LOS ANGELES –- A couple hours before the Cleveland Cavaliers finally broke their six-game losing streak with an about-damn-time 109-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night, former Cavs coach turned current Lakers coach Byron Scott explained his philosophy on why he will keep Kobe Bryant to a strict, 32-minute playing limit moving forward.
When a reporter contested that not all minutes are created equal and a player could conceivably go 32 minutes in one game with a favorable defensive matchup, hardly feel it and be ready to play longer versus another game in which his body might ache with every extra second, Scott shot down the reasoning.
“I think anytime Kobe plays 32 minutes, he plays it the same, no matter what,” Scott said. “There are some guys, they play 32 minutes and they take off plays and they rest. And there are some guys like him who don’t take off plays. So, you got to know the player, basically.”
Without getting too far off track by arguing Scott’s assessment of Bryant -- of course he takes off plays at 36 years old in season No. 19 -- it is fair to say that this season’s Cavs are like that other wildly inconsistent player Scott was describing.
This is a team that’s had winning streaks of four and eight games so far and losing streaks of four and the aforementioned six, too.
Friday night they removed themselves one step further from the recent losses, beating the Los Angeles Clippers in a rousing 126-121 win on the second night of a back-to-back to close out their five-game road trip.
It was an important win, no doubt. Momentum is a fickle dance partner that can shun you just when you thought the next song was about to start. By finishing the road trip on a high note, LeBron James was able to parse out the Golden State, Sacramento and Phoenix losses at the start and be honest when he framed it as, “We come into L.A. and we sweep the L.A. trip, it was huge for us” and take that positivity back with him to Cleveland.
It was an imperfect win, too, though. The Cavs coughed up 20 turnovers, leading to 33 points for the Clippers. Their defense was also mostly nonexistent through the first three quarters, getting dinged for 33 points in the first and 31 in both the second and third before hunkering down just enough to keep the Clippers at 26 in the fourth.
And while Kyrie Irving’s 37 points on 12-for-18 shooting with five assists were spectacular, and while it was ultra-encouraging that James scored 30-plus for the third straight game since returning from strains to his left knee and back, finishing with 32 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, it’s not like the questions about David Blatt’s connection to the team suddenly disappear.
Irving even admitted after the game that he and James were calling their own plays a lot of the time, but as long as they are fundamentally on the same page, that should look like collaboration rather than insubordination.
“I think the communication between us and the coaches is getting a lot better,” Irving said. “Being out there and the coach is calling plays and me and Bron are calling plays. If we see something out there, we’re going to go and just execute it. It’s not a he-said, she-said -- or he-said -- thing out there. We all trust one another out there. And game to game, we plan for it and we got to run the plays that work.”
There were more imperfections -- James playing 42 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, signaling that the team might not have learned its lesson from wearing him down early on; the shortened three-man bench rotation of Mike Miller, Matthew Dellavedova and Shawn Marion combining for just 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting; the team playing with noticeably more energy without Kevin Love (back soreness) in the mix, which isn’t a bad thing in the moment but could open up a whole other jar of worms.
“It’s easy to see the warts, to criticize, to make issues about all kinds of things,” Blatt said after the game.
He has a point. Just because the wins against the Lakers and Clippers weren’t a cure-all, there might have been some growth.
Because on the flip side, there was Tristan Thompson filling in for Love -- the hero in the Lakers’ game for playing through pain -- in the starting lineup and putting up 24 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks while converting a crucial and-1 layup with 46.4 seconds left to put Cleveland up seven.
“It’s back-to-back; last night Kevin played what he played through, and tonight it’s Double-T stepping up in his absence,” James said. “You need those moments in an NBA season and for a team to understand what you’re about, and it was good to have that tonight.”
And there was Dellavedova going 2-for-2 from the free throw line with nine seconds left to give the Cavs a four-point cushion when the Clippers had rallied to within two. The same Dellavedova who missed two free throws with 20 seconds left when the Cavs lost in Philadelphia.
“Delly stepped up to the line, made big shots,” Thompson said.
Quite simply, the Cavs came to play. The question is whether they can keep it up. A few weeks back, after James’ “chill mode” game against the Orlando Magic when the four-time MVP took over in the fourth quarter to get Cleveland the win, Blatt said: “That's what he does, and, obviously, when he decides to lift us, he lifts us.”
It was part compliment and also part challenge. Think about the quote a little longer and it’s actually putting the onus on James.
Blatt is searching for James to be that idealized version of Bryant that Scott has in his mind -- playing the same, no matter what; not taking plays off.
Maybe sunny California finally fully de-iced James’ “chill mode” for good.
“It’s another great step in the direction we’re trying to go,” James said. “We’ve had some struggles, and I’m happy I’m able to go out at a high level and help our team win and compete. That’s what I want to do as a leader: help us compete. Help them believe we can compete every night.”