Charlotte Hornets – 93 (6-3)
Cleveland Cavaliers – 100 (8-1)
Although it was sad and regrettable, one of the perks the NFL’s disbanding of the Cleveland Browns due to lack of competitive viability is that Cleveland sports fans had their Sunday afternoon free to watch the Cavaliers face the Charlotte Hornets. Wait, the Browns weren’t disbanded? They just played on Thursday night this week? So they’ll be back next Sunday? Oh, that’s … grrrr-eat. [Pulls muscle in face forcing fake smile.]
Well how did the Cavaliers do without their neighbors closer to the lake and further from respectability competing for attention? While everyone’s Instagram feed and Twitter timelines were polluted with amateur photos of a big space rock on Sunday, the “Supermoon” wasn’t the only majestic celestial object on display in Northeast Ohio, as the otherworldly Cavs improved to 8-1.1 Let’s fly around to the dark side of the box score and see how.
20 – In a surprise fit for /r/mildlyinteresting, Channing Frye led all Cavalier scorers with 20 points on Sunday afternoon. It was the first occasion this season in which neither LeBron James or Kyrie Irving led the team in scoring. With J.R. Smith out with a turned ankle/a case of Sunday being after Saturday night, the Cavs needed someone of sub-Big Three status to assume a heavy scoring role. James’ unusually mortal shooting performance (8-of-21, 38.1 percent) exacerbated the need for someone like Frye to enlarge his role. Frye was large, scoring 20 points with 6-of-12 made three-point attempts, including 11 huge fourth quarter points. Frye even added three blocks for the hell of it, even though he’s not known as a defensive stopper.
Actually, Frye is currently the Cavs’ fourth leading scorer at 11.6 points per game in only 18.3 minutes (for comparison, J.R. Smith plays 31.9 minutes per game, yet is scoring only 10.5 points so far this season). Lending further credence to his worth, Frye has the highest net rating2 of any Cavalier at 15.2. After the Cavs acquired Frye from the Magic last season, he was willing to tell anyone willing to listen how happy he was to be on a winning team, like he had just been freed from the professional basketball equivalent of a prison camp (sorry, Orlando). So it’s rewarding to see Frye — whose shooting stroke is as pure and naturally beautiful as Sara Bareilles’ voice — continue to excel on this team and have his role grow.
2 – In contrast to Frye flourishing on Sunday, Mike Dunleavy disappointed in his first game starting for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dunleavy scrounged together a measly two points, finishing as one of only three Cavaliers with a negative plus/minus. Dunleavy has had an inauspicious start to his Cavalier career, averaging only 4.1 points in his first nine Cavalier games on 26.9 percent shooting from three. Although it’s hard to believe Dunleavy has been around the league since 2002 (15 seasons), his scoring production has declined over the last two seasons. I expect the Cavs will ultimately successfully integrate Dunleavy (his only basket came on a nice cutter in the second half), but it’s possible the 36-year-old may not be the shooter/wing-stabilizing component the Cavs were hoping he could be.
19/8/8 – Despite the poor shooting night, James still managed to score 19 points to add to his eight rebounds and eight assists against the Hornets. James finished with a team-high plus/minus of +12. Most importantly, he generated the ball movement in the fourth quarter that eventually created a positive feedback loop of good offense (sharing leads to good looks, which leads to more sharing). Nine games into the season, at 22.9/8.9/9.1, James continues to flirt ever-so-mischievously with the possibility of going for a triple-double average season.
15 & 4 – Although our next boxscore item will undoubtedly garner more attention — especially from the rubberneckers still waiting for the Cavaliers to fail so they can pilfer Kevin Love — this one is also noteworthy: Love scored 15 points with four rebounds in the first quarter. The Cavaliers had a sluggish start but were still able to take a double-digit lead into the second frame, largely behind Kevin Love’s assertive start. Love is one of only seven players with more than five double-doubles in the NBA this season. What’s most impressed me about Love so far is willingness to put the ball on the floor when chased off the three-point line: he’s shown nifty ball-handling and finishing skills, and as a result is shooting more free throws (7.6 per game) than any other Cavalier and double that of Kyrie Irving.
0 – In a move that would have raised cries of Mayday all over the region and web just six months ago, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving played a total of zero minutes in the fourth quarter. Instead, coach Tyronn Lue played a wing-heavy lineup of Jordan McRae-Iman Shumpert-Richard Jefferson-LeBron James-Channing Frye … for the entire quarter. This may seem like a peculiar move, but it was just … working. The Cavaliers outscored the Hornets 29-21 (+8) in $ Time, sealing a very lose-able game at home to a good team. James orchestrated the offense as point guard/forward/monster, and the unit responded with beautiful ball movement (mostly to set up an eventual open three for Frye).
The key was the defense, as the wing-heavy lineup (for instance, a rangy 6-6 McRae in place of the smaller Irving or Kay Felder) flummoxed and frustrated the Hornets, turning their own method of success upon them. The lineup finished with 29 points on 11-of-21 shooting (52.4 percent, 6-of-12 from three), 11 rebounds, four blocks (including James’ spanking of a Frank Kaminsky shot below), and eight assists to only one turnover. Whether it was a stroke of genius by Coach Lue or a lazy case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I thought it was fantastic. I kept waiting for at least one of the unit to be pulled, only to be proven wrong.
And while investigating body language is usually an exercise in the ludicrous, it appeared that the bench remained mope-free for the duration of the quarter, with the likes of Love and Irving fully engaged. This is the freedom and trust a coach earns with a championship. Everyone (almost) knows their role on the team, and Coach Lue has the freedom to tinker with lineups and do strange things to see what works for his team on a nightly basis. During a game in which the offense was less than spectacular, this lineup just felt right (and the numbers backed it up). Experiments like this throughout the season could pay huge dividends for the Cavaliers down the road, and I’m going to keep a close eye on this lineup3 and other wing-heavy lineups with James going forward.
- Rejected: four jokes about Moondog wearing a cape, and one joke about J.R. Smith hypothetically exposing his bare ass to those in attendance. [↩]
- For players playing more than 10 points per game. Net rating = net points per 100 possessions, as determined by NBA.com. [↩]
- Which had not played together yet this season, and was not in the top 250 minute-earning lineups last season. [↩]