The Season's Second Act

February 20, 2013
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Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters

One great thing about the All-Star Break is that it’s not at the actual halfway point of the season. Post-All-Star is more like a homestretch than a second-half, especially with the Trade Deadline right in its wake.

After Wednesday night’s nationally-televised game against New Orleans, the Cavaliers have just 28 games left in the regular season.

The Cavs went into and come out of the Break as one of the most interesting teams in the East. Kyrie Irving won the Three-Point Contest, was completely at-ease with the All-Stars on Sunday and he and his three teammates all starred two nights earlier. Cleveland has the NBA’s attention once again.

The Wine and Gold are coming off the most successful run in years – putting together a pair of three-game win streaks and heading into the midseason classic a Kawhi Leonard three-pointer away from shocking the Spurs.

But it hasn’t been an easy road to this point to get here. And aside from a much kinder travel schedule, the final 28 games won’t be any easier. The Cavaliers are a more talented and (much) more confident club than they were earlier this year.

As Byron Scott’s squad head into the season’s Second Act, here are a few questions and issues they’ll be facing …

Trade Deadline – Well, we won’t have to wait long for this one to be answered. As of this publishing, about two hours before the Cavaliers tip off an 8 p.m. game against the Hornets, it’s all quiet on the trade front. If something happens, you’ll read about it on cavs.com

Chris Grant’s deal to land Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby and a future first rounder has satiated most fans over at this point – especially considering how Speights and Ellington have contributed. The Cavs are 5-5 since the January 22 deal.

Home Cooking – The NBA schedule-makers dealt the young Cavaliers a tough hand in the first half of the season. The Cavaliers played 11 of their first 16, and 26 of their first 42 games on the road.

But things evened out in February. Wednesday’s game caps a season-long seven-game homestand, The Cavs play nine of 15 at home in March and an even 5-5 in April, with just four remaining back-to-backs.

Problem-Solving Skills – Coach Scott has had some flummoxed postgame pressers this season. But he also understands that his starting lineup is a combined 22 years old. And with any team that age – guys that’d be getting ready for the Tourney about now – he knows there’ll be ups and downs.

The Cavs have had their struggles on the defensive end in the first half, although the second unit has brought a different level of toughness and intelligence. Cleveland went into the Break 4th-best in the league in causing turnovers (and 8th-best in taking care of the ball) but still give away some easy points at the rim.

As Scott sometimes laments: he’s not worried about their scoring. Not long before the Break, the Cavs scored 115 or more points in three straight ballgames, something they hadn’t done since 1993.

Can the Cavaliers give Coach Scott the consistent defense he and his coaching staff are looking for in the second half?

The second nagging problem – again emblematic of a young team – is playing to the level of their competition. Cleveland’s already knocked off both the Clippers and the Lakers, the Celtics, Blazers and Atlanta (twice). And were seconds from going into the All-Star Break with one over San Antonio.

We know about the losses, and there have been some tough recent ones – including last Monday’s clunker against a short-handed Timberwolves team. Losses like that now seem to hurt a little worse because the Cavaliers have been playing so well.

The good thing about 22-year-olds is they usually learn stuff. And with an improved bench and a pair of sophomores and freshman getting better, they might start beating some teams they should and shock a few they shouldn’t.

Player Development – The injury to Anderson Varejao interrupted another All-Star caliber season for Andy, which was awful. Nobody works harder and nobody’s a better guy than Varejao.

But his absence opened the door for Tristan Thompson to develop into one of the best young bigs in the East.

To wit: Thompson had just five double-doubles, averaging 8.3 points (.466 shooting) and 7.6 boards through his first 26 games this season. Over the next 27, he has 13 double-doubles, is averaging 14.4 points (519 shooting) and 10.4 rebounds.

The sophomore from Toronto grabs 3.8 offensive boards per game, fifth-best in the NBA, and is shooting 60 percent from the stripe. He had 27 assists in 60 games last year and has 69 through 53 games this year.

That final number “53” is as big as any of the preceding digits. That’s the same number of games the Cavaliers have played this season.

The other Cavalier who’s played in all 53 is Alonzo Gee.

Gee doesn’t have the numbers Tristan does. But his development has been almost as big for the team.

When he first arrived off waivers in 2011, Gee was asked to develop a better jumper, and he did. During the lockout, it was to develop the corner three, which he did – traveling to the Polish League to do so. This year, he’s been asked to Byron Scott’s Swiss Army Knife, asked to guard all shapes and sizes. And he’s been one of better perimeter defenders in the league.

His offensive numbers have suffered, but aside from the Classes of 2011 and 2012 in the starting lineup, Gee is the constant.

Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller – like the Thompson and Irving before them, were thrown right into the fire. And they’ve handled the pressure very well.

Waiters went into the Break leading all Eastern Conference rookies in scoring (14.2ppg), assists (3.2apg) and steals (1.1spg). And one gets the sense out the kid from South Philly that isn’t a “rookie wall” kinda guy.

Zeller looked like he was leaning on that wall as All-Star Weekend approached, but he had a rock-solid game against the league’s top squad, going 7-for-10 from the floor for 16 points and nine boards against the Spurs.

The former ACC Player of the Year – who had his jersey retired at Chapel Hill this past Saturday – started 27 games in the first half, scoring in double-figures 18 times and grabbing double-digit boards in six games.

Zeller, Waiters and their rookie teammate Kevin Jones have only 28 more occasions of wearing their girly pink backpacks to-and-from practices and games (unless they really like them). Then they reach NBA manhood.

The young Cavaliers are growing up before our eyes. And the season has only gotten better as we’ve gone along.

Get ready for a stirring Second Act.