Thoughts on the Game: Cavs 93, Nets 91

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The New Jersey Nets still haven’t managed to find a way to get off the schneid. And Tuesday night, they couldn’t rely on the excuse that they were facing a playoff powerhouse. In what was a rather poor showing offensively by both sides, the Cleveland Cavaliers had the last laugh in a 93-91 victory at the Prudential Center on the first half of a home-and-home.

If you look at the box score, there’s really no outstanding indication as to why the Cavaliers won this game. They shot only 44 percent from the field, only 54 percent from the free-throw line, and Mo Williams (the team’s leading scorer coming in) was held to 2 points on 1-of-12 shooting. In the world of the post-LeBron Cleveland, that’s the quintessential recipe for a loss.

Still, the Cavaliers made up for their bad shooting in other less notorious areas. Above all, they shot 53 percent from beyond the arc, and those long bombs really fell when the Cavs needed them to. Daniel Gibson was an assassin off the bench, throwing in 14 points while shooting 4-of-5 from downtown. Every time the Nets went on a run or showed some promise, Boobie was there to quell the uprising. That said, he wasn’t the only killer from deep. Antawn Jamison hit 3-of-4 from that territory, and Anthony Parker made an impossibly arced attempt with seconds on the clock that iced the game for Cleveland.

Looking beyond just the three-point shooting, the Cavaliers were dominant in other areas. They forced 12 turnovers which they efficiently translated into 18 points, and they were all over the loose balls as they always are, thanks to Anderson Varejao. Ultimately, they just outplayed the Nets at the key moments to come away with the W.

As for the Nets, it was just a tough day. The highlight of the night statistically was shooting over 90 percent from the free-throw line, but even juxtaposed with Cleveland’s dismal output from the line, it wasn’t enough. Overall, the Nets shot just 40 percent and only 30 percent from deep.

Evidently one of New Jersey’s most crippling issues on the night was Terrence Williams’s absence. With him out, the Nets were short in the backcourt, and after Devin Harris succumbed to early foul trouble, the rotation was uncomfortably thin. On top of that, Jordan Farmar had a bad game, shooting just 1-for-6 (including 0-of-3 from three) in 23 minutes. The ultimate result? Quinton Ross played 19 minutes in the game, which is a pretty good barometer for the depth of the team.

Again, the Nets did not get what they needed from their core players. While Harris was solid in the 28 minutes he did play (18 points, 6 assists, 3 steals), his absence at key stretches of the game hurt the team badly. Brook Lopez again shot the ball poorly, managing to notch only 16 points on 18 shots. He did, however, look relatively impressive on the boards, hauling in 8 rebounds on the night. More about Harris and Lopez to follow. Troy Murphy still looks like he forgot how to shoot the basketball, and he only took five shots anyway. On a positive note, he pulled down 11 rebounds to lead the team.

Fortunately, a reserve was there to pick up the slack and keep the Nets competitive in the game. For the second contest in a row, Travis Outlaw played like he was worth his deal. In a hefty load of 42 minutes, he dropped 27 to lead the team on 50 percent shooting and nabbed 7 boards. Time after time, he would nail a key jumper to spark a Nets run, and he almost singlehandedly kept them in the game through the final minutes. He backed up his reputation as a fourth-quarter scorer, logging 11 in the final period last night.

On a more thematic note, the Nets so far are a good defensive team. They had only allowed about 98 points a game coming in, and they only gave up 93 in this game. It may seem odd to hear that after last year’s debacle, but Avery Johnson has instilled a new mindset on that end, and right now it is definitely working. The Nets are denying good looks in the post, closing out on jumpshots, and they’re incredibly active in the passing lanes, constantly knocking away entry feeds and lazy passes. While the Cavaliers only turned the ball over eight times, it very well could have been 12 or so had bounces gone a different way off interrupted passes.

Furthermore, and this is somewhat related, there’s an evident sense of discipline on this team. About 30 seconds into the game, Johnson called a timeout during which he ripped Lopez for biting on Anderson Varejao’s pump fake and Harris for not driving to the rim with a fairly open opportunity. Lopez didn’t pout. Harris didn’t whine. They both took the criticism positively and applied in on the court. That’s the sign of a well-structured team. If that’s the only appreciable development that occurs with this team during the season, Johnson will have done his job well for the year.

Hopefully the Nets can strike back tonight in the second half of the home-and-home.

Some more thoughts after the break:

  • Brook Lopez’s struggles rebounding: While Lopez seemed to be more active on the boards today, Mike Fratello contextualized his apparent problem well in the game. With the increased expectations of him on offense, Lopez is constantly concerned with running up the floor and getting good position for the next possession. As a result, he abandons his position on the defensive glass. While the Nets have the benefit of two other good rebounders in the post in Murphy and Favors, Lopez’s indifference to rebounding the ball could prove damaging against bigger teams.
  • Lopez’s offensive struggles: Lopez seems much less comfortable in the post this year than he did last year. It’s not clear whether it’s a product of his bout with mono this summer, the frequent double-teams, or just pressure, but he is constantly forcing shots, and he doesn’t look fluid at all. Every shot he takes ends up looking awkward, and when they do go in, it’s just surprising. He needs to take his time in the post and wait for a good shot instead of just chucking up bricks when it’s unnecessary.
  • Devin Harris’s eureka moment: As mentioned above, Avery Johnson might have had a lot to do with this, but in this game, it seemed that a light clicked on for Harris. He has started to realize how successful driving the basket was for him in 2008-2009, and he looked great diving hard to the rim against the Cavaliers. If he can get back to that point where virtually every layup attempt is a score, foul, or both, he’ll be leading this offense again in no time.
  • Anthony Morrow’s shooting: Everyone had high expectations for Morrow’s three-point shot coming in, and while he has connected a fair amount from downtown, it’s not really up to par (even if last year’s performance from deep was absolutely abysmal). Now that his ability to hit the long bomb is common knowledge around the league, he’s getting hard close-outs every time he sees a bit of space, and it’s causing him to rush his shot. He needs to slow down and shoot at his normal pace. If he can’t get it off in time, then he should pass it. But the rushed look is no good for anyone.