Mile Low: Cavs-Nuggets, Behind the Box Score

BtBS Behind the Box Score WFNY

Cleveland Cavaliers (46-24) 113
Denver Nuggets (34-37) 126
Box Score

West Coast WFNY desk reporting for duty. In 2011, Waiting for Next Year dispatched this writer to watch and report on a Cleveland Browns loss to the San Francisco 49ers, neglecting to allocate enough funds for a return voyage. (WFNY’s accounting department was in disarray at the time.) I hitchhiked and train-hopped my way down the California coast, before settling for a job and an apartment a stone’s throw from Mexico. One of these days I’ll save up enough money to purchase a Conestoga wagon and return home, provided I can make it back without my wife or four children dying of dysentery or without trading my oxen for some tasty squirrel meat. If only there was a faster and more cost-effective way to travel than braving the savage conditions on the Oregon Trail.1

While being marooned on the West Coast is inconvenient for my Mr. Hero intake and in-person attendance for my beloved Cleveland sports times, it comes in handy for the occasional “While We’re Waiting…” edition submitted at 4 a.m. ET and recaps of lousy Cavaliers games west of the Mississippi. We’re here for the latter.

After a thrilling win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, the Cavaliers responded with a resounding thud of a loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday. You can just watch highlights of Kyrie Irving’s 46 points from Sunday’s game if you want, unless you’re really into reading complaints about Channing Frye’s defense or hate yourself or whatever. No judgment here. Anyway, let’s exhume this box score.

33 – If this Cavaliers game was a paint swatch, it would have been Grim Reaper-black. But Kyrie Irving was able to speckle this game with a few bright spots here and there. Irving was aggressive in the break, off the dribble, and shooting off screens. He provided a few oohs and ahhs for the Cavalier fans in attendance with his casual ball-handling wizardry, had Mason Plumlee chasing ghosts, and knocked down open looks. Irving finished with 33 points on 11-of-22 (50.0 percent shooting), and a 14-point third quarter nearly had me thinking he was going to find a way to steal this game with a little nifty prestidigitation before I remembered the Cavs don’t play defense anymore. Irving’s last two games: 26-of-43 field goals, 10-of-15 three-point field goals, 79 points, 17-of-17 free throws, 78.2 true shooting percentage.

-30 – LeBron James finished with a plus/minus of -30 on Wednesday, tied for the third worst plus/minus of his career (with the worst two being within the last 15 months to the Warriors). James was surly after the game. “You can’t preach toughness, you got to have it.” He also talked about the team’s need to focus on one-on-one defense instead of relying on help. He’s right, but James’ own defense was similarly insipid on Wednesday, helping contribute to that 30-point deficit for the Cavaliers while he was on the court.

1.45 – While James was mediocre defensively on Wednesday, he was still strong offensively. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting (66.7 percent), maintaining a 1.45 points per field goal attempt rate, a staggeringly efficient number despite the fact he doesn’t shoot as many free throws as he would in any rational universe.

Although James hasn’t been quite as efficient as he was during that insane 2012-14 stretch in Miami (over 1.50 points per field goal attempt), he’s been ruthlessly economical all season and is one of four players in the league with over 1500 points and a shooting percentage over 50.0 percent (along with Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Giannis). In the second quarter, James jammed home two pick-and-rolls off screens from Deron Williams, and hammered a ferocious alley-oop off a J.R. Smith assist, lest we forget he’s still a superhero.

126 – The Cavaliers forfeit 126 points to the Nuggets on Wednesday, including an epic 73 points in the first half. Not great.

112.6 – The Cavs’ defensive rating of 112.6 since the All-Star break is the worst in the league other than the Los Angeles Lakers — and the Lakers are trying to lose.2 James’ analysis in the clip above was mostly on point even if his gameplay was not on Wednesday. It starts at the individual level. No one on the Cavaliers has played great individual defense. The Cavs go under screens, they allow backdoor cuts, they assure unimpeded passage to the hoop. When teammates can’t trust each other to defend, then they over-help in situations when they shouldn’t be helping, compounding the problems.

Some of the Cavaliers are not great individual defenders (Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Kevin Love), and probably never will be. So the plan (if there is one) is that in the playoffs everyone will help patch up the holes so that there are only minor leaks and not gaping voids. Timofey Mozgov was not the anchor of the defense last season, but on nights like Wednesday night he could have provided a semblance of rim protection. (R.I.P. Andre Bogut.) For whatever merits they have, Channing Frye, Kevin Love, and even Tristan Thompson are not great rim protectors.3 On one possession on Wednesday J.R. Smith lost Gary Harris so badly and for so long that Harris would have had time to brew a pot of coffee and read the morning newspaper before lining up a three-point shot (he made it). The reality may be that the Cavs are merely an excellent offensive team (especially at home), but are hit-or-miss defensively, which is about as comforting as pair of rubber underwear.

56 – The Nuggets bench dropped a whopping 56 points on the Cavaliers. Kenneth Faried out-hustled the Cavs’ entire team (17 points, four offensive rebounds), Will Barton continues to stuff it (20 point), and rookie Jamal Murray from Kentucky torched the Cavs with 15 points as he comes on strong in the second half of the season. 

16/10/7 – Serb big man Nikola Jokic finished with 16 points (8-of-10 shooting), 10 rebounds, and seven assists. If you’re not familiar with his work, Jokic can ball, and is deserving of an All-NBA slot. His passing is shockingly adept for a big man, and he finished with a near triple-double while letting the game come to him. He even backed down LeBron James for a hook shot, and shook Kevin Love with this killer move. Who says footwork isn’t sexy?

1 – The Cavs’ lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference is now a mere one game.

  1. Ed. note: Watch out for that dysentery. []
  2. So as to keep their top-three protected lottery pick. []
  3. A lot of Cavs fans would take issue with my characterization of Thompson, and he is often schemed away from the hoop via the pick-and-roll. But he’s not a rim protector. I’m sorry. He’s a good help defender who can switch onto guards and forwards. He does not deter opponents from attacking the hoop. []