BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The Cleveland Cavaliers did what teams with title aspirations should do on Wednesday night. They bounced back from a crushing loss.
“I think we came in with a mindset that we just wanted to try to get better,” LeBron James said after scoring 17 points. “This team’s had a lot of ups and downs and changes. But we just want to try to continue to improve and I think we did that tonight.”
That’s James’ continuous message, the same one he delivered on Tuesday after Cleveland was forced to relive the Golden State horror show in the film room and before practice began.
James referred to that as a conversation. But it more of an opportunity to spell out any lingering issues.
The Cavs followed their leader on Wednesday, using a balanced scoring attack and increased intensity on defense to coast to a 91-78 win against the Brooklyn Nets.
Here are five observations:
Not out of the woods – There was no way for the Cavaliers to erase what happened on Monday night against the Warriors — at least not during a January game against the woeful Nets.
But Wednesday night provided the perfect opportunity and perfect opponent for the Cavs to officially move on, to wipe away the stench that followed them from Cleveland.
“I know that loss stuck with all of us,” Kyrie Irving said after scoring nine points. “But a lot of us that didn’t have the performance we wanted to against the reigning champs, that loss is going to stick with us and we have to have that chip on our shoulder.”
On Monday, the All-Star point guard scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting while getting schooled repeatedly by Stephen Curry. Irving’s lackluster performance led to plenty of warranted criticism.
That was the case for James as well, who scored 16 points against Golden State, getting frustrated by Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. And then there was Love, who had a dreadful night, with his defense turning into a social media punchline.
That’s why in the first game since the debacle, it was up to the Big Three to set the tone.
“Just saw it in their eyes, saw it in their mindset, saw it in their intensity towards the game,” Cavs head coach David Blatt said. “We’re not out of the woods by any means. We’ve got to keep working, we’ve got to keep doing the kind of things we did today or in preparation for this game and going forward in every game.”
The trio combined to score 17 of the team’s 23 first quarter points.
“Starting at shootaround this morning just getting back to what we know, swinging the basketball,” Irving said. “But also knowing that the offense flows through myself, Bron and K-Love so we understand that, the rest of the guys understand that and we were using each other on pick-and-rolls finding that rhythm. But we just have to have it translate consistently from game-to-game.”
For the Cavs, that meant turning things around on the defensive end.
The toughest part of Tuesday’s film session was watching the Warriors slice the second-ranked defense to pieces.
“Just our attention to detail,” James said when asked what he liked compared to Monday. “We had a game plan and we executed it to the best (we could) for as close to 48 minutes as possible and it resulted in us being in the right position throughout the course of the game and it allowed us to get this road win.”
The Nets are the second-lowest scoring team in the NBA so there’s no reason to toss bouquets after Wednesday’s defensive effort.
Still, the Cavs held the Nets to 78 points, the sixth time a team has failed to top 80 points, on 35-of-84 (41.7 percent) from the field. They also forced 14 turnovers, which were converted into 19 points.
The Cavs put into practice what they preached on Tuesday, which was a positive sign. But even after the bounce-back win, there’s still plenty of work ahead.
“We’re still not satisfied,” Irving said. “We can’t be satisfied with even a performance like this. We know we still have to get a lot better. No matter who we are playing against we have to play the same way. We can’t get out of what we know and what we do on a consistent basis. Every single day we have to take advantage of that.”
Starting fast – Slow starts have plagued Cleveland recently. In Friday’s game, Blatt was forced to use a timeout less than three minutes in. Against the Warriors, he stopped the game momentarily before two minutes expired.
There have been times the Cavs have dug an early hole and crawled out, using their abundance of talent to overwhelm the opposition. That wasn’t the case Monday, as the Warriors buried them quickly.
“It is something that we have talked about honestly and we’re trying to address,” Blatt admitted Wednesday night.
When pressed he said, “It’s a mentality to start the game.”
Starting slow wasn’t an issue against Brooklyn. The Cavs took the lead for good at the 4:07 mark of the first quarter and held a 23-17 edge after the first 12 minutes.
Love plan – Love had no answers when asked about his offensive role following the Warriors game.
The babble about his fit as Cleveland’s third wheel was supposed to be over, squashed months ago when the Cavaliers finished last season 33-3 with the Big Three sharing the court together.
But after his worst game in the wine and gold and his shot attempts dropping in January, the inquiries have popped back up.
