CLEVELAND, Ohio — After the Cleveland Cavaliers’ fourth quarter letdown, allowing a 22-point lead to shrink to three, Kevin Love sat at his locker with both feet in a bucket of ice and wraps around his knees as he tried to provide an explanation.
“I don’t want to say we took a step back, but we just were a little complacent in what we were doing,” he said. “Let them get back in the game and there’s been so many times we’ve been so good at putting teams away and tonight we weren’t able to do that. We have to look at film, we have to clean up a lot of things, we were very sloppy and shots we usually make didn’t fall and defensively we weren’t great. Just need to be better.”
Head coach Tyronn Lue lamented “messing around with the game.” LeBron James pointed to tired legs.
Either way, the Cavaliers didn’t play up to their standards, allowing the Magic to put up 37 points during a ghastly fourth quarter, the first time all season the Cavs’ stingy defense has allowed 30 points or more in a quarter.
As Love was in the midst of his response, Richard Jefferson, from one locker over, offered a solution.
“Maybe we can have (Andrew) Miller come in and be our closer too,” Jefferson said with a smile.
That wasn’t necessary. The Cavs didn’t need that. Turns out J.R. Smith’s clutch play in the fourth quarter combined with James and Kyrie Irving turned out to be enough to hang on for the 105-99 win, their third straight to open the season.
Here are five observations:
“That’s what he does” – Smith’s early-season struggles carried over into Saturday’s game. In the first half, he scored just five points on 2-of-5 from the field, including 1-of-4 from 3-point range.
Smith hasn’t been playing like the sniper that earned a hefty raise this summer. So after his tough first half, Smith got a pep talk from his teammates.
“At halftime they came in and said, ‘Just catch and shoot and after they close out hard after you make 2-3 (shots), then get to your sidestep, step back or whatever.’ I was just overthinking. Unfortunately I have to use these games as my preseason games so get used to it.
“I mean, the guys just set the table for me. It was just time for me to eat. I was playing around with the ball a little too much the last three games actually.”
Then came the fourth quarter, as Smith scored 11 of his season-best 16 points, canning three triples in the final 3:31, during a stretch where the Magic looked poised to inch closer.
“He bailed us out,” Lue said.
The first triple came after the Magic trimmed the lead to three points on the previous possession and it was setup by James, who snapped an on-target pass to the corner. After an Evan Fournier bomb, Smith answered again, pushing the lead back to six. The final dagger came with 31 seconds left, as Smith again extended the Cavs’ lead to six.
He has a knack for hitting big shots and seems to be the player teammates look for in bail-out situations.
“I think with Kyrie, LeBron and Kevin drawing so much attention early on in the game, if they’re scoring the basketball, that opens up shots for (Mike) Dunleavy and J.R. and Shump and those guys,” Lue said. “Down the stretch, they was looking and tilting, helping on LeBron and Kyrie and Kyrie was able to make good passes to make some wide-open shots. (Smith) made some tough shots. That’s what he does.”
Smith entered the night 4-of-15 from beyond the arc. He finished 4-of-10 on Saturday, using a brilliant fourth quarter to boost his shooting percentage.
Perhaps that will get him going.
“It definitely can,” Love said. “Just getting his legs back underneath him is going to be huge for him. Obviously he missed the entire time of training camp so I think it’s a big boost of confidence for him to just continue to get in shape and continuing to get game play.”
Smith celebrated his final make by paying homage to Indians slugger Carlos Santana.
🔥 #DefendTheLand pic.twitter.com/YCWN1XSCrx
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) October 30, 2016
Love-ing new role – During the summer, Lue wrote down different lineup combinations on a sheet of paper. He’s been mixing and matching in the early going, even playing James at center.
Another idea he came up with: Getting Love some early first-quarter rest.
That decision allows Lue to put Love back in towards the end of the first quarter and pull out James and Irving. Lue can use the James-Irving duo to begin the second period, which works wonders alongside Dunleavy and Channing Frye because of its shot creation.
As James and Irving are on the bench at the end of the first, Love moves into his old role as offensive focal point.
“Just being super-aggressive I think more than anything,” Love said. “In the first unit so much of the time I’m a floor-spreader so I think that and also because towards the ends of quarters we’re in the bonus most of the time so I think that definitely helps somebody like me get post position and continue to be aggressive.”
