CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue was nervous as soon as the schedule came out.
The Cavs and Rockets have had some tough matchups recently — that was before offensive wizard Mike D’Antoni got hired. This Rockets squad, with James Harden taking his game to another level, is even more dangerous, especially on offense.
Lue knew what was coming. He wasn’t going to be a stickler on defense, even if it’s one of the areas he wants to see improve, and he wasn’t going to worry about each intricate detail on the offensive end. He wasn’t even going to keep a strict watch of player minutes.
“This game I circled and I said, ‘I didn’t care, just win the game’ because they put you in a lot of uncomfortable positions,” Lue said after the 128-120 victory. “We got to put Kevin (Love) on (Trevor) Ariza. We just had a lot of different matchups and they do a good job of putting you in some single-side bump situations, a lot of mismatch situations. So this game I just circled, ‘get a win.’ Like, it wasn’t even about the defense because it’s a tough team to play.”
Tuesday night was entirely about the Cavs’ offense, as they shot 13-of-15 (87 percent) from the field en route to a whopping 43-point fourth quarter.
Here are five observations:
Cavs’ pet play – How does a team shoot 87 percent in a quarter? Kyrie Irving had an explanation.
“Another thanks to (GM) David Griffin for putting this team together and putting shooters that we have on this team” Irving said. “We had different combinations in the fourth quarter and we just trust each other, especially with the pass.”
That’s certainly a big part of it. But there’s more. Much more.
The core has been together for three years. Players know what’s expected of one another, trust the system and know what plays to run in crunch time. With 6:55 remaining and the Cavs clinging to a four-point lead, Lue yanked Irving out of the game, replacing him with sharpshooter J.R. Smith.
Lue then put the ball in James’ hands. That’s when the Cavs went to one play repeatedly: a 4-5 pick-and-roll involving James and Love.
“We got to take what they give us,” Lue said. “If they switch, then we can post Kevin. If they switch, we can also attack with LeBron. Or if they show, LeBron is going to make the right pass. So, pick your poison in that position and it’s a play that works for us and works for us well.”
With Love at the 5, Nene started as his primary defender. But Houston chose to switch, which put Nene on James while a smaller defender, usually Trevor Ariza or Corey Brewer, tried to slow Love.
On the first set, James flipped a pass over the top of Love’s defender, which led to an easy layup.
The next time down, the Rockets switched again. James found Love in the post for another layup. On the next possession, the Rockets switched and were forced to foul Love. He buried both freebies, capping a personal 9-0 run.
Confused on the Cavs’ next possession, the Rockets gave James a path to the basket for a finger roll, pushing the lead to 10.
“It just depends on certain matchups,” James said. “Teams are reluctant to … put a smaller body on Kev. Kev’s done a great job of posting guys up. He’s just been very good. He’s a handful in the post.”
If Love’s defense doesn’t become a liability, and it’s been anything but so far, Lue will continue to use the versatile All-Star at center. That puts any defense in a quandary.
Welcome back – Channing Frye returned after being away a few days following his mother’s death. Technically, he returned Sunday, just in time for James’ annual Halloween party.
“The party was awesome. Top-notch everything,” he said. “My parties usually have pigs in a blanket and have a little boom box on the side. That party was decked out. It was good to see all the guys and get back into a rhythm, just have fun and see everybody’s wives and friends and just for us to do stuff outside.”
That’s what Frye and his teammates enjoy so much about being inside the Cavaliers’ family environment.
“Just feels good to be around the fellas and just get back to hooping,” Frye said. “That’s what I’m here for. Just kind of dealing with it how it goes.”
Frye got to the arena early, going through his usual pregame routine. He then gave the Cavs a much-needed boost off the bench.
“Just spacing the floor,” Lue said of Frye’s value, along with Mike Dunleavy. “When you have LeBron and Kyrie operating in the middle of the floor or attacking the basket, you have to pick and choose (to defend James and Irving or the 3-point shooters). So that’s what we’re kind of looking for with that second unit of just spacing the floor, running pick-and-rolls and isos and daring teams to come and help.”
