Everything seemed to be going the Cleveland Cavaliers’ way last Tuesday. The Cavs had just rebuilt their failing team on the fly and seamlessly integrated their new additions, stomping the Boston Celtics and outclassing the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They looked poised to make a run … but, thanks to the league pressing the pause button to head into last weekend’s All-Star Game in L.A., they’d have to wait.
“I think the worst thing right now is us going into this break,” James told TNT’s Dennis Scott after the win over the Thunder.
So, about that …
The Cavs came out hot, building an early double-digit lead and holding a 12-point edge midway through the second quarter. But they lost the plot late in the first half, let the Wiz hang around in the third and froze late, needing a monster close from LeBron to get back into the game before ultimately falling short as Washington held on for a 110-103 win.
Every Wizard who played scored — say it with me: everybody eats — with Bradley Beal (18 points, nine assists) leading the way for a Washington squad that logged 29 assists on 44 made field goals against just 10 turnovers. Down 12 in the second quarter, Washington tilted the game by going small, eschewing a traditional center like Marcin Gortat or Ian Mahinmi in favor of bumping Markieff Morris up to the five spot and plugging versatile wing reserve Kelly Oubre Jr. in alongside Otto Porter Jr., Beal and point guard Tomas Satoransky to try to match buckets with the high-scoring Cavs.
It worked. The Wizards closed the half on a 22-9 run to take a three-point lead into intermission, knocking Cleveland back on its heels and letting Ty Lue know that his team needed to come up with something beyond “LeBron is amazing” to win this game. They couldn’t.
Non-LeBron Cavs shot just 12-for-32 (37.5 percent) in the second half, with Cleveland’s new recruits — George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. — combining for nine points on 10 shots after halftime. The short-circuiting was especially acute in the fourth, when, with the game in the balance, not a single supporting cast member could get anything going:
Over the final 9:30 of the game, LeBron James went 6-for-9 from the floor.
The rest of the team was 0-for-10. pic.twitter.com/9srDI2mxDC
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 23, 2018
With Cleveland down 11 following a pair of Jodie Meeks free throws with 3:44 to go, Lue went small himself, pulling Tristan Thompson in favor of Kyle Korver to pair with LeBron, Hood, Hill and J.R. Smith. LeBron-at-center immediately got the Cavs on the move — he barrelled through Mahinmi for a layup and a pair of free throws to get the deficit down to seven before Scott Brooks again removed Mahinmi for Morris, and another LeBron layup got Cleveland within three at 104-101 with 1:13 to go. But after an awesome defensive play to block a driving layup attempt by Oubre, Smith fell asleep on the ensuing inbounds just long enough to give Porter a layup …
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) February 23, 2018
… and though James answered with another bucket, the Cavs couldn’t get one more stop, with Beal blowing past Hill at the point of attack all the way to the rim for a layup that put Washington up five. Cleveland missed its free throws, Washington didn’t, and the Wiz handed LeBron a very rare post-All-Star break defeat:
Tonight was the first time a LeBron James team lost their first game after the All-Star break since the 2009-10 season. pic.twitter.com/JjLpk0zgiF
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 23, 2018
The Wizards came out of the break just as they went into it, winning their third straight to improve to 34-24 on the season — just a half-game behind Cleveland in the race for the East’s No. 3 seed — and 8-2 since All-Star point guard John Wall went down with a knee injury that would require surgical repair. They’ve been dynamite of late, pulling together since Wall’s injury to post the NBA’s fifth-best net rating in that span by sharing and taking care of the ball.
Only the East-leading Toronto Raptors have posted a better assist-to-turnover ratio since Wall hit the shelf. Beal (a team-high 6.7 assists per game to go with his team-leading 21.4 points per game since Wall went down) has teamed with quality reserve Satoransky (12 points, 6.1 dimes, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, just 1.4 turnovers in 28.4 minutes per game over his last 10) to keep Brooks’ team firing on all cylinders even without its lead playmaker.
All but buried on the bench and in the Wizards’ rotation for most of his first year and a half in D.C., Satoransky — a 6-foot-7 righty from the Czech Republic who starred at FC Barcelona in Spain’s ACB before coming to the States — has shot 58.7 percent from the field, 62.5 percent from 3-point land, and 100 percent at the line since stepping into Wall’s spot; the Wizards have been nearly 16 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it these last 10 games. A modest proposal, Coach Brooks: find some more minutes for your man Satoransky once Wall’s ready to go. Dude can play, and other dudes seem to like playing with him.
Here are the differences in the other 4 starters' numbers PER 36 MINUTES with Wall vs. with Satoransky. As you can see, everyone is getting more shots and more assists (and everyone but Beal is scoring more and shooting better)
h/t @samesfandiari pic.twitter.com/To0NyKHFGm
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) February 22, 2018
Cleveland’s got a guy everybody seems to like playing with, too. (Well, almost everybody, anyway.) But while James was customarily awesome on Thursday — a game-high 32 points on 13-for-18 shooting, nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals in 37 minutes, including Cleveland’s final 14 points in the last six minutes of the fourth — the Cavs couldn’t pull through, due in large part to a lot of good looks that just didn’t go down:
Not all pristine, and not always the shooters you'd want taking them, but yep: a loooooot of good looks. pic.twitter.com/BrQea8rlfe
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 23, 2018
“We missed some open 3s,” Lue said after the game, according to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com. “I mean, shooting 8-for-35, it’s going to be tough to beat a lot of teams. We had some good looks and good shots, they just didn’t fall for us.”
“Like I told you guys, it’s still a work in progress with us,” James added. “It’s not going to be overnight, no matter the excitement before the break. We got a lot of things to work on, implement what we need to do. Tonight we still played to our game, just didn’t make a lot of shots.”
And on nights when that’s true, the new-look Cavs can get beat, just like the old ones did.
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