Love looks more comfortable this season. His play is reflecting that.
He struggled from the field against the Magic (6-of-17) and dealt with foul trouble all night, but he knows what’s expected of him and where his shots are going to come from. He’s also gotten to the free throw line 23 times in the first three contests.
On Saturday, Love finished with 19 points to go with five rebounds.
Kay Felder’s debut – After missing the first two games, stuck in the NBA’s concussion protocol, Felder made his debut.
It was a brief stint. The rookie played five minutes, scoring two points on 1-of-3 from the field to go with one assist.
“I thought Kay did a good job,” Lue said. “Unfortunately, the way the flow of the game went, Ky got tired and LeBron and Kevin got tired at different times so it kind of messed our rotation up. When guys want to come out, I know Kyrie couldn’t really get loose or get going tonight. Kay came in and did a good job. I thought he made some plays, pushed the ball, pushed the tempo, changed the pace and defensively he was pretty good. That was good to see him out there getting his first taste of NBA action.”
Felder’s lone bucket came at the end of the first quarter, as he used his speed and athleticism to race down the court and beat the buzzer with a layup.
Nice first @NBA bucket, @2kayzero! 👍 #CavsMagic pic.twitter.com/PwDj2Vm2UN
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) October 30, 2016
Owner Dan Gilbert was impressed.
Welcome to the Association @2kayzero from Motown.More than excited to see you in a @cavs uniform.Been hearing bout you in The D for years…
— Dan Gilbert (@cavsdan) October 30, 2016
Struggling to find his niche – Dunleavy was one of the Cavs’ few off-season additions, coming to Cleveland as part of a sign-and-trade deal that sent Matthew Dellavedova to Milwaukee.
But the veteran known for his marksmanship has gotten off to a slow start.
It’s tough. He’s a newbie on a championship team and is still getting comfortable in a new system while trying to build on-court chemistry with new teammates. He’s also been used in a few different positions as Lue attempts to take advantage of his versatility.
Dunleavy played 20 minutes, scoring six points on 2-of-8 from the field, including 2-of-6 from 3-point range.
One of Dunleavy’s made baskets came off a spectacular James’ feed. And it helped highlight why the Cavs were excited to acquire him and why he will be a great fit, even if his shot has yet to arrive from Chicago.
James was on the block and bounced a pass along the baseline that landed perfectly in Dunleavy’s hands in the corner. Dunleavy buried it.
“I just trusted my instincts,” James said. “I knew the set that we called and I trusted my ability to make my pass. I was happy I was able to make it on time and on target, but it started with the set. Started with the timing. It started with Double T setting a great rip screen for Duns in that short corner and I was able to get it to him.
“But, um, pretty unique pass. Probably only one guy in the world that can make that pass.”
Through three games, Dunleavy who is a career 37.6 percent 3-point shooter, is just 2-of-8 (25 percent) from long range.
He’s too good of a shooter to not get things turned around quickly.
Defense – From the category of it’s really, really early in the season, the champs entered the night as the league’s No. 1 team in opponent’s field goal percentage. It’s a stat that matters to them. It’s a stat visible upon entering the locker room.
“We’re playing pretty good offensively, but I’m most happy about our defense,” Lue said before the game. “Defensively we are playing hard, we’re competing. We’re doing the right coverages. Offensively we’ve got a lot of pieces and we’re going to score the basketball. Defensively is what I’m most proud of right now and hopefully we can continue to keep it going.”
Through three quarters, they did. The Cavs flexed their defensive muscles, holding Orlando to 62 points on 25-of-62 (40.3 percent) from the field.
Then came the disastrous fourth quarter, as Orlando scored a whopping 37 points on 13-of-22 (59.1 percent) from the field, including 4-of-9 (44.4 percent) from beyond the arc.
As happy as Lue was about the defense before the game, he didn’t like the fourth quarter D, one of three areas he is focusing on all season.
“Defensively we wasn’t good tonight,” Lue said. “I thought we let our guards down because of their record and not playing them as a good team. They’re struggling right now, but they have a good team and we didn’t respect that. I thought we got the big lead of 22, we let our guards down and then we started messing with the game and you see the end result.”