As a guest of Joe Lull’s yesterday, on 92.3 FM in Cleveland, I predicted a triumphant Cavaliers' victory over the Heat in Miami on Sunday.
Despite getting blown out to close the 2nd quarter, and trailing by as many as 20 in the second half, I ended up being a lot closer than I thought I’d be as I reviewed that prediction at halftime.
While I wouldn’t agree that Kyrie Irving was specifically shut down to close out that game yesterday, I would admit that he didn’t have the mega star-quality performance we’ve started to see from him on a regular basis here lately.
Highlighted by dizzying displays of dribbling, that left him laying shots up off the glass it never appeared he'd have room to release, Irving wasn't without his moments of typical brilliance.
By game’s end, however, Irving’s 17 points on 6-16 shooting from the field along with 33 percent from three-point territory are all below his averages on the season. Regardless of that, however, the Cavaliers eventually gave the Eastern Conference's best team all they could handle for 48 minutes at their place.
That much is at least encouraging, despite how much more encouraging it would’ve been to cash that thing in and actually win the game. So while I’m getting a little tired of tallying moral victories here, at the same time I was also left with three takeaways from yesterday's game that are inescapably encouraging to me.
No. 1: How the Cavs starters took the court to begin the first quarter
I was excited by the attitude and aggressiveness that each of the five starters took the court and played with to open that game yesterday.
They did so under the belief that they could actually beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and the Miami Heat, and played that way before giving up the huge second quarter lead when the bench came in.
There is no statistical data to support the idea that Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and Alonzo Gee should collectively believe that, either, but they did. Which is critical for a group of young players working to build towards winning ways in the future.
Highlighted in the opening minutes by Thompson’s footwork on both ends of the court, I was really pumped for that group. It wasn’t until Thompson sat and Luke Walton came in did Miami go on that monster run to close the quarter.
No. 2: CJ Miles, Mo Speights and the Cavaliers' bench out-scoring Heat
After turning off Twitter recently, CJ Miles turned in arguably his best game of the season. In the very least, that 11-point run he went on in the third quarter--highlighted by a five-point play I still don’t understand--was Miles best run through any quarter to date as a Cavalier.
Beyond scoring 19 points in 21 minutes, the five threes that 3J (props to whoever first came up with that) Miles made were essentially the most important reason the Cavs erased a 22-point deficit yesterday. There is no comeback at all if not for what Miles brought in off the bench.
As a compliment to CJ's work, the 11 points to that Mo Speights threw in assisted in that comeback effort as well. Along with Ellington, those three guys helped the Cavaliers bench out score the Heat’s reserves 35-27.
Nobody else off the Cavs bench scored.
While Speights could’ve grabbed more than three rebounds he collected, he still continued to bring an NBA-caliber size, toughness, physicality and swagger to the center position yesterday that the team hasn’t seen since Jim Chones.
The one-handed slam in traffic would be a case-in-point, if you needed one.
No. 3: Dion Waiters' toughness
I understand the importance of advance statistics. I value them as much as the next guy and consider Daryl Morey my favorite general manager in the league because of his belief in and success with managing his team by the numbers.
My Instagram profile picture features me and my guy Morey, in fact, because of all those reasons.
But even in saying as much, it's also not hypocritical to then be totally and completely encouraged by the potential of a guy like Dion Waiters who is currently learning what a good shot is in the NBA as a rookie.
Waiters has that swag you can't teach. He believes that he belongs on the same court with Dwyane Wade right now and is not waiting for approval from anyone on that.
On Sunday, he shot 11-17 from the field on his way to a team-high 26 points because of that star-quality confidence. Even in the case of an ultimate defeat, to see him ball out against the NBA's elite bodes well for the future.
Blatantly biased officiating won this one for the Heat.
Brian Bowers is not alone in being astonished at the confidence and determination demonstrated by these young players.
All of them played well.
Tyler Zeller, before getting in foul trouble, was looking great, snatching the ball, tucking it in, deciding quickly what to do, and doing it well.
He looks like an entirely different player in the last few weeks.
Zeller may start next year with Andy coming in with Speights, Livingston, Miles, Ellington, and maybe even Walton spelling everybody.