As the Lakers continue their road trip in Cleveland tonight, it’s important to say this up front: there may not be a more surprising team in the league than the 8-8 Cavaliers. Picked to be one of the worst teams in the conference and coming off a season where they posted one of the worst defensive ratings in the history of the league, the Cavs are currently 6th in the East and have achieved that record mostly on the strength of their top 10 defense.
It remains to be seen if they can keep this up for even half a season, to say nothing of a full campaign, but the turnaround this team has made was something few people could have seen coming and I just want to acknowledge that they’ve simply been a fun team that competes each night and has found a way to win at a rate that has completely caught me off guard in this young season.
Headlining the turnaround is 3rd year point guard Collin Sexton, who is averaging 25 points a night and showing real promise as a 3-level scorer. He’s shooting over 50% from 2 and nearly 45% on 3’s so far, and doing it while flashing the trademark competitiveness that launched him into the lottery in the first place. Add to him his backcourt partner Darius Garland who, in his 2nd year, has bounced back very well from a frustrating rookie campaign to average nearly 15 points and 6 assists plus big man Andre Drummond who is stuffing the boxscore with points and rebounds and this group is more talented at the top of the roster than given credit for.
They’re also fairly deep, especially after leveraging their way into trade that sent James Harden to the Nets when they included a future 1st round pick from the Bucks to secure Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince. When you combine those two to holdovers like Cedi Osman, our old friends Larry Nance Jr. and JaVale McGee, and rookie Isaac Okoro you’re starting to build something interesting. And I haven’t even mentioned Kevin Love yet, who remains out injured and has only played 2 games so far this year.
Let’s move beyond singing this group’s praises, however, and shift over to tonight’s game. A quick look up and down this roster and you’ll quickly see that they have a ton of capable big men. Drummond, Allen, and JaVale are all rotation ready centers. Nance can also flirt with playing there, but because of all their size up front and the want to play all these bigs (sometimes more than one of them at a time), he’s even played some SF this year. The Cavs, then, are a menace on the offensive glass and can be a pain in the ass to score on in the paint when facing them in the half court.
This poses and interesting matchup for the Lakers who, on most nights, have the ability to dwarf opponents with some of the massive lineups they throw out there. That won’t be the case tonight and I’m interested in seeing how much success the Lakers will have attacking the rim and wether they become overly reliant on making jumpers to win this game. Tonight may be a night where Bron and AD will look to do more damage from the arc than the restricted area and it may also end up being a game where the shooting exploits of KCP, Wes, Dennis, Kuz, and Caruso are even more needed.
This will also be a night where defensive rebounding will be very important. The Lakers are one of the better defensive rebounding teams in the league, but at least part of that is tied to the fact that they’re so dangerous in transition that teams have not been chasing their own misses very often. Drummond, however, is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, averaging 4 a night. Allen averages nearly 3 and JaVale is right under 2 per game as well. These guys are going to chase rebounds and the Lakers bigs will need to be ready to face pressure on their defensive backboards. The team’s guards and wings will also need to help down on the glass rather than leaking out early.
If they can rebound well, though, the reward of more fastbreak chances will be waiting for them. Beyond Marc Gasol, every Laker in the starting lineup can grab and go in order to initiate the break. When the Lakers do clean up the glass, I hope to see everyone look to push the tempo and fill a lane. I want to see Dennis and Bron push with the ball with the starting group and Caruso/THT (should he play) do the same with the bench units. There will be fastbreak points to be had tonight, I hope the Lakers go get them.
On an individual matchup basis, there’s 2 which interest me a great deal. The first is Dennis vs. Sexton. Both are small, shifty guards and Sexton does not care who you are, he’s going to attack. In their back to back wins over the Nets last week, Sexton took it right to Kyrie every possession and even pulled up a couple of times right on Durant for long jumpers late in the game. Dennis is super competitive defensively and I’m interested in seeing if he can leverage his speed and quickness to limit Sexton’s effectiveness.
The other matchup I’m looking forward to is Trez vs. whatever big man the Cavs have out there in his minutes. Maybe that’s Allen, maybe it’s JaVale. Either way, Trez is going to be much smaller than his opponent and those are matchups that can traditionally give him issues. Can his motor and quickness still shine when he’s giving up as much height and length as he will vs. the Cavs bigs? Will he shoot more midrange J’s? Can he still do damage on the offensive glass?
In the end, if Bron and AD play well it will be hard for the Cavs to keep pace. If the team is hitting its 3’s too, there’s even fewer avenues for the Cavs to win. That said, this Cavs group can be explosive offensively and you just know that anytime Bron returns to Cleveland for a game, there’s going to be a bit extra in everyone’s tanks, regardless if there’s single former teammate there or not (fwiw, there’s still Osman and Love from Bron’s last stint).
Lastly, this is the 2nd night of a back to back for the Cavs who got their butts kicked in Boston last night. It was such a blowout, none of their key starters played even 20 minutes, however. So, while tired legs will be less an issue, there’s still some potential for fatigue simply from the travel and late hours. Just another reason for the Lakers to try to push the pace and get easier baskets in the open court.
Where you can watch: 5:00pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.