Scouting the Second Half
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Enemies at the Gate
With the Trade Deadline moved up and the All-Star Break moved back, we suddenly have a new perspective on the second half of the season. And now that we’re on the other side – there’s only 26 more games remaining before the NBA’s Tournament tips off on April 14.
The second half starts out with a matchup against Washington in what promises to be a raucous evening on Thursday night at The Q – with the new-look Wine & Gold riding a four-game win streak through the Break. The last time Cleveland fans saw their home squad, they A. looked completely different than the one that’ll suit up against the Wiz, and B. left the floor following LeBron James’ game-winning buzzer beater in an overtime win over the T-Wolves.
Of the 26 remaining games, the Cavs play 14 at home – including six of the first seven after the Break – and 12 on the road – including a six-game West Coast trip in early March.
In terms of the competition, they’ll take on all of the Eastern Conference’s current playoff contenders except Boston (2-1) and Indiana (1-3), against whom they’ve completed their season series.
Cleveland takes on the East-leading Raptors twice (3/21 and 4/3) and the Wizards twice (2/22 and 3/5), will all four contests at The Q. They face the Sixers twice (3/1 at The Q, 4/6 in Philly), host the Bucks on March 19 and travel to Miami on March 27.
Their toughest Western Conference matchups include a home rematch with San Antonio this Sunday afternoon as well as a pair of meetings with Mike Malone’s up-and-coming Nuggets.
The Cavs will also face the Suns, Nets and Knicks twice apiece down the stretch with the final two games of the regular season as a home-and-home matchup against New York.
Overall, the combined winning percentage of their remaining opponents is .474.
In With the New
The Cavs couldn’t have asked for a better debut for their quartet of new arrivals than the beatdown in Beantown two Sundays ago – with all four players acquired at the Deadline four days earlier contributing in the 22-point drubbing. Two nights later, the player who had the quietest afternoon in Boston – Larry Nance Jr. – had a profound impact in Cleveland’s convincing win in Oklahoma City.
In the backcourt, George Hill, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson have already gotten off to strong starts.
Hill was outstanding on both ends in Boston, Clarkson is shooting 62 percent from the floor and 57 percent from beyond the arc through his first two outings and Hood is at even 50 percent from deep, going 7-of-14 in his first two games as a Cavalier.
Nance’s presence down low and versatility on the perimeter will be critical while Kevin Love works his way back to health. His work against Steven Adams in the second half of last Tuesday’s win over the Thunder was very encouraging – especially with matchups against LaMarcus Aldridge, Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokic and DeAndre Jordan looming on the immediate horizon.
Hill is a seasoned vet who’s stepped in seamlessly and has 83 Playoff games under his belt. Hood and Clarkson have been two of the most lethal offensive reserves all season – and they showed no sign of slowing down in their Cavalier debuts.
Instead of the Wine & Gold’s Deadline shakeup affecting the team’s incumbents adversely, the new youngbloods have only fortified an already talented roster.
While the new guys were still passing physicals and getting fitted for uniforms, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green were busy combining for 54 points between them in Cleveland’s win over Atlanta on February 9.
Green has been outstanding all season long – appearing in all 56 contests despite not starting a single one. He’s notched double-figures in 31 games, including each of the last five before the Break, averaging 13.7 points, shooting 54 percent from the floor and missing just a single free throw over that stretch.
The second half of the bench’s Butch and Sundance combo, Kyle Korver, has been almost as good – posting his first 30-point outing in almost nine seasons in his return to Atlanta. Korver had a quiet couple games heading into the Break, but he’s still the league’s leading fourth-quarter marksman – drilling 60 bombs in the final period this season, ten more than his next-closest competitor.
It was an odd first half for Tristan Thompson, the team’s longest-tenured player and youngest starter. The franchise’s reigning Iron Man was just regaining his rhythm before the Break, posting three straight double-figure scoring games before slowing down against Boston and OKC. The blue-collar big will have his work cut out for him against some serious centers before Love returns.
Cedi Osman wasn’t part of last week’s series of team-altering trades – it just felt like it. Although he’d seen sporadic action leading up to the final games before the Break, it was that four-game win streak when Osman showed that he belonged on both ends. Over his last four outings, the young Macedonian is averaging 10.5 points per, shooting 54 percent from the floor and an even 50 percent from deep. He’s also shown some promising versatility on the defensive end.
But the player who emerged from January’s funk cleanest on the other side has been JR Smith, who looks like a different player than the one who started the season. After shaking out of a prolonged slump with a 23-point, seven triple outburst against Indiana on January 26, Swish has returned to form – averaging 13.2 points over his last 10 games, shooting 51 percent from the floor while going 34-for-68 from long-range – adding 3.6 boards and 1.3 steals to his totals.
When Love returns to the rotation, the Wine & Gold will return four of the five starters from the 2016 Championship squad, with two savvy, seasoned vets at the point and five reserves who could each average double-figures.
Long Live the King
Sometimes, LeBron James sends subtle, nuanced messages. And other times – like Sunday night’s performance in the All-Star Game in L.A. -- he’s sending it loud and clear. And the message he sent with that MVP performance is – to borrow from Mark Twain – that rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated, and that the King is coming in the second of the season.
James might’ve just saved the All-Star Game on Sunday night. But that was just a perennial warmup for a player who’s been the Eastern Conference’s February Player of the Month in each of the last six years and has won March honors in three of the previous five.
LeBron was not immune to the Cavs’ January funk. He posted a pedestrian 13-game stretch, averaging 22.2 points, scoring 30-plus points just once with games of 11 and 10 points in the mix and a second half in Orlando in which he didn’t net a single rebound or assist.
But the four-time MVP bounced back with a vengeance before the Break.
James ignited the four-game win streak with a monster triple-double against Minnesota – finishing with 37 points, 15 assists and 10 boards and capping it with the game-winning fadeaway in overtime.
Numeral 23 completed the four-gamer with another 37-point performance against OKC – wrapping up a final week with averages of 30.0 points, 13.0 assists and 9.5 boards per.
Just Down the Road ...
Even the next few games won’t tell the story of what the Cavaliers will look like in the postseason.
For starters, they have this five-time NBA All-Star who’s getting healthier by the day. Kevin Love fractured his left hand against Detroit back on January 30, temporarily sidelining his best season as a Cavalier.
At the time, Love had notched four double-doubles in his previous five games before the injury and will return to the lineup with season averages of 17.9 points and 9.4 boards. He’s one of just two players (joining the similarly-sidelined DeMarcus Cousins) to average at least 15.0 points, 9.0 boards and two made triples per game.
Love will provide an almost instant boost to the Wine & Gold. And once again, the Cavaliers could be a buyout destination for any number of NBA veterans.
In the past, Cleveland has made late roster additions heading into the postseason like Deron Williams, Dahntay Jones, Andrew Bogut, Derrick Williams, Larry Sanders and Kendrick Perkins. Some have worked out brilliantly. Some have not. Others have broken their leg less than a minute into their brief Cavaliers career.
There’s a different feel heading into this season’s stretch run.
The Cavaliers are younger, more athletic and hungrier than the team that started the campaign. And they’re riding a four-game heater into the second half.
It should be a wild one when we tip it off on Thursday night against an old rival at The Q ….