The Cavaliers got a valuable victory over a contender Saturday. They took advantage of a sloppy Spurs performance to beat them 117-103. It's the first signature win of the Tyronn Lue era, and it came against a team that got the better of them under David Blatt earlier this month. The big three of LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving combined for 71 points while Kawhi Leonard had 24 in the losing effort.
The last time these two teams met, on Jan. 14, the Cavaliers dominated for long stretches before the Spurs completed the comeback to claim the win, 99-95. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love weren't efficient, and a throwback performance from Tony Parker was too much for Cleveland to handle. Four days later, the Warriors would crush the Cavaliers. It looked like the West contenders were simply a step above their level.
That's what made Saturday's game so important. After firing David Blatt, the Cavaliers had played uninspired basketball for the most part. They needed to prove to themselves that they can compete with everyone and make a statement to the rest of the league.
Dropping 66 points in the first half on the best defense in the league took care of that early in the evening.
Kevin Love led the way with 18 first-half points, while LeBron James and Kyrie Irving struggled. He made damage from inside and out and also had eight rebounds, a performance reminiscent of his time as a superstar in Minnesota. Tristan Thompson continued to give the Spurs' big men trouble, and J.R. Smith provided the shooting Cleveland's offense needed to create separation. At the half, the Cavaliers led by 17.
The Spurs attempted a comeback in the third quarter, with LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard leading the way. They cut the deficit to single digits, and a repeat of the previous matchup, in which the Cavaliers led by as many as 15 only to lose, didn't seem out of the question.
This time, however, LeBron James was determined to get his team the win. James scored 16 points in the third quarter to keep the Spurs at bay and have the Cavaliers carry a 16-point lead to the fourth quarter. It was smooth sailing after that for Cleveland, which led by double digits the rest of the way.
3 things we learned
LeBron James can still take over a game against anyone
Few players guard James better than Kawhi Leonard, so it looked like James was going to have to settle for being a facilitator. He did that job perfectly in the first half, dishing out six assists as Kevin Love and others handled the scoring. He also did good work on defense limiting Leonard, who has become an elite scorer in his own right.
Then in the third quarter, he decided to take over. James drove to the rim whenever he could, especially when the Spurs' defense wasn't set, and he got to the line. He was extra aggressive when Leonard wasn't on him, attacking mismatches. By the end, he had 16 points in the frame.
It was needed, as the Spurs were trying to make a comeback at the time. As always with him, the scoring also fueled his energy on the defensive end, in which he made a few highlight plays. It was a vintage performance against a team that has gotten the better of him in the past and proof that while he might not be the best player in the league right now, he's still capable of closing a game on his own.
The Spurs really miss Tim Duncan
The Spurs have posted historically great defensive numbers, yet they have not been able to perform at the same level without their defensive anchor. Against the Warriors they gave up 62 points at the half and against the Cavaliers on Saturday, 66 points. That's obviously too many to surrender against good teams for a squad that is basing its championship aspirations on its excellence on the defensive end.
Fortunately for the Spurs, Duncan's injury doesn't seem serious. They should still be very careful with how they handle it because they will need him to be healthy for the stretch run. There's no one else who can do the work he does for the Spurs on defense, which is arguably San Antonio's biggest weakness.
The Cavaliers are much more dangerous when Love and Irving are playing well
Irving and especially Love sometimes defer too much to LeBron James. That's typically a good idea, as James is, as mentioned, still one of the best players in the league. Yet the Cavaliers need more from them than just solid production. They have to be aggressive to create their own scoring opportunities and make plays. They don't necessarily have to score 30 points but they need to make an impact instead of waiting for James to take care of things.
On Saturday, Love hit the outside shots teams sometimes concede but he also crashed the offensive glass to give his team extra possessions. Irving drove to the rim looking to score, but he was sharp when it came to finding the open man. They both showed that they have the talent to affect the outcome of a game. Anyone familiar with their careers knows it, but they at times forget. Hopefully this time the lesson will stick and they will be more consistent both with their production and effort.
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