Cleveland Cavaliers (28-8) 120
Phoenix Suns (12-26) 116
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ game against the Phoenix Suns served as a surprisingly tasty cherry on top of what was a television-filled wintry weekend for many people throughout the country. There were four Wild Card NFL playoff games which were cumulatively less exciting than the Cavs’ meaningless January game against the Suns, as well as the Golden Globe Awards which I missed, but I learned secondhand from the web: my favorite new show of the year, Atlanta, won a Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy TV Series, Meryl Streep made a bunch of people cry, and Ryan Reynolds kissed former president Andrew Garfield, which is peculiar because I think he died like 130 years ago.
Oddly enough, there are a few coincidences that made Phoenix, Arizona, a compelling game setting even though the Cavs only play there once or twice a year:
- Cleveland Cavaliers Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson both played college ball at the University of Arizona in Tucson (which really isn’t that close to Phoenix), and both played high school basketball in Phoenix. Channing won a state title at St. Mary’s, and Richard Jefferson won a state tile at Moon Valley, which also sounds like the name of a quest location in Skyrim that involves using enchanted rocks to slay a dragon or something.
- Cleveland Cavaliers personnel wizard/general manager David Griffin (who attended Arizona State just outside Phoenix in Tempe) made his name as a former executive for the Phoenix Suns.
- It was in a Phoenix practice gym in early 2015 that Kevin Love hotly confronted David Griffin about being misused after Love sat the fourth quarter in a 100-107 loss (as reported by Brian Windhorst), and the grand experiment that was the new Cavaliers nearly drifted off its orbit and, well, into the sun. That was only two years ago, but it may as well have been an eternity.
- I was in Phoenix as recently as last Sunday, recovering from the emotional shell shock from Ohio State’s traumatic 31-0 loss to the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl.
- The Cavaliers’ sibling franchise, the Cleveland Indians, have spring training in Goodyear, Arizona, which is next to a lovely airplane graveyard only about 20 minutes west of Phoenix.
- The Phoenix Suns’ arena is named Talking Stick Resort Arena, which is in hot contention for silliest arena name in the NBA with the Smoothie King Center and The “Palace” of Auburn Hills, and whose namesake is a great place to lose $200 at the blackjack table if you’re staying in Scottsdale while in the area for spring training.
- They have a lot of cactus in Phoenix. I concede this doesn’t add much to the drama of a basketball game. But have you ever seen a big, wild cactus? They’re weird.
So there was a host of non-basketball reasons for you to have watched this game that already happened. Anyway, the Cavs almost lost a surprisingly entertaining game. Let’s go behind the scenes of the box score and see how.
41 – The Cavaliers scored 41 points in the first quarter, which would normally be indicative of a blowout. The Cavs have only scored 40 points in the first quarter in one other game this season, the Thanksgiving Eve game against the Portland Trail Blazers in which Kevin Love went all supernova. Though that game ended in only a 12-point difference, the Cavs scored 137 and the game’s outcome was at no point in question. Such was not the case on Sunday.
22 – The Cavaliers’ biggest lead against the Suns was 22 points, but they were unable to drive the icepick through the stubbornly thick skull of the Suns.1 Though the Suns never retook the lead, they did briefly tie the game at the end of the third quarter, a frame in which they outscored the Cavs 37-24.
20 – So what went right and how did it go wrong such that the Cavs nearly lost a game in which they led by 22 points? The primary malfunction was a propensity for turnovers, . The Suns play at the third fastest pace in the league at 102.5 possessions per game (the Cavaliers are in the middle of the pack with 98.9), and they thrive in transition. Turning the ball over gives opponents not only fast break opportunities — but high percentage ones, and the Suns are built to exploit these opportunities. The Suns force the most turnovers in the league (and score the second most points off turnovers), their attempt to compensate for what otherwise is not a great defense.
The Cavs’ 20 cough-ups led to 27 points for their opponent. Eleven whoopsies in the second half (for 18 points) allowed the Suns to climb back into the game, and exacerbated the fast break troubles caused by missed shots when the Cavs went cold. The turnovers came in a variety of ways, including telegraphed passes, mishandled or stripped balls, and (to the Suns’ credit) solid individual defense.
It’s hard to draw the line for the “point of no return” when it comes to the Cavs and turnovers, but it’s probably somewhere around 13-16 turnovers: the Cavs are stil decent when they turn it over 15 times (8-6, .571 win percentage), but nearly unbeatable when they limit their turnovers (20-2, .909 win percentage when they have less than 15 turnovers). So … preferably they’d try to keep that number suppressed, especially against teams that rely on the turnover crumbs of other teams for sustenance like the Suns.
28, 8, 4, 7 – Continuing from our last item, James led the Cavaliers with seven turnovers against the Suns. James is now averaging a career high in that undesirable metric, up to 4.0 per game. Other than that, James was great. Although only a handful of players in the world can legitimately “match up” with James defensively, Phoenix doesn’t even have an imitation defender for LeBron James. At least the Boston Celtics have Jae Crowder — the representative “I guess we can live with this” matchup for Cavs opponents — a strong, mobile, big three who can slow James and get in his way. Phoenix lacks even that, and a combination of T.J. Warren and P.J. Tucker allows James a lot of opportunities to attack, which he did when needed in the first and fourth quarters (in which he scored 21 of his team-high 28 points). James also added his usual eight rebounds and four assists, including the touch pass above in a set identical to one they showed against the Brooklyn Nets on Friday.
12 – James had 12 points in the fourth quarter alone on Sunday, saving what was starting to look like a bad loss from a grisly outcome. James even showed off his three-point jumper, which has been sneaky good this year (37.6 percent, up from 30.9 from last year), with the two spine-breakers below.
27, 7, 7 – Kyrie Irving had 27 points and seven assists, but also had seven turnovers of his own. His nasty step-back three at the end of the third quarter broke a tie and put the Cavaliers up for good.
22.2% – Iman Shumpert hit the game-sealing three-pointer, a welcome surprise after his three-point shooting percentage has declined every month this season. After a November in which Shumpert shot a blistering 41.7 percent on three-point field attempts, Shumpert shot 36.2 percent in December and is shooting only 22.2 percent so far in this January mini-slump. Shump also had a brilliant strip of Suns’ guard Devin Booker inside of 30 seconds to keep the game out of reach.
25 & 10 – After a slow return for Kevin Love on Friday after his food poisoning/flu/voodoo curse-induced absence last week, Love was his ordinary self on Sunday, scoring 25 points and snagging 10 rebounds. Though Love struggled from three (3-of-10), his jump hook seemed to be in rhythm, and the Cavs probably should have utilized it more in the second half.
59 – The Suns’ backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker gouged the Cavs for 59 points on Sunday. The tandem is about as good as any guard combo in the league on the offensive end. Bledsoe is super-quick and great off the pick-and-roll, and Booker has a pretty a jumper as any young two-guard in the league. Booker also showed more non-shooting offensive skills than I’ve seen from him yet, attacking in transition and finishing some difficult drives off the glass. If the two of them can continue to grow and the team can find some perimeter defenders and a big who can score consistently, the Suns may be scary in the near future.
- Sorry for the gruesome visual … although occasionally gory imagery is one of the distinguishing features of my game recaps. [↩]