CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – Next man up.
It’s one of those often used (sometimes annoying) sports clichés which get tossed around anytime a team is dealing with injuries.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been forced to adopt that motto early this season, especially with recent bumps and bruises suffered by Timofey Mozgov and Mo Williams. But with just two of their regular five starters in action, the Cavs still managed to best the team they knocked off in the Eastern Conference Finals last season, topping the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night, 109-97.
And amazingly, it wasn’t LeBron James doing the heavy lifting throughout much of the game for Cleveland.
“Tonight was one of those nights where the guys did a great job of carrying me,” James said.
Still, the Cavs’ star forward finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, but James was backed by 25 points and 11 rebounds from Kevin Love, 16 rebounds by Tristan Thompson and 15 points from J.R. Smith.
“It was next man up,” James said. “No matter who’s in the lineup, we need to play Cavs basketball the right way.”
Cleveland knew their depth would be tested in the early going this season, but no one could have forecasted just how far they would be tested.
Without Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert to begin the campaign was difficult enough, but with a shoulder injury to Mozgov and an ankle injury to Williams, Cavs coach David Blatt is looking far down his bench in an effort to win games.
And for the most part, his guys have responded.
“I think that we went through a year last year where we put ourselves in a great position and had a tremendous season, and at the very end of a tremendous opportunity, we fell prey to the lack of depth,” Blatt said.
“We addressed it this summer. Obviously, up to this point in the season, it’s really paid off for us, because the guys that we brought in are major contributors, and the guys that stayed, obviously, are high-level people and high-level basketball players. If you want to be a top team, you have to have that. Fortunately, we do.”
On Saturday, it was Matthew Dellavedova thrust into a starting role, scoring 12 points in over 28 minutes at the point guard position. Thompson added nine points and 16 boards starting at center.
Even Jared Cunningham, essentially the last player on the Cavs’ bench, scored eight points in the victory.
“We’re missing a lot of guys right now,” Blatt said. “A lot of very, very significant players. But the other guys are stepping up and doing the job and not asking for any quarter, they’re not asking for any breaks, they’re just going out there and playing. I think that speaks volumes for the type of players and people they are.”
Blatt was certainly pleased with the Cavaliers’ ability to handle one of the East’s best teams, a Hawks squad which entered with nine victories on the young season. However, the 12-point win over Atlanta wasn’t perfect in his eyes.
Perhaps that speaks to Cleveland’s high expectations in 2015-2016.
“We didn’t play perfect basketball tonight,” Blatt said. “We were very good at times and we were not very good at times tonight. We need to play better than that, consistently. I can tell you honestly, I’m disappointed in parts of the game we didn’t play right. We simply didn’t play right. We played other parts of the game extremely well, and you saw that… But there were parts of that game that we didn’t play right. And there’s a lot to be learned from that.”
The Cavs’ coach later expanded on what bothered him about Saturday’s win.
“There was a stretch where we took five or six threes that were completely out of the context of what we do,” he said. “They were bad shots, hurried shots, shots without reason or rhyme. The second half, we’re not executing properly on offense, and as a result, were losing our way getting back on defense and were giving up easy baskets that we don’t need to… We threw a lot of bad passes. We stopped recognizing the mismatches we had and the opportunities to score the ball easily, as we did very well in other parts of the game.
“That’s not what we should be. We know better than that, let’s put it that way. Overall, you have to be happy with a win against Atlanta… But I just know that we can be much better than that.”
On the other hand, an odd situation in the contest turned into a lighter moment following Saturday’s victory.
In the third quarter, James was growing frustrated with some of the issues Blatt pointed to following the game. At one point, the Cavs’ forward got so fed up with the moment, he made a motion to the team’s bench, walked over and took a seat.
However, without a whistle, buzzer or replacement in the game, the Hawks brought the ball down the floor. Richard Jefferson scrambled to get his warm-ups off and Cleveland was one man down.
The officials signaled a technical foul on James during the weird sequence.
“He thought we were playing hockey,” Blatt joked following the win. “He was frustrated. He knew we weren’t playing right.”
“I blew a gasket,” he said. “I apologized to my teammates for it.”
Luckily for Cleveland, James’ self-substitution did not play a significant role in the eventual victory. And on a night in which Blatt found issues that need to be addressed, the Cavs’ coach still found a reason to bring some levity to Cleveland’s 10-3 start to the campaign.