “So we’re happy with it.”
The initial set involved Love at the elbow and a possible rip through also including Irving. But LaMarcus Aldridge played it well. The end result was supposed to be James or Irving taking the shot. Just not that one.
“I thought it was a great game,” James said. “I thought both teams blew opportunities.”
Love’s mistake – With 18 seconds left in OT and the Cavs trailing by three, they elected not to foul immediately. Instead, Cleveland trapped Leonard on the sidelines and James forced a tie-up situation.
According to James, Leonard won the tip and the ball was heading out of bounds. Love saved it by whipping it behind him.
Problem: it went right to Leonard, who raced up the court and threw down a one-handed dunk, setting a new career high with 41 points.
There was no way for Love to see who tipped the ball. Letting it go out of bounds was risky. But his blunder, one he admitted after the game at his locker, was not throwing the ball over his head, straight up in the air, which could’ve created a scramble situation.
Last-second heave – Love was asked about his off-target corner three that would’ve sent the game into double overtime.
“That wasn’t what lost us the game,” he said. “I missed the shot, but a couple after-timeouts we didn’t run the right play and we had our opportunities. That wasn’t what did it.”
He’s right. But it was also a clean look after Kyle Anderson gambled and lost his man. It looked so funky off Love’s hand that he was asked in the media scrum whether Anderson, 6-foot-9, got a piece of it.
“No,” he said. “I just tried to get it off too fast, didn’t square my body and I think with 0.6 you probably have enough time to square yourself and shoot it, but I didn’t take my time and the shot wasn’t pretty.”
That’s a phrase that sums up Love’s Saturday well.
After missing the second half of the Warriors game and then the following contest against the Suns with an achy back, Love wasn’t able to find the range.
He scored 13 points on 4-of-15 from the field, including 3-of-11 from beyond the arc. He was 1-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter and 0-of-1 in OT.
On the night, he was 1-of-6 on corner triples, many of them wide-open looks off dribble penetration.
This season, he is 35-of-96 (36.4 percent) on corner 3’s.