Following a 95-90 loss to the New York Knicks on opening night -- in which James shot 5-of-15 from the floor and committed eight turnovers -- the Cavs bounced back Friday against the Chicago Bulls, defeating them in a 114-108 overtime contest.
Though they took out a Bulls team that's expected to be a legitimate title contender in the Eastern Conference come next spring, the Cavaliers are still experiencing growing pains. Cleveland has added nine new faces to its roster for the 2014-15 season, headlined by the additions of James and All-NBA power forward Kevin Love. Coach David Blatt -- who's won multiple league championships overseas in over 20 years of coaching -- hadn't coached an NBA game until last Thursday.
Blatt has added a couple wrinkles to the Cavaliers in his two games at the helm, most notably an occasional full-court defensive press and a utilization of Love's long-range passing skills. After pulling down a defensive rebound, Love will turn up-court to see if he has an open man. This paid off Friday night against the Bulls when Love zipped a pass three-quarters up the floor to an open James, who finished the dunk without requiring a single dribble.
Though Blatt has an abundance of talent at his disposal on paper, he's been unable to develop a playing rotation in his first two games [insert obligatory "small-sample size" caveat here]. James and point guard Kyrie Irving played 43 minutes each Thursday night, with Love and shooting guard Dion Waiters logging 38 a piece. Starting center Anderson Varejao picked up 27 minutes. The bench rotation consisted of forwards Tristan Thompson and Shawn Marion and guard Matthew Dellavedova.
In the win over the Bulls Friday night, James and Love registered 40+ minutes each and Irving played 35 of his own. Varejao and Thompson again split time at center, and Dellavedova got huge minutes off the bench as Marion and forward Mike Miller saw 15 and 12 minutes of game time, respectively.
Essentiually, Blatt's working with an eight-and-a-half-man rotation, depending on how many minutes Miller is capable of playing. On Friday, he went 0-for-1 from the floor and picked up one assist in a scoreless outing.
Three main factors led to Cleveland's improvement after the opening night loss to the Knicks -- rebounds, turnovers and points in the paint.
After pulling in just 33 boards against New York, the Cavs dominated the Bulls on the glass, 52-32. They also went from 19 turnovers to nine, forcing 19 for Chicago, and scored 58 points in the paint Friday after putting up just 34 the night prior. The Cavs also established control of the free throw line against the Bulls and made an effort to push the ball, scoring 21 fast break points.
The Blazers have given up no more than the 14 fast break points they allowed to the Oklahoma City Thunder last Wednesday, though they'll have to keep an eye on Love's outlets and James sneaking behind the defense after long rebounds. Portland has also struggled at times to keep opposing teams from scoring inside, giving up 44 points in the paint to the Thunder and 42 to the Golden State Warriors in Sunday's loss. James and Love were both noticeably more aggressive attacking the basket Friday night, and that trend is likely to continue against a Blazers team that gave up quite a few points in the paint last season.
So far, the Cavaliers haven't been very good from outside, making 12-of-39 three-pointers in two games, good for 30.8 percent. Meanwhile, Portland has allowed opponents to shoot just 26.7 percent from deep in three games. Cleveland's biggest threats to heat up from long-range are Love (career 36.2 percent on three-pointers), Dellavedova (37.1 percent), Irving (37.7 percent) and James (34.1 percent). Waiters is also a threat from deep as a 34.3 percent career three-point shooter, and Miller has made 40.9 percent of his outside shots in his 15-year career, but he's played limited minutes this season and has had few shot attempts. Against the Bulls, the Cavs only attempted 15 three-pointers, so shutting down the paint should be more of an emphasis for the Blazers tonight.
Portland has been carried offensively in its first three games by power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and shooting guard Wesley Matthews; Aldridge has made 47.4 percent of his shots en route to 25 points per game and Matthews has been scorching from the field, converting 53.7 percent of his attempts for 18.7 points per contest. Waiters is seen as a defender with potential, but he hasn't put it all together yet on that end of the floor. Dellavedova, who is a scrappy defender and will see time at both guard positions tonight, gives up 20 pounds to Matthews. Expect to see plenty of post-ups by the sixth-year guard out of Marquette, as he'll likely look to take advantage of a smaller, less-experienced Cleveland backcourt. So far this year, Matthews' back-to-the-basket game has provided Portland with consistent scoring, and that shouldn't change tonight if current trends hold true.
