Heat vs. Cavaliers final score: 3 things we learned from Miami’s 101-91 victory
The Heat took a double-digit halftime lead and held on for a 101-91 victory in LeBron James’ return. How did the Cavaliers fall to such a shorthanded Miami team?
The Miami Heat entered LeBron James’ homecoming in an awful state. Chris Bosh was injured, and the skeleton crew that remained blew a big lead in losing to the Philadelphia 76ers at home on Tuesday. You can forgive many for expecting a Cavaliers rout.
Except … that didn’t happen. Led by huge performances from Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng, the Heat showed some pride, taking a double-digit halftime lead and pulling away late for a 101-91 victory. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, fall to 17-11, continuing an underwhelming start for a team expected to surge right to the top of a weak Eastern Conference.
The anticipation threatened to outperform the game itself in this one, especially with Bosh sitting out yet again for Miami. Many wondered how Miami would receive James in his first game in Miami since returning to Cleveland. The answer: warmly. Very warmly.
James has occasionally started nervously in big homecoming games even when adored and this one was no exception. His Cavaliers played passively after taking in the reception from Miami’s crowd, falling behind by double digits in the first half while playing little defense. Wade being on fire sure helped: the Miami star scored 24 points, turning back the clock with a vintage performance.
Cleveland picked up its effort in the third quarter, slicing Miami’s 13-point lead to three with cohesive defensive rotations and a dose of simple set plays that got the ball to its stars in prime spots. A James dunk early in the fourth quarter gave Cleveland the lead for the first time since the first quarter, though it was short-lived thanks to a hanging-on-the-rim technical.
But Cleveland could never finish the comeback. Miami hit tough shot after tough shot, including a critical Luol Deng jumper that pushed Miami’s advantage to five. The tired Cavaliers suddenly went cold, going several minutes without a field goal. A lob pass from Wade to Chris Andersen put Miami up nine with four minutes left and ended a 10-1 run.
The Cavaliers made one more push, cutting the deficit to three on a Mike Miller three with just under three minutes. YetMiami responded when Deng somehow found Danny Granger for a corner three after being trapped on the opposite baseline. Deng found Andersen on a lob on the next possession and Wade swatted a Love layup to eventually seal the deal.
3 things we learned
Dwyane Wade finally got some help
Dwyane Wade began the game by embracing his good friend James. It was a touching moment from someone who has consistently defended James’ decision to return home, even if it left Wade’s Heat decimated.
But Wade is also a great player that has lots of pride of his own, especially because so many deem him washed up even though he’s averaging 23 points and 5.5 assists while shooting 51 percent from the field.
And in this game, with a national audience watching, Wade showed why. He was aggressive early, driving through Cleveland’s defense for layups and showing his craftiness in the mid-range area as he usually does. He even hit a few threes, adding insult to injury for James because that’s the very shot he refused to master during James’ time in Miami. He’s also still athletic, as Kevin Love can attest.
Wade couldn’t keep up his first-half surge forever, scoring just seven second-half points after 24 in the first half. His shots started falling short and a dunk attempt on Tristan Thompson in the third quarter ended with an embarrassing miss. He also was often locked up in the fourth quarter by Dion Waiters of all people.
But he did enough to put Miami in the driver’s seat, and unlike for most of the season, his teammates did enough to finish the job. Deng had one of his best games of the season, going right at James for most of the night and finishing with 25 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. Norris Cole didn’t score much, but was active defensively and made several key hustle plays on possessions that could have gone either way. Even Granger, a non-factor all year, contributed nine points and seven rebounds, including the biggest shot of the game.
Wade’s supporting cast has been absent far too often, especially in the second half of Tuesday’s embarrassing loss to the 76ers. They showed up tonight.
The Cavaliers’ defense still isn’t there
Cleveland entered the game ranked 23rd in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, and early on it looked like that ranking would get worse. The Cavaliers lost their best interior defender in Anderson Varejao for the season and responded with a small lineup that put Kevin Love at center. The result in the first half: Miami roasted their non-existent rotations on simple dribble drives, generating plenty of layups and open threes.
Basic mistakes were made all half. The Heat often declined ball screens, waited for the big man to come out to the three-point line, then drove the other way with no resistance. Without Varejao, nobody on the Cavaliers was offering any rim protection … unless everyone tried to offer rim protection, which created wide-open threes. And then there were plays like this one, when James lazily switched a haphazard pick and pop between Luol Deng and Shawne Williams, leaving Love to usher Deng to the basket for a layup.
Cleveland picked things up in the third quarter to get back into the game. David Blatt switched Shawn Marion onto Wade, which neutralized Miami’s top player. Everyone else started grinding more at the point of attack and Love even did more to protect the basket, which isn’t normally his specialty. With Wade off and the Cavaliers showing renewed effort, Miami’s limited attack started to falter.
But the deficit proved to be too large, especially when the Heat hit the shots they needed to hit down the stretch. When the possessions mattered most, Miami’s defense reverted.
This game was therefore a microcosm of Cleveland’s season. They’ve shown flashes of competent defense at times this season, but it hasn’t been consistent enough. Cliche as it sounds, the Cavaliers need to give 48 minutes of effort to win in April, May and June, not 12.
Cleveland’s stars keep playing too many minutes
Possibly related to the defensive issues: This is a shallow Cavaliers team, especially without Varejao, who is out for the season with a torn Achilles. Irving played 42 out of a possible 48 minutes. James played 40 despite sitting for a stretch in the third quarter after an injury spell. Love played 39, many of which were at center in a small lineup.
It’s hard for the stars have enough energy to play an aggressive style of defense with that kind of minute load. Perhaps that’s why so many makeable shots in the fourth quarter spun out and fell short. Cleveland expended so much energy to rally in the third quarter, especially defensively, where they held the Heat to 15 points in shaving 10 points off a halftime deficit. It looked like they just didn’t have the legs to finish the job. They just didn’t have enough to finish the job.
This has been a theme all season, but what can Blatt really do when Varejao is out and there aren’t many quality players on the bench?