1. LeBron Returns To Find Heir Struggling
CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland crowd that three years ago scarred the Heat with the mother lode of rancor -- "That wasn't a basketball game, that was a movie," Wade said -- mostly lost its teeth. The game was listed as a sellout, but there were rows of empty seats in the rafters. James was periodically booed, but cheers rang through at times, and it was hard to miss the enlarged number of fans in Heat jerseys milling about freely.
Kyrie Irving meandered through a 6-of-19 shooting night and did nothing remarkable, generally the exact opposite of the standard he set during his meteoric rise following his selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft.
The Cavs are now 4-11 to start a season they believed would be their turnaround and they've got plenty of problems. Their latest No. 1 pick, Anthony Bennett, is currently not playing while he's nurtured following a disastrous beginning. Their options at small forward, James' most natural position, are severely lacking. Their offense has wheezed along because new coach Mike Brown has focused so much on defense, which is improved, but that is to say it's gone to middle of the pack from dead last.
But the heart of the issue and the reason the Heat don't seem to fear the Cavs' possible poaching of James, is that Irving is suffering from an unexpected lack of moxie. This can't-miss kid is in the midst of a malaise that seems to be as puzzling as it is far-reaching.
"They're all struggling, and it's trickled down to him as well," James said of Irving. "They're trying to find their identity."
Since Irving's fantastic performance in his first All-Star Game -- he scored 15 points and put on a display of dribbling and passing skills as a 20-year-old first-timer -- he's not exactly been the same player. Since that weekend last season in Houston when he seemed to verify his status as an elite player, his game has taken an unmistakable slide.
His first season and a half in the league, Irving shot 47 percent, a number that was impressive for a young point guard who is the center of the offense. He's shot just 41 percent since. He was averaging nearly 24 points a game before the All-Star break last season. He's dipped to 20 per since.
"It's always frustrating when you're not making shots," Irving said. "I haven't been shooting well, it's part of the game, it's the law of averages."
Deeper than the numbers, Irving looked to be primed to take the leap that so many players do in their third seasons in the league. James made first team All-NBA in his third year. Wade won a championship. Rose won the MVP. Most recently, Paul George announced his arrival as a star. There are many more examples. Irving is totally off that sort of pace.
He often plays frustrated. He's been forcing shots when he's covered and he missed shots when he's open. He's developed a habit of dominating the ball, not because he's selfish, but because he's doesn't seem to trust his teammates at times.
He is expected to be the leader of the team, but he's already gotten into an exchange with his coach on the bench and gotten into it with teammate Dion Waiters at a players-only meeting (that Irving called). As it is, Irving and Waiters show very little chemistry, and the reports of the Cavs being involved in trade talks with Waiters did not come as a surprise to those who have been watching the two interact.
Irving is playing with a coach who makes demands he's not familiar with, and, for the first time in his life he says, he is playing with a true post-up center in Andrew Bynum. The Cavs' Bynum experiment is slowly showing fruit -- he had 16 points over the weekend in San Antonio while playing on the second night of a back-to-back -- but he and Irving have no chemistry.
Waiters, knowing he was playing on national television while at the center of trade speculation, at least played with the vigor against the Heat and scored a season-high 24 points as he attacked the Heat's defense.
Even though the Cavs had an obvious advantage with the undersized Chris Bosh on Bynum on Wednesday, Irving didn't look to have much feel for getting him the ball where he could be effective. In the point guard's defense, neither did the rest of the team.
"I've been getting in early and I've been staying late," Irving said. "I guarantee you once I get over this hump, there will be no looking back."
There's no question he's got the talent to do it. It isn't just the Cavs who are high on his future or the top men in the profession. It's James himself. But none of them are seeing what they expect from Irving in what is a crucial spot in his career so far.
"They have some pieces here, I know Mike [Brown] is pushing him to be better," James said. "We'll see what happens."
Needless to say, that is not the type of endorsement the Cavs were hoping for.
Around The Association
MVP: Serge Ibaka. Not only did he score 17 points, grab 11 rebounds and block five shots, but he prevented a host of other Spurs' shots from falling. Not just by altering them, but by downright discouraging a San Antonio player from taking a shot. He was awesome.
X factor: The Oklahoma City bench. With Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combining for 12-for-39 shooting, OKC got a pick-me-up off the pine from the bench, namely Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Jackson had a career-high 23 and Lamb scored 12 on seven shots.
