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With Love out, Cavs bench steps up against Heat

CLEVELAND -- The last time the Cleveland Cavaliers played the Miami Heat without Kevin Love, just less than three weeks ago, they lost 106-92 in a sloppy, disjointed affair down in South Beach.

For everything that Kevin Love hasn't been this season compared to the guy that had the look of a top-10 player in the league in Minnesota last season, he is still averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds and commands the defense’s attention as a floor spacer that opens up driving lanes for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

So Thursday’s game -- with Love sidelined again with his bum back and the Heat having a chance to take the season series 3-1 with a win that would not only increase the odds of a first-round series with the Cavs, but also perhaps give Miami some sort of psychological edge in said series -- was pretty important for Cleveland.

And while the stat sheet shows that the Cavs’ big two did most of the damage in a 114-88 win to extend their home win streak to 17, James’ 23 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three blocks and Irving’s 23 points, five assists and four steals weren't what won it for them.

What won it was the four-man bench crew of James Jones, Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova.

“With Kevin out, everybody has got to pick it up an extra notch,” Thompson said. “We don’t got one guy that can replace what Kevin can do for our team. Everyone has got to do the little things. Like for Shump, making shots tonight. For me, rebounding that much harder. And Delly, just spacing the floor. That’s all things that Kevin brings to our team, so guys got to do a little bit more than what we usually do.”

Thompson forgot to mention Jones, but perhaps that was merely a sign of respect. It was Jones who got the promotion from fellow bench player to starter for the night and responded with six first-quarter points as the Cavs built a seven-point lead that would only grow from there.

The other three, Thompson included, combined to score 39 points, outscoring Miami’s bench by six.

But it wasn’t just Shumpert setting a new season high since joining the Cavs with 17 points, it was his four steals. Just like it wasn't Dellavedova tying his season high with 14 points, it was his two steals. And it also didn't come down to Thompson scoring eight points on only four shots (including this alley-oop that brought down the house), it was the 15 rebounds, one steal and one block that his activity caused.

“The main thing that we want for our bench is come in with a defensive mindset, keep the tempo and play the game the right way,” James said. “And any time we get scoring off the bench, it’s huge for us. It’s something that we don’t bank on. But tonight Shump was great, as far as his scoring. Delly chipped in. Double T [Thompson] was a monster on the boards. And we didn’t lose a step when those guys came in. That’s what it’s about.”

It’s the simple principle that Cavs coach David Blatt calls “next man up,” and something that will serve the Cavs well in the next challenge they’ll face: the playoffs.

Even though Thursday was the fifth time James reunited with his former team this season, including that exhibition game in Brazil, Thompson said he and the rest of the Cavs wanted to make a statement on James’ behalf should there be a postseason meeting with Miami to come.

“Whenever your brother has played on a team and now they’re not there, you want to make sure they have the last laugh,” Thompson said. “That’s what we did tonight. We sent a message to them. And just for us, they felt real comfortable when we were down there in Miami. They think they can beat us. They think they can come in and out-tough us, and that’s something that I take personal.”

As much as the Cavs’ bench players feel the personal responsibility to perform, they know it’s not about their personal time to shine.

When asked if, as a group, Cleveland’s second unit has any collective identity it goes by, Shumpert cut off the question.

“Like, do we have any cool name or something? No, we don’t. We just come in and play hard,” Shumpert said. “The main thing is just trying to get wins, that’s it. This is a very selfless team. We’re just all trying to get in there, do our job, win by as much as we can and get to the playoffs.”