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A Solid Start, Then a Big Deal
You’ve heard it many times: the 2020-21 NBA regular season was unlike any we’d seen before. It’s also probably fair to say it was one we hope we never see again.
There was uncertainty from the start and countless hoops to jump through as the year progressed. But to the NBA’s credit, it kept the campaign on the rails and, save a schedule hiccup or two, made it to the postseason and put fans in the stands along the way.
With the Wine & Gold wrapping up their run last week in Brooklyn, gearing up for something closer to normalcy – and a city prepped to host the All-Star Game in 2021-22, here’s a monthly review of how last season unfolded.
There’s some good, some bad, and some ugly that comprised Cleveland’s 72-game slate. But as we focus on the first month-and-change of the season – beginning with a win over the Hornets in the home opener two days before Christmas and ending with a tough loss to the Timberwolves to close out January.
In that season-opening win over Charlotte, the Cavs shot 53 percent from the floor, handed out 34 assists on 46 made baskets and featured seven players in double-figures.
By the time the first weekend of the season arrived, Cleveland was sitting at 3-0 – following up the opener by taking a double-overtime thriller over the Pistons in Detroit before returning home to wallop the Sixers by 24 points in the second half of the back-to-back.
The Knicks came to town and rained on the Cavs parade – handing them their first loss of the season. J.B. Bickerstaff’s squad came into the game leading the league in assists (31.3) through the first three games, but the Knicks jammed them up from the start, with Julius Randle previewing his monster season to come – leading New York with a 28-point, 12-rebound, 11-assist trifecta.
Things got a little rough when the Wine & Gold hit the road – taking losses in four games of a season-long six-game trip, including a lopsided defeat on New Year’s Eve in Indiana, back-to-back losses in Orlando, and a trip-ending decision in Milwaukee.
The Cavs did earn nice wins in Atlanta and Memphis on that roadie, however – with Andre Drummond becoming the first Cavalier to start the season with six straight double-doubles in the Hawks victory and rookie Isaac Okoro showing flashes of what he would become, turning in huge plays on both ends to seal the win over the Grizzlies.
Memphis avenged that loss in Cleveland’s return to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and the Jazz completely demolished a seriously shorthanded Cavaliers squad the following night.
But things would change in a major way after that Utah loss, with the Cavs brass jumping headlong into a four-team deal that eventually landed James Harden in Brooklyn and Caris LeVert in Indiana – sending Dante Exum and an unprotected 2022 first rounder (via Milwaukee) to Houston and a 2024 second rounder to Brooklyn in exchange for center Jarrett Allen and forward Taurean Prince from the Nets.
The newest Cavaliers didn’t suit up for Cleveland’s next contest – but the Cavs still got back in the win column behind a monster game from Drummond, finishing with 33 points and 23 boards, three more than the Knicks starters.
In the following two games – a back-to-back set against their former team, the newest Cavaliers did play, and those two games might have been the highlight of the Wine and Gold’s season.
Despite having assembled the league’s new Big Three – coming to town now with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – the Cavaliers gave the new-look Nets much more than they wanted.
Irving, playing his first games in Cleveland since doing so as a Celtic back in 2017, went for 37 and 38, respectively, in the two games. But he was no match for Collin Sexton, who turned in the performance of the year – a 42-point masterpiece, scoring 20 of those points in the extra-sessions – in the first game, and a 25-point, nine-assist gem in the second.
In that second of two wins over Brooklyn, former Nets Allen and Prince combined for 33 points off the bench.
The Celtics brought the Cavs back down to earth when they got back on the road, however, snapping Cleveland’s three-game run with a 38-point drubbing in Beantown.
The Wine & Gold returned home to face the World Champion Lakers, and stuck with them through the first three quarters. But a guy who used to play in Cleveland named LeBron James exploded for 21 points in the final period, going 9-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc to seal the deal.
Cleveland snapped its two-game skid the following game, beating Detroit for the second time in the young season – with Collin Sexton turning in another big game and the Cavs piling up 66 points in the paint.
But the month of January would end on a sour note for the Wine & Gold.
Injuries were piling up and they dropped their final two contests heading into February – including a three-touchdown loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden before a frustrating defeat in Minnesota two nights later, wrapping up the first month-and-a-half with a 9-11 mark.