When Anderson Varejao doesn’t get a double-double, the Cavaliers don’t stand a chance.
That’s the story of this Cavs season, and it cannot be argued. And anyone who saw the Cavs’ 91-73 loss at Minnesota on Friday is giving a hearty amen.
Today, opponents are understandably doing something against the Cavs they’ve never really done before. Today, opponents are game-planning for Varejao.
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Stop him, they seem to say, and it’s over. Stop him, and the Cavs have zero answers.
Heck, let’s be honest. At 4-16, the Cavs don’t have much of a chance against anyone these days, Varejao or not. That’s not an insult. That’s just reality — especially if Kyrie Irving (broken finger) and Dion Waiters (sprained ankle) keep missing games.
Irving and Waiters are only in their second and first seasons, respectively. Yet Irving is averaging 22.9 points per game and Waiters 15.2. On the floor, they form a potent backcourt that can score and distribute with the best of ’em. In street clothes, they form a gaping hole that creates a major disadvantage in nearly every area.
The Cavs are a young team with a brutal early schedule. Throw in injuries, and you get — well, this. It was an NBA game, but it looked more like something the Cavs were just trying to survive. Winning, it seemed, was not really an option.
That’s where Varejao usually comes in — enabling the Cavs to keep things close and have a shot simply via pure determination. Entering Friday, Varejao had recorded 10 straight double-doubles in points and rebounds, and 10 straight games of at least 15 boards.
None of that was a big secret, at least not to the Timberwolves (9-9), who used the wide and talented frontcourt of power forward Kevin Love and center Nikola Pekovic to neutralize the Cavs’ wild man.
In the end, Varejao finished with a season-low four points (2-for-10 shooting), and 14 rebounds.
Love, on the other hand, owns the NBA record of 53 straight double-doubles. He’s also the defending All-Star weekend three-point champion. He is Mr. Inside-and-Out, a basketball Transformer who can do anything his team needs and do it very well.
His greatness was unquestionable on this night, as Love finished with 36 points, 13 rebounds and one substantial headache for the Cavaliers.
Without Irving and Waiters, and with Varejao playing like an actual human being for once, the Cavs had nowhere to turn. And goodness knows coach Byron Scott tried everything.
That included appearances from forwards Luke Walton, Samardo Samuels and even rookie Kevin Jones, who spent the first 18 games of the NBA season in the NBA D-League.
Oh, Alonzo Gee gave one of his better performances on offense with 16 points, and C.J. Miles scored 13 off the bench. But nine of those points were compiled via passing and cutting and wide-open shots. Like everyone, Gee and Miles pretty much had to try do it by themselves.
As we saw, both are certainly capable. But as we also saw, you’re not going to win too many games that way. Or any games.
The Cavs didn’t really take the ball to the basket, and when they did, they didn’t get a call (Minnesota shot 35 free throws to the Cavs’ nine). So they basically settled for jumpers, and they did it way too early in the game.
Scott angrily mentioned the free-throw disparity afterward, and you do have to wonder if the Cavs are ever going to get a fair shake from the officials.
But this goes beyond shoddy refs, or just Love being awesome.
It has more to do with the fact that without Irving, Waiters or a stellar game from Varejao, this team is toast.
Again, that’s not intended to trash the Cavs. They’re playing hard. Not always smart, but hard. But right now, they’re too young, too unlucky and too disjointed to overcome even the slightest hitch.