That was ... confusing: The first Spurs-Thunder matchup of the young season was a competitive, sloppy affair. The game flowed well and the defense was active, but neither team could hit a shot. This one won't make many highlight mixes on YouTube.
MVP: The Clippers' bench. On a night when Chris Paul left midway through the third quarter with a right hamstring injury and Blake Griffin struggled offensively, L.A.'s second unit stepped up (34 points) and helped extend the fourth-quarter lead.
X factor: After shooting 13-of-25 (52 percent) and carrying the Knicks' offense in the first half, Carmelo Anthony (2-of-8) and Andrea Bargnani (2-of-8) cooled off considerably in the final 24 minutes. As a result, the Knicks scored just 35 second-half points.
That was ... what we expected: The Knicks hung around until the final frame, but the Clippers' dynamic offense ultimately prevailed and turned a close game into a double-digit victory. That makes seven straight losses for New York now.
MVP: The Lakers' Nick Young was a flamethrower off the bench, and an efficient one at that. Young's 26 points on 16 shots helped Los Angeles maintain its dominant lead with a slew of timely jumpers.
LVP: The Nets' veteran duo of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Both were the only Brooklyn starters who went negative, and they capped off a terrific Nets comeback with two wide-open crunch-time misses. Garnett had four points and spotty defense while Pierce scored 12 points on 17 field goal attempts.
X factor: Jordan Farmar. He finished with 15 points on five 3-pointers, giving L.A. a commanding lead with three straight 3s in the first few minutes of the second quarter. This 9-0 Farmar run was piled onto a prior Lakers 9-0 run, and helped the Lakers open up a 27-point lead that wouldn't be surrendered.
MVP: After suffering through a season of D.J. Augustin, the Pacers have been thrilled with the addition of C.J. Watson. Tonight, he hit five 3s during a 39-22 fourth quarter that put the game away for Indiana.
Defining moment: The Bobcats were called for three fouls on one possession in the third quarter, putting the Pacers in the bonus for the last 9:16. Indiana scored 11 of its 17 points from the line in the quarter, allowing it to stay afloat while Paul George sat with four fouls.
That was ... a game only a mother could love: Through three quarters, the teams had combined to miss 90 of their 126 field goal attempts (.286). The 44 fouls called in the first 36 minutes didnt exactly help the flow of the game.
MVP: You can't help but wonder what Philly fans think when they see ex-Sixer s center Nikola Vucevic (21 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks) put up big numbers, especially when it happens against the Sixers.
X factor: After a slow start to the game, Arron Afflalo came alive in the fourth quarter. He scored 11 of his 18 points in the period and helped pave the way for Orlando to come away with a victory.
That was ... a dud: Victor Oladipo, who originally got the starting nod at shooting guard, saw some time against Michael Carter-Williams in this game after Jameer Nelson went down with a sprained left foot. But there weren't much fireworks between the two.
MVP: Francisco Garcia. The eight-year vet had 21 points off the bench on 9-for-14 shooting. He also added three assists while filling in for the injured James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
X factor: Aaron Brooks also had 21 points off of the Rockets' bench, only needing 12 shots and 27 minutes to reach that mark. Overall, the Houston bench scored 67 points against the Hawks.
That was ... injury filled: Harden was held out for the third straight game, then Lin was injured in the first quarter. On the other side of the court, the Hawks were without Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and Shelvin Mack.
MVP: Luol Deng has stepped up big time since Derrick Rose went down. He's averaging 24.3 ppg on 52.2 percent shooting in the last three games, including a season-high 27 tonight to help the Bulls snap their four-game losing streak.
X factor: Taj Gibson has never been much of a scorer -- he had only five career 20-point games entering tonight -- but he posted a career-high 23 points on 11-of-13 shooting. When the ball found its way to him, he knew exactly what to do with it.
That was ... more like it: If the Bulls are going to have success this season, it's going to be on the strength of their defense. They held the Pistons to just 26 points in the second half, including 11 in the fourth quarter, to turn a tight game into a blowout win.
MVP: Nate Robinson and Andre Miller can share this award. They torched the Timberwolves in transition, combining for 25 points and 10 assists and keeping Minnesota from ever getting a solid fingerhold on the lead.
