Cavs show off their looser, faster side in statement win over Spurs
POSTED: Jan 31, 2016 11:50 AM ET
Spurs vs. Cavaliers
LeBron James scores 29 points and Kevin Love adds 21 as the Cavaliers beat the Spurs, 117-103.
Without time to break down the video, LeBron James wasn't prepared to say that the Cavaliers' 117-103 victory over the mighty San Antonio Spurs was his team's most impressive of the season.
But no one had to call in the Elias Sports Bureau to identify a different but equally important superlative: James set some sort of personal best Saturday for the number of times he mentioned his head coach in the noisy postgame dressing room.
It was noisy because James' personal music player was blasting through the room, loudly, its hard, vulgar lyrics bleeding into and drowning out video and audio interviews with teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving while the Cavaliers superstar showered, dressed and savored the victory. James only turned it down -- not off -- when he was ready to do his "media."
And when he did, he came with a torrent of direct and indirect references to Tyronn Lue, the lead assistant promoted to head coach when David Blatt was fired the previous week. Counting all variations -- "Coach Lue," "coach" and "he" -- James mentioned Lue 16 times in slightly less than six minutes.
Sixteen? James might not have mentioned Blatt 16 times in any month in the season and a half they were together. Certainly not as glowingly, as respectfully, as deferentially as he talked up Lue late Saturday. As in:
"Coach Lue has done a great job of clearing the air of what he expects out of all of us. Including Kev, a big focal part of our team. ... Coach Lue wants to defend. ... For us, Coach Lue is the captain. He's the captain of the ship. And we've got to do whatever it takes, and do whatever he barks out."
We get it. Between James' lavish praise of Lue and the boss-is-gone, crank-that-thing-up-to-11 atmosphere in the locker room, this is a looser, happier, more free Cavs team with Blatt gone. At least, a looser, happier, more free Cavs leader.
And whether that alone gets Cleveland on its merry way -- or whether it's some stew of strategy tweaks offensively and defensively installed by Lue, a level of trust and friendship with the new guy that didn't exist with the old, a full shouldering of responsibility now that the chief scapegoat is gone and a bunch of stuff that was going to happen regardless as winter turned to NBA spring -- James, Irving, Love and the rest were all smiles and earnestness after pushing their post-Blatt record to 4-1.
After losing at home to Chicago barely 30 hours after the coaching change, the Cavaliers beat lowly Minnesota and Phoenix, then traveled to Detroit and scored 66 points in the first half against the Pistons Friday. Facing the much-better Spurs on the back-to-back, they did it again: 66 points in 24 minutes vs. an opponent that typically allows 91.2 in 48.
They did it by playing faster, Lue's most apparent shift in the Cavs' attack. Cleveland's half-court, isolation-heavy offense ranked near the league's bottom in pace through the season's first half, but the Cavs have averaged 115 points in their four consecutive victories. Lue has prodded James to fire up his locomotive mode, essentially daring defenders to stop the 6-foot-8, 250-pound, one-man train on downhill runs to the rim.
It helped immensely that San Antonio was without stalwart rim protector Tim Duncan, the 38-year-old all-timer missing his third straight game with a sore right knee. But Cleveland played the way Lue wants it to play all the time, with an aggressiveness and urgency made possible by pushing (14 fast-break points) yet valuing (just 10 turnovers) the basketball.
There's more: Lue is back to featuring Love, which happened earlier in the season when Irving still was recovering from his knee surgery but now often finds him at the elbows, near the paint, closer to the rim than the "stretch four" role to which he's often relegated.
Besides having its Big Three all reach 20 points for the second straight night, Cleveland got 22 with 13 rebounds out of Love, the second time in three games he has had at least 20 and 10. The spotlight moved around Saturday by design, Lue said -- Love early, James in the game's middle and Irving down the stretch -- but there had been plenty of times previously where it didn't shine Love's way at all.
"Ever since I was young, I was one of the big guys," Love said. "At my position, 4 or 5, I'm not the tallest guy in the world but I've always played inside-out. When I get to the free-throw line and get those close touches, it helps me have continuity and feel a little bit of a flow, involved in the offense. It makes the hoop bigger in a lot of ways just getting those easy touches."
Lue had the Cavaliers attack San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich's zone defense in the third quarter, an adjustment that helped cut the Spurs' deficit from 17 at the break to 10. He called man-to-man sets, opting to force matchups in pick-and-rolls and generally asking the Cavs to stay aggressive on offense rather than standing and searching for shots.
Defensively, Lue coached his guys to show more vs. San Antonio's pick-and-rolls, changing up angles and coverage in ways that held down point guard Tony Parker. In the teams' previous meeting, a Spurs home victory on Jan. 14, Parker shot 11-for-18 and led everyone with 24 points. This time? He was 5-of-10 for 13.
How thoroughly Cleveland romped, running its record to 19-3 at The Q and 34-12 overall, had folks afterward debating the idea of "signature" victories. More important was that the Cavaliers, 0-3 against Golden State and San Antonio coming in (and 3-5 against Chicago, Toronto, Washington and Detroit), got a big one on a big stage, in the new Saturday ABC prime-time series.
Now it's the Spurs' turn to get the pulse-monitoring. This marginally competitive effort followed by five days their 120-90 beat-down in Oakland by the defending champions. Then again, they did wedge in a 31-point victory over Houston Wednesday. And with Popovich, there's always a regular-season sense that he's holding something back -- some wrinkle unused, if not actual wrinkled players unplayed -- rather than truly out of options.
For the Cavs, it seems a little silly to suggest that the team sitting atop the Eastern Conference a week ago somehow needed to dial up and lock in so it could be ... sitting atop the conference still, now same as then. But that's the reality they chose, with general manager David Griffin's trigger on Blatt and the players through all their direct and indirect reactions.
Some portion of what's going on now -- figuring things out, Irving flaking off more rust, the dog days of January finally over -- was going to happen anyway. A year ago, it was James' spa shutdown that propelled them from 19-20 to 53-29. This year it might have been something else.
But now and for however long their playoff run lasts, it will be the coaching change from which the 2016 edition counts days. These Cavaliers are 10 days old now, and the music is loud.
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