The player whose game has always been predicated on touches and volume, one of the most efficient post players in the league, was being forgotten far too often.
“I don’t know how to answer that without getting myself into a hole here,” Love said Wednesday when again asked about his role prior to the team’s shootaround. “It’s definitely something that has been talked about.”
It was more than talk on Wednesday night. Love morphed back into the team’s focal point, as he scored inside, outside and forced his way to the free throw line. By the end of the first quarter, Love had seven points, more than double his season-low total of three against the Warriors for the entire game.
That was the plan.
“Like I said, it started in shootaround,” Irving said. “Just telling him, ‘If I’m coming off screen-and-rolls I’m going to draw two for you, but if I see a lane and I can get downhill I’m going to attack downhill. We’re going to play off one another. We’re not going to have you just come in and set screens and we’re flipping to the weakside. I don’t care if you shoot 25 times. We’re coming off pick-and-rolls and we want you to be aggressive.’ He knows that and I know he definitely made a conscious effort and I know it will go far going forward.”
LeBron made sure to get Love involved early as well, assisting on his first three baskets.
Love finished with 17 points on 5-of-10 from the field, his highest field goal percentage in January.
“Well, he was aggressive,” James said of Love. “Got his shots, got into the lane, got his fadeaway going as well and he defensive rebounded everything that they missed so, he was big for us tonight.”
Love added a game-high 18 rebounds.
“I was just happy that Kevin went out there with a great mindset and getting back to his normal self,” Blatt said. “Those are the kind of games he’s been giving us since the beginning of the year. For me, that’s the normal Kevin Love.”
Pushing the pace – Pace of the game was another point of emphasis.
There’s been a deliberate approach this season, which had the Cavs ranked 28th in pace entering the night, averaging 95.1 possessions per game. Only Miami and Utah play slower than the Cavs.
It hasn’t hurt Cleveland, as it ranks fifth in offensive efficiency. But the Cavs wanted to speed things up against Brooklyn, hoping to avoid getting caught up in its game, just like the first meeting in late November.
“Well, Coach, he’s been pressuring us about pushing our pace, getting up the floor and I think we did that tonight,” James said.
With offense being hard to come by at times and the ball sticking, the Cavs were hoping to get easy baskets in transition.
“The last few games we have let teams dictate the tempo and tonight myself and Bron did a great job of forcing it,” Irving said. “Either a little bit under 20 or a little bit over 20 (seconds on the shot clock) was a big thing for us. We have to continue with that pace.”
The Cavs ended the night with 16 fast break points, more than their season average of 12.1.
“One thing that Kyrie did in particular was, even when they scored and sometimes a guy gets scored on and we put our heads down and we kind of walk the ball up and we start our offense at 15, 16, 17 seconds left on the clock, but he made sure every time we pushed it, got in a good pace and I think that kind of (worked),” Love said. “Bron always talks about, ‘the ball has energy,’ so the ball really was hopping around tonight, really moved and that set guys up for a lot of great shots.
Getting rest – The Cavs are in the midst of a tough stretch. Dating back to Jan. 12 against Dallas, five of the last six opponents have been playoff teams — Brooklyn being the exception.
Another one comes tomorrow night when the Cavs return home for the second game of a back-to-back against the streaking Los Angeles Clippers.
“Well, it’s an experienced team for one and they’ve had a pretty good, solid group for a couple years now and they had a good run in the postseason last year and it’s all spearheaded by the mighty man, Chris Paul,” James said. “We got to do a great job of just trying to pay attention to detail. The coaching staff will give us a great game plan so it’s up to us to execute it. We need to have a better showing than we had the last time we were on our home floor and we’ll be ready for it.”
The good news is the team will be more rested than normal coming off a game the night before.
The byproduct of getting out to big leads is an opportunity to limit minutes. The Warriors have been able to rest their key players in fourth quarters. The Spurs have had the same luxury. So, too, have the Thunder.
The Cavs took advantage of the weak opponent, put the game out of reach early and sat James, Love and Irving for the entire fourth quarter, leaving the bench to close out the game.
James played 29 minutes, the fewest since Dec. 26 against Portland when the Cavs were on the wrong end of a blowout. Love (31 minutes) and Iman Shumpert (30 minutes) were the only two players to reach the 30-minute mark.
“That was our starters and early rotation guys taking the game seriously and taking care of business and allowing themselves to rest,” Blatt said. “That’s a good thing.”