For the first 12 minutes of their game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked like a team capable of taking down one of the NBA’s elite teams. While both teams struggled from the floor in the early going, Cleveland was able to capitalize on their open looks. And after 12 minutes, the Cavaliers led the Spurs by 10 points.
But from then on, San Antonio played like the much superior team that it is. Coming into the night, the Spurs held the second best record in the Western Conference and were just one game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the top spot. In comparison, the Cavaliers came into the game as the tenth place team in the Eastern Conference and 3.5 games out of the eight spot and thus on the outside of the playoffs.
The large skill difference between these two teams showed on the court. Over the course of the final three quarters, the Spurs outscored the Cavaliers 109-78 on their way to a 122-101 victory that was shades of the first meeting between these teams.
In the previous matchup between these teams, with the Spurs resting Tony Parker and limiting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli’s minutes, San Antonio got out to a huge lead early and never looked back. Spurs forward Danny Green was hot from deep and led a balanced Spurs attack with 17 points. For the game, San Antonio finished 16-24 from deep and 46-80 overall. The Cavaliers never held a lead in that game and were out of it before the first quarter even ended.
At that time, Anthony Bennett had possibly his best game of the season when he scored nine points on 4-5 shooting. Also at that time, Alonzo Gee was the Cavaliers starting small forward and Andrew Bynum – the human traffic jam – clogged up the middle of the floor like he was a semi-truck on I-71 during rush hour. Cavaliers guards Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters both struggled in that game as well, combining for 26 points 11-26 shooting while also fighting off rumors of infighting.
Green again led the Spurs in scoring, finishing with 24 points. Waiters (in his first game back from injury) and Irving (on his bobble head night at Quicken Loans Arena) co-led Cleveland with 24 points apiece while shooting a combined 19-35 from the field. Bennett again took baby steps towards being a functional NBA player, scoring 14 points and flashing some defensive ability. Consummate professional and glue-guy Luol Deng (who now mans the small forward spot) finished with nine points and Spencer Hawes – the anti-Bynum – had another strong performance, scoring 20 points and pulling down 13 rebounds.
This loss, while impactful to the Cavaliers playoff position, played out in a similar fashion to the first matchup after the opening period. The Spurs are excellent at moving the ball and getting open looks from three and that just happens to be a chink in the Cavaliers’ armor. In the first quarter, the Spurs shot 24 percent from the field while the Cavaliers finished the same period shooting 40 percent. By the end of the game (although the Cavaliers still finished with a higher percentage from the field and from deep) the Spurs raised their percentage to 47.8 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from three. It isn’t a coincidence that the complexation of the game changed when the Spurs started hitting open shots.
The Spurs also did an excellent job of frustrating a Cavaliers offense that has recently found its rhythm with the addition of Hawes at center. Almost every time Hawes (or Tristan Thompson) received the ball in the paint, he found himself hounded by two or three Spurs defenders and was forced to either take a contested shot or pass the ball. And while ultimately finished with 20 points on 7-9 shooting (and 13 rebounds) the Spurs rotated off him and closed well on shooters. On the other end, the Cavaliers struggled to close out on San Antonio’s open shooters over the final three quarters and they paid the price.
The end result of both games was the same: At the end of four quarters, the Cavaliers found themselves on the losing end against the Spurs. And again, the Cavaliers were done in not by the Spurs “Big Three” of Parker, Ginobli and Duncan, but key role players such as Green and Patty Mills. Only this time enough good happened to water down the bad and make it semi-palatable to watch.
PG Kyrie Irving – 39 minutes, 24 points, 8-17 shooting, six assists, five turnovers
Irving was solid tonight. He had a few shots that went in-and-out and if those would have fell, he would have been looking at 30-point performance. He also looked good when paired with Waiters and it was nice to see that their chemistry didn’t evaporate when Waiters was out with energy. Now, if he can just stop letting every person he defend get an open look, we’ll be in business.
SG Jarrett Jack – 21 minutes, four points, three assists
Jack was fairly forgettable tonight He often lost his man on defense, didn’t score and didn’t distribute. When C.J. Miles returns from his ankle injury, it will be interesting to see if Jack stays on as a starter or is moved to the bench.
SF Luol Deng – 35 minutes, nine points, 3-10 shooting, three assists, four turnovers, +/- of +1
Deng was alright on defense tonight, but really struggled on offense. His shot selection continues to be poor and he struggled to find open looks on the inside. The Cavaliers had some success in getting Deng good looks on back door cuts, but he couldn’t capitalize. However, this was a step in the right direction for him.
PF Tristan Thompson – 30 minutes, five points, 2-8 shooting, 10 rebounds
This wasn’t Thompson’s best game by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn’t terrible. He rebounded well, continued to fight for looks on offense but just couldn’t capitalize. Still, this isn’t worth breaking Thompson down and casting to the scrap pile over. I struggle to see how anyone can logically arrive at that opinion.
C Spencer Hawes - 33 minutes, 20 points, 7-9 shooting, 3-4 from three, 13 rebounds
Spencer “Steve” Hawes has been beyond useful for the Cavaliers since coming over in a trade from Philadelphia. He struggled tonight when the Spurs triple-teamed him in the paint, but he still finished with a solid night overall. Moving forward, I look forward to seeing how Hawes, Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Deng can finish out close games.
Co-stars: G Dion Waiters (23 minutes, 23 points, 11-18 shooting) and F Anthony Bennett (13 minutes, 5-8 shooting, 2-2 from three, one steal)
Waiters drew a solid reaction from the crowd when he entered the game for the first time and he didn’t look too rusty. He was often a second late on defense, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. If anything, tonight confirmed how important Waiters is to this team and the type of impact he can make. As for Bennett, he showed signs of life again tonight. Each time out, he looks much closer to becoming a competent NBA player – especially on offense. On one occasion, he used a nice up-and-under move, but couldn’t finish. Defensively, he committed five fouls in 13 minutes, but also showed some improved instincts. All in all, not a bad night for the much maligned rookie.
I’m not sure if Mike Brown could have done anything to change the outcome or flow of the game tonight. The Spurs are simply a class above the Cavaliers – plain and simple. What I did like was that Brown got himself a technical over a non-call on Tristan Thompson during the second half and put some emotion into his coaching. For that alone, he gets a win.