LVP: As solid as Denver's bench was, that was how disorganized Minnesota's bench looked. The players in the Wolves' second unit were all negatives in plus/minus while all the starters were positive.
Defining moment: Denver held Minnesota at arm's length for most of the game, but a Kevin Love 3-pointer made it 103-102 with four minutes to go. Then Denver made a J.J. Hickson dunk sandwich full of Kenneth Faried alley-oop fixins. Minnesota never recovered.
3. Wednesday's Best
Goran Dragic, Suns:
Dragic pushed the pace, and pushed the Blazers off their 11-game win streak en route to a 120-106 win. Dragic scored 31 points and had 10 assists, fueling a 40-point second quarter with the kind of skills that mesmerized onlookers in Game 3 of the 2010 West semifinals.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Brooklyn Nets: If the Nets can't mop the floor with the opposition, at least they can cause the floor to be mopped. Aside from the spillage shenanigans, Boston refugees Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce combined to shoot 6-for-22 from the field in a 99-94 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Cup slipped out of my hand while I was getting Ty. Sweaty palms. I was never good with the ball."
-- Nets coach Jason Kidd, his team out of timeouts late in the game, appeared to say "hit me" to point guard Tyshawn Taylor in order to stop the game so the team could draw up a last-second offensive play. His team lost to the Lakers anyway.
8. Snappy Approach
9. Stat Check
The Phoenix Suns snapped Portland's 11-game winning streak after the San Antonio Spurs saw their 11-game winning streak fall at Oklahoma City earlier on Wednesday. It was the first time in NBA history that two teams had winning streaks of 11 or more games end on the same day.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: LeBron James. The reigning MVP had a ho-hum 9-for-19 shooting performance, but still managed a pedestrian 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
That was ... frustrating Poor Kyrie Irving was endlessly harassed by Miami's defense. He shot 6 for 19 from the field and committed several lazy turnovers. Not a great night for the All-Star guard.
Defining moment: Miami's glacial run. The Cavs led 28-22 after the first quarter, but the Heat slowly ground Cleveland down in the second quarter with a 20-5 run over a nine-minute span. The suffocating stretch practically secured the game for Miami.
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki stuffed the box score: 22 points, six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. On a night where his new partner Monta Ellis couldn't find the touch (2-for-16 from the field), Dirk came up big.
X factor: The Dallas bench outscored the Golden State bench 43-13. DeJuan Blair (11 points, 9 rebounds), Jae Crowder (12 points, 6 rebounds,), and Shane Larkin (6 assists) were all key factors in Dallas leading by as many as 17.
Defining moment: Dirk's final spinning jumper over Harrison Barnes at the 1:14 mark in the fourth prevented Golden State from capping a furious rally, after having whittled the 17-point Dallas lead down to four in the final three minutes.
MVP: Jerryd Bayless was a picture of offensive efficiency, finishing with 22 points on 10 shots off the bench for Memphis. And when the Grizzlies needed a pair of game-icing free throws, they turned to Bayless, who delivered.
Defining moment: The Celtics came storming back late, scoring 16 points in the final 3:14. But the Grizzlies took care of business at the line, shooting a perfect 10-for-10 in the last 38 seconds.
That was ... sudden. The Grizzlies led by 13 with 1:49 remaining. It took Boston just a minute and nine seconds to trim the lead to 90-85, and just 26 seconds longer to make it a one-possession game.
MVP: Wizards center Marcin Gortat scored 25 points on near-perfect shooting (11-for-12), and is now 17-for-20 in the last two games. In overtime, the Polish Hammer cemented his spot here with a soft left-handed finish, a bear-hug rebound, and two clutch free throws to put the game out of reach.
X factor: You only live once, and O.J. Mayo knows it. His last-second 3-pointer, launched from several feet behind the line, sent the game into overtime. Mayo's 21 points and 7 rebounds kept an ugly Milwaukee offense in the game, but his shot faltered in the extra stanza (0-for-3) and the Wizards pulled away.
That was ... instructive: Do you think the Wizards noticed that Bradley Beal, the NBA's minutes-per-game leader, developed a stress injury? After a series of Pyrrhic victories ran Washington's starters ragged, Randy Wittman deployed a true second unit for the first time in the last four bouts, and all it got him was a close game and five extra minutes.