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Young Cavs Begin to Forge Identity on the Road
”People don’t expect much from us, so we have to keep showing everyone and show the rest of the league that when you play against us, you’re going to come for a dogfight, and that starts with me and Kevin.”
That’s Tristan Thompson after Tuesday night’s tough loss to the Sixers – with the Wine & Gold a few centimeters to the left from sweeping a three-game road trip. They didn’t get the win, but they are beginning to open some eyes around the league.
As John Beilein’s young squad comes home for a pair, here are some quick notes from the Cavaliers’ longest trip of the early campaign …
1. Tristan Thompson is the longest-tenured Cavalier and the team’s unquestioned leader in both word and deed.
As good as he’s been in the past, Thompson is a different player these days. He’s averaging career highs in scoring (16.5), rebounding (11.4), assists (2.3), steals (0.90) and blocks (1.4). His eight double-doubles ties him with LeBron James for third in the league and his 4.8 offensive rebounds per game ties him atop the NBA with Andre Drummond.
And, of course, he’s added the three-point shot to his arsenal, canning his first two bombs against Philly – his second and third of the season – after going 0-for-9 through the first eight years of his career.
”I’ve been working on it,” said Thompson. “I trust it and Coach trusts it, so I’m going to go up there and shoot it and knock them down.”
Tristan is the engine that drives the Cavaliers – both in games and practices. When a nine-year man and World Champion is the team’s hardest-working player, young players have no choice but to fall in line.
2. Kevin Love was off to a big start last year and he’s repeating the feat this season.
He’s two percentage points behind Collin Sexton for the team lead in scoring (18.5) and is also second in assists (3.6) while leading the squad in rebounding (12.9) – good for 5th in the NBA. Love and Tristan Thompson are the only other teammate duo besides LeBron and Anthony Davis averaging a double-double this season.
Like Thompson, Love is leading by example. He knows this season will be a process.
“There are so many players under the age of 25 in their first three or four years, so we just need to continue to keep playing hard and fight,” said Love. “We’ve had chances to win some games and play some really good teams. We’re just going to continue to fight and learn how to win.”
3. Coming into the season, people wondered how Darius Garland and Collin Sexton would play together in the same backcourt. And it’s definitely still a work in progress. But things are starting to come a little more into focus.
Sexton and Garland is a study in contrast. Sexton lives up to his nickname – “Young Bull” – every second he’s on the court. Like Anderson Varejao back in the day, Sexton seems to go full-tilt at all times. He makes scoring look easy, but he’s in fifth gear doing so. Garland, on the other hand, has a smooth, easy style. Despite his struggles from the floor, the game seems to come easy to him.
Sexton went off for a career-high 31 points on Sunday night in New York and averaged 21.7 ppg on the trip.
“Just playing with heart, that’s it,” said the sophomore guard in typically-succinct fashion. “That’s all it is: just playing with heart the entire game. Playing 48 minutes with heart. That’s all it is.”
Coach Beilein is figuring out how to use his two dynamic guards and meld their styles into winning basketball.
”We’re trying to get (Sexton) to become the quarterback, and maybe more of a running back at times,” said Beilein. “We’re trying to get him in space, so we can use that elite speed. When he’s off the ball he has to realize that there’s more opportunities for him to score because he’s more in space with screens and things like that. He’s playing downhill and he’s making some great decisions.”
Garland notched double-figures on the first two games of the trip, also leading the team with six assists in each game.
The 19-year-old didn’t shoot the ball well against Philly and added just two assists.
Like Kevin Porter Jr. – who also struggled against the Sixers – and eventually Dylan Windler, they’ll learn that the key to NBA success is consistency. Can you do it every night? When the young guns start stringing three and four strong games together is when we’ll know they’re truly ready for prime time.
4. Coach Beilein has gone with primarily a nine-man rotation this year, but he’ll have some decisions to make in the upcoming days and weeks.
Cleveland’s frontline is already playing extremely well – with Love and Thompson competing at an All-Star level – and Larry Nance Jr. averaging 8.6 rebounds per game through the three-game trip.
But both Ante Zizic, who hasn’t played a regular season game this year, and John Henson, who’s played one, are due back in the near future – with rookie Dylan Windler also eager to make his Cavaliers debut.
5. It’s way too early to be looking at the standings. But we’re going to do it anyway.
Other than Cleveland’s next opponent, Miami (7-3), the top six teams in the Eastern Conference are a group most people would have picked before the season – Boston (8-1), Philly (7-3), Milwaukee (7-3), Toronto (7-3) and Indiana (7-4). Then there’s four teams at 4-6 – including the Cavs – with the Bulls at 4-7.
It’s pretty amazing how different things feel on the other side of a successful trip.
The Cavaliers have two games in six days against the surprising Heat and can get their revenge against the Sixers on Sunday at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Next week’s trip starts on Monday in New York, where the Cavs have now won 11 straight, moves to Miami, where the Cavs have dropped 16 straight, and wraps up in Dallas with their second meeting this month against early-season MVP candidate Luka Doncic and the Mavs.
Games really matter again. Veterans who’ve won at the highest level are hungry for more. Feisty, talented young guns are just scratching the surface of their potential. A coach is building a culture.
It’s a fun time in a franchise’s life-cycle. And it’s just getting started.