The Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Charlotte Hornets 121-109. Without Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love looked to two young guards to contribute in the budding superstar’s absence.
The Cleveland Cavaliers put on a show without Kyrie Irving on the floor for their New Years Eve game against the Charlotte Hornets. Making a surprise start, Jordan McRae had his best game of the season as LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kay Felder finished the year with big games.
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The Cavs weren’t sure whether or not Irving would play until shortly before game time. In his place, McRae made his second start of the season. This was a surprise to many, as McRae had seemingly fallen out of head coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation. The fanbase had grown weary of his potential, seeing his box score and determining that he had fallen out of the rotation with poor play.
While McRae did have some tough games early in the season, he’s been playing better for the last month. It’s hard for a volume shooter, which is what McRae his, to make the offensive impact that he wants if he starts off cold and gets limited playing time. McRae worked hard behind the scenes, however, and after shooting 29.8 percent from the field in the month of November, McRae upped his field goal percentage to 45.2 percent in December. He’s three-point percentage jumped from 33.3 percent in November to 46.2 percent in December. After tonight’s game, his net percentage in both categories will go up.
He was ready to start when given the opportunity. He got to the basket and converting with more efficiency than he had all season, ended the game with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field. He knocked down 3 out of his 4 three-point attempts as well, helping to space the floor well enough for the Cavs to have 48 points in the paint.
One big factor in his improvement was his intent to pass the ball early in the possession and help generate ball movement rather than taking the ball and trying to score as soon as he touched it. The latter is what he had been doing for the better part of the season.
Another player that played well was Felder. Felder also upped his field goal percentage between November and December, with his efficiency going from 38.5 percent to 45.7 percent.
Felder finished the game going 5-of-6 from the field and knocked down both of his three-point attempts. Admittedly, they were two shots that came from the corner and rattled in but shooting from NBA three-point range may not be the hardest adjustment Felder has had so far. He was already knocking in 50.0 percent of his three-point attempts before Saturday night’s game against the Hornets.
The most memorable moment for Felder came in the third quarter as he shook Kemba Walker, who was having another All-Star level performance, with a quick crossover dribble before lifting himself at the elbow and knocking in a midrange shot.
The star of the show as always was James. With 17 first-quarter points, including 3 made threes, James finished the game with 32 points on his 32nd birthday. He attacked the rim consistently as well, utilizing brute strength, finesse and explosive rim-runs to take advantage of the Charlotte Hornets inside. He chipped in 9 assists, including a beautiful pass-out to McRae at the end of the first half, and 6 rebounds. Most importantly, James kept down his turnovers. He finished with 1 turnover for the game, in large part because McRae and Felder were such a successful 1-2 combo.
Kevin Love, who is vying for his first All-Star appearance in Cleveland and who believes 2016 was the best year of his life, is playing the best basketball of his career. He finished the game with 28 points and 10 rebounds but even more important than those numbers is how he got them. Besides knocking in 4 out of his 8 three-point attempts, Love got to the line 8 times. He’s no longer the Love that tries to fit in. He’ll pass up passing the ball to an open teammate to get his own and he knocks down his shots with confidence.
In a game that should have shown the Cleveland Cavaliers that they may be jumping the gun with saying they need a backup point guard, they defeated the fourth-best team in the Eastern Conference handily without Irving in to play. The did so with McRae and Felder playing well in a nine-man rotation that didn’t include Mike Dunleavy Jr. despite the absence of Smith.
With the gunning style of the Cleveland Cavaliers young bucks, two players who can and like to score in isolation but are learning how to play with a more controlled pace, the Cavs have players that can allow Irving and James to rest. This is just one game but a promising piece of evidence that the future is bright for the Cavs and that bodes well for the present team.
The Cleveland Cavaliers young players dominated the Charlotte Hornets tonight. Does their play provide evidence that the team needs to reconsider trading for a backup point guard? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section or Twitter @KJG_NBA.