Los Angeles Lakers (11-19) 108
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-6) 119
Saturday night’s game with the Los Angeles Lakers featured a web of strange coincidences and connections to the Cleveland Cavaliers team and their home state (even with former Ohio State stud and Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell resting with knee soreness). Due to the archaic blackout rules, I was resigned to watching the game on Spectrum SportsNet, which sounds like the made-up name of a network from a science fiction movie that broadcasts Running Man-style death matches and human-hunting sports. For those wondering, “Spectrum” is the rebranded Time Warner, a cable provider whose customer service is on par with the DMV and Guantanamo Bay. But, as we’ve learned from the professional sports team down the road from the Cavs, you can change the color of orange overnight but not the quality of the product.
Maybe it’s the litany of Cavalier/Laker connections (more on those in a second), or that any ferocity between the Cavs and Lakers departed with Kobe Bryant, or the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” spirit engendered by a mutual desire to see the Golden State Warriors destroyed in a giant fireball, but it seemed (at least via the Laker broadcast) that were was a genuine comity between the Cavaliers and Lakers. Stu Lantz and Bill McDonald of the post-apocalyptic-sounding Spectrum SportsNet were very complimentary of the Cavaliers, in what ended up being an entertaining and generally well-played December Saturday affair. Let’s go behind the box score and see how it went down.
14.0, 7.5, 1.5 – Former Cavalier Timofey Mozgov received his championship ring before the game on Saturday for his supporting role on the Cavs team that won the 2016 NBA Finals. It was a nice moment, as Mozgov was visibly holding back emotion after his former teammates mobbed him at half-court and coach Tyronn Lue gave him his cherished loot.
Most outside the obsessive Cavs fans will only remember Mozgov as a goofy and likeable guy who hitched his oversized wagon to LeBron & Co. But I choose to remember Mozgov for his spectacular effort in the 2014-15 season, especially a Finals in which he averaged 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. The winter trades that season to acquire J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov reinvigorated a malcontented team that was hovering around .500. Without the influx of Mozgov, who defended the rim spectacularly well in the second half of the 2015 season (holding the Warriors 17.3 percent below their expected field goal percentage within six feet of the hoop in the Finals), who knows if the Cavs would have been patient enough with Kevin Love or any of the other pieces that ultimately prevailed in the 2016 Finals.
In 2015-16, recovering from a knee injury, Mozgov never found his comfort zone, and a lost ability to convert buckets while rolling to the rim (his points per 36 minutes dropped from 15.2 to 12.9) caused his playing time to dwindle from 25 minutes to just over 17 per game (and from 28 minutes per game in the 2015 Finals to 5 in the 2016 Finals).
But Mozgov had a role, and he served it well and in a good-natured fashion when he was healthy. Guys like Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova should never have to buy a drink in Cleveland again. And with the loss of Chris Andersen to a torn ACL, Mozgov’s added big-man depth will be sorely missed. But alas, the Cavs couldn’t possibly tack his 4 year, $64 million contract to their bloated salary totals.
Oh, Mozgov had two points on 1-of-6 shooting on Saturday. He foretold as much, confiding to the Lakers broadcast team before the game that he wasn’t going to play well because he was too excited to sleep the day before getting his championship ring. But you’ll forever have a place in my heart, Mozzy Bear. xoxoxo Yours Truly, Kyle W.
21 & 12 – Now back to the current Cleveland Cavaliers. Kyrie Irving was mesmerizing in a 21-point, 12-assist effort on Saturday night. Amazingly, 12 ties a career high in assists for Irving (he’s only had 23 double-digit assist games in his career). As a scoring wizard, that’s not totally surprising (Irving’s only averaged more than 6.0 assists per game once in his career). But even though Irving’s assist totals are only mildly higher than last season (from 4.7 to 5.0), qualitatively it seems like Irving is seeing his teammates on the floor better than ever. I don’t think Irving makes this pass to James for an open dunk last season.
Against the Lakers, Irving struck the perfect balance between looking for his shot and looking for his teammates, even forgoing a wide open layup to find Richard Jefferson in the corner for a three-pointer in the second half. Because it was Irving, there were also a few time- and space-bending finishes, including one in which he coiled the ball behind his back to evade Lou Williams and banked an and-one into the hoop with his left hand while going right (a highly unconventional move). Irving even added six rebounds and three steals to an all-around fantastic effort after sitting the last two games.
27/17/4 – Kevin Love had another stealthy-dominant game with 27 points (55.0 percent, 3-of-7 from three), 17 rebounds, and four assists. The Cavs started slow (26 points in the first quarter — a low total when they ultimately made it to 119), but Love buoyed them with 10 first quarter points. Love’s three threes all came in the third as the Cavs tried to keep the Lakers at arm’s length. When the Lakers went small (which was most of the time), Love crushed them on the boards to the tune of 17 rebounds. Love continues to be one of five guys in the league averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. That’s baller status.
26/7/9 – LeBron James had five points in the first half, making only one of his first four field goal attempts. Two quarters later, James had 26 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists … because he’s LeBron Effing James. James fumbled a few balls tonight, and after a missed layup in the second quarter, angrily dunked the ball after a blown whistle while screaming a four-letter word that rhymes with “duck.” That tenacious displeasure with mediocrity is why James seldom has “bad” games.
32, 12-of-19 – Nick Young, unabashed Laker gunner extraordinaire, devastate the Cavs with 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting (63.2 percent, 8-of-14 from three). If you’re unfamiliar with Nick Young’s work, he fills the Lakers’ version of J.R. Smith’s reckless/streaky/occasionally-unhinged role. The Cavs didn’t do a great job slowing Young, defending him with Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and (towards the end) LeBron James, but Young aka Swaggy P was just hot: it was the first time he’s scored 30 points with eight threes while shooting 60.0 percent or better. Swaggy J.R. wasn’t bad himself, scoring 14 points while making four of five three-point attempts. The other unabashed gunner (yes, the Lakers have two) Lou Williams sank the Lakers with a 2-for-10 shooting night. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest team-building strategy to put Young and Williams on the same roster. Maybe.
60 – Both teams combined for 60 assists on Saturday night, lending a fun shootout-type atmosphere to the game. Each team had 30 assists. Kyrie’s 12 assists led all players. Isn’t sharing nice?
-16 – Hometown kid Larry Nance Jr. had a team-low plus/minus -16 for the Lakers on Saturday. The Cavs abused Nance Jr. on defense, attacking him with everyone including James and Irving. Nance Jr. was born in Akron, Ohio, and went to Revere High School, so plenty of 330ers and 216ers are rooting for Nance Jr. to have a great career. Dad (aka Larry Nance Sr., former Cavalier great from the 1980s and 90s) was proud and in attendance. The Spectrum SportsNet team interviewed Nance Sr. in the third quarter while Dad — despite conceding that Jr. is now the dunk champion of the family after a rim-annihilator against the Brooklyn Nets — rocked a fresh Cavs lid with alternate colors. While Nance Jr. had a rough night on Saturday, he figures to have a prominent role going forward for the Lakers and coach Luke Walton, himself a former Cavalier from the Samardo Samuels days.