Frye scored 11 points, with only one 3-pointer. He also took advantage of mismatches in the post.
“Uh, he passed up three (shots) so he should have had 15,” Lue said. “So when he’s open, we want him to shoot it. No doubt about it.”
Houston, we have a problem – The Rockets led, 35-29, at the end of the first quarter. Harden had just scored 13 points, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range.
Then he went to the bench for his usual rest. That’s when the Rockets’ offense imploded. Cleveland outscored Houston, 21-6, in just over five minutes. By the time Harden checked back in, the Rockets were staring at a nine-point deficit.
The same happened in the fourth quarter, being outscored, 11-8, with Harden on the bench.
Playing faster – On a night the Cavaliers were one point away from a franchise high at Quicken Loans Arena, Lue expressed displeasure with one specific area.
“We scored 128 points, but we didn’t play fast enough for me,” he said. “I addressed the team after the game and just said, ‘When LeBron gets the ball in his hands, we play faster.’ But Ky has to do a better job of pushing the ball and attacking early because teams are going to start blitzing him and start loading up.
“When we play fast, that’s when Mike Dunleavy gets shots, Channing Frye, J.R., Shump — those guys get open shots because we play fast. And I thought tonight we could have done a lot better job of playing faster and pushing the pace.”
Irving, who scored 32 points, took Lue’s comments as a personal challenge.
“Yeah I do,” Irving said when asked if he knows what Lue wants. “And I feel like that was specifically geared toward me, especially as a point guard, just getting it out and going. It will be better next game.”
Heading into the night, the Cavs ranked 14th in pace — the number of possessions a team uses per game — averaging 100.6.
Odd man out – There are two Chicago natives roaming the locker room: Iman Shumpert and DeAndre Liggins.
On Saturday, James questioned Liggins about his baseball ties.
“I’m a White Sox fan,” Liggins responded.
That leaves Shumpert as the lone player rooting for the Cubs, something he revealed on his Twitter at the start of the World Series.
If you thought Shump was rooting for anyone other than the hometown you are out your body!!! #post90 #WorldSeries #chicagomane pic.twitter.com/jRs9ORXMsQ
— Iman Shumpert I (@imanshumpert) October 27, 2016
Shumpert tried to explain, saying it’s a Chicago thing and he wants to see the city do well, but even the Cavs are a bit confused.
“Shump’s not even really a Cubs fan,” Frye said prior to Tuesday’s game. “He’s a White Sox fan for real. I think it’s great for baseball you have these two teams that are underdogs and haven’t been there for a while. The pitching has been unbelievable.”
Following the Cavs’ win, while players were getting dressed, the game was on the big-screen TV in the locker room. By the time the media was allowed in, Chicago led 3-0 in the top of the third inning. That, of course, made Shumpert happy.
It’s entirely possible he didn’t know the score, but as he walked to the showers with his “Lil Shump” towel skirt around his waist, he kept asking.
“It’s 3-0,” many people said in response. “OK,” Shumpert said with a smile on his face.
Shortly after, reporters gathered around Love. Sitting down, with his feet in a tub of ice and the Indians hat he wore to the game right behind him, he was asked about the Cavs’ fourth-quarter offense and their go-to play.
He started to respond, said a few sentences before hearing groans in the locker room. He looked around, unable to see the TV. Then he got the bad news: Cubs shortstop Addison Russell had just belted a grand slam for a 7-0 lead.
“Grand slam?” Love asked. “All right, this interview’s over.”
Shumpert, strutting around, continued talking trash with his teammates.
“What happened? What happened,” he asked facetiously. “Dang, bro.”
Richard Jefferson, repping the Indians with his red “C” hat, fired back.
“The White Sox are out of it, buddy.”