Aldridge has attempted over two-thirds of his shots this year from the midrange, making almost half of them. Love has never been considered an above-average defensive player, and he's had a habit over the years of turning toward the basket early to get rebounds instead of completely closing out opposing shooters. Aldridge should take advantage of this tonight, as he could get some pretty clean looks from his favorite spot, the left block. In two games against the Cavaliers last season, Aldridge averaged 29 points on 47.9 percent shooting, so Thompson and/or Varejao may not fare much better than Love tonight when guarding him.
Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard, who is probable against the Cavs with an abdominal strain, has struggled mightily his first three games, averaging 13.7 points and four assists while shooting 26.8 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent from deep. In two games against Cleveland last year, Lillard averaged 32 points, 7.5 assists and seven rebounds while hitting almost half his shots and shooting 59.1 percent from deep. Can he turn his early season misfortunes around tonight? Maybe; Irving -- though all indications are that he worked on his defense this summer -- has struggled in the past to stay in front of opponents. Dellavedova, Cleveland's peskiest backcourt defender, will likely have his hands full with Matthews tonight. Like Lillard, Irving has struggled handling screens his whole career, so look for a lot of pick-and-roll action tonight for the Blazers' third-year point guard as Portland coach Terry Stotts will likely be looking to establish Lillard's offense early.
Blazers small forward Nicolas Batum will have the unenviable task of trying to slow down James tonight. In one meeting with Portland last season, James put up 32 points on 56.5 percent shooting. The Blazers can absorb an output like that if they keep a lid on Irving, Love and the rest of James' supporting cast; if not, it'll be a struggle to escape with the win.
Batum has been fairly quiet offensively in three games this year, averaging 9.3 points on 9.7 shots a night. He's impacted the rebounding game and has shown an ability to set teammates up in bursts, but Batum will probably need to contribute more with his scoring tonight to help the Blazers keep up with this Cavs team that put up 114 points against the Bulls -- widely considered the best defensive team in the NBA -- on Friday night.
Portland should have an advantage over the Cavaliers in bench depth, as Stotts has gone with a reserve rotation featuring heavy minutes for guard Steve Blake and center Chris Kaman, who's shooting 52 percent from the field even after a 1-for-5 performance Sunday against the Warriors. Like Aldridge, Kaman should be able to stretch out Cleveland's frontcourt defenders, pulling them away from the basket with his midrange jumper.
With backup big man Joel Freeland out and guard CJ McCollum struggling early, Stotts gave wing Will Barton and power forward Thomas Robinson extended minutes Sunday against the Warriors, both of whom responded with some much-needed hustle off the bench. If Stotts goes to these two again, it'll likely be due to the Blazers needing an energy boost, which could be a boon against a Cleveland team that plays Irving, Love and James close to 40 minutes each a night.
Portland is an average defensive rebounding team, though they're top-5 in offensive rebounds per night. The Cavs, meanwhile, are pretty poor on the defensive end but excel at rebounding under their own hoop. The Blazers might have to back off the offensive boards if Cleveland tries to get out in transition and score off long outlet passes, but center Robin Lopez should be able to hold his own on the offensive glass while his teammates get back to defend the fast break -- so far this year, he's reeled in five offensive rebounds per game.
Love hasn't shot well to start the season, but he's brought in 15 rebounds a night and will be a handful for Portland's starting frontcourt, especially for Aldridge, who's grabbed just 6.7 rebounds per game this year after setting a career-high last year with 11.1 per contest . The Blazers will again rely on a group effort rebounding the ball, as Lillard, Kaman, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez all pull in between five and 8.7 boards a game.
So far, both the Cavaliers and Blazers have had underwhelming starts to their seasons after preseason hype by many had them at or near the top of theirrespective conferences. The team that controls the paint and the glass tonight will have a decided edge over the other. The Blazers did dominate the Warriors in rebounds Sunday night, 56-41, and still lost the game, so they'll have to capitalize on those extra possessions or a solid effort on the boards will again be for naught.
Lillard could be Portland's deciding factor against the Cavs; If he wins his matchup with Irving, the Blazers might be able to weather big nights from Love and James if Aldridge and Matthews can play as steadily as they have the first three games of the season.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter
Update: Blazers will debut their sleeved jerseys tonight as well.