Cleveland Cavaliers – 119
Brooklyn Nets – 99
Twas the night before Christmas (Eve), and the Cavaliers were facing the woeful Brooklyn Nets before their big Christmas Day game against the Golden State Warriors. The team had just learned that starting shooting guard J.R. Smith’s thumb injury, which was originally thought to sideline him for four-to-six weeks, would actually keep him out 12-to-14 weeks. The Cavs had every reason to come out flat and disinterested. They could sleepwalk to a 15 point win against this Nets team that came in 1-13 in road games. Instead, the Cavaliers came out focused and engaged on their way to a 119-99 win on Friday night.
Kyrie Irving continued his sensational passing, dishing out ten assists, now averaging 7.6 assists per game over his last nine games. He added 13 points and six steals in only 26 minutes. His draft-mate Tristan Thompson pitched in 16 points and 11 rebounds and was a menace in the lane.
As always, LeBron James put up a busy stat-line, with nineteen points, five rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Not to be outdone by Tristan, he put on his own dunk show.
But perhaps the biggest performance of the night came from Mike Dunleavy. The veteran forward was acquired this offseason to provide wing depth and shooting. He has provided neither. As the Cavs evaluate how to replace Smith’s contributions, it was encouraging to see Dunleavy show signs of life. He finished with 14 points on 6-8 shooting. Dunleavy was finding holes in the defense and making cuts to create easy baskets, just as we all envisioned when the Cavaliers acquired him.
The Nets got their usual strong performance from Brook Lopez, and their usual lack of help from almost anyone else. While the Nets are hardly a major draw, it was fun to ghosts of Cavs drafts past, with Anthony “Big Daddy Canada” Bennet and Joe Harris playing for the Nets. Bennett finished with 11 points while Harris went scoreless, missing all four of his attempts.
Let’s look behind the box score at some numbers from this game and the season as a whole:
51 – Rebounds vs the Nets. As I laid out earlier on Friday, a former strength for the Cavaliers, they are now middle of the pack in rebounding.
+38 – Kyrie’s plus-minus for this game. He’s good.
28.9 – Minutes per game from J.R. Smith this season. The Cavs have limited options to fill those minutes, as Iman Shumpert is needed as the backup point guard and DeAndre Liggins would likely be exposed if forced to play that many minutes.
4 – The number of trade exceptions owned by the Cavaliers, the largest being $9.6 million from the Anderson Varejao trade to Portland. The others are $845k (Joe Harris to Orlando), $947k (Jared Cunningham to Orlando), and $1.3 million (Sasha Kaun to Philadelphia).
8 – Number of road games in January after having only 11 to date. The Cavaliers’ schedule gets much more difficult with the new year, and as the injuries pile up, and the Raptors keep winning, the top seed in the East may slip away.
The Cavaliers face the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. The Warriors come in playing some of their best basketball, while the Cavs have been banged up as of late. If last season proved anything, it’s that these regular season matchups mean little when you get to the playoffs, but it will still be interesting to see how these two teams match up.