5 things: Cavs outlast Clips in shootout

The Clippers stared into the eyes of the Eastern Conference version of themselves on Friday night.

The Cleveland Cavaliers — if you throw out their 1-8 record without superstar LeBron James — have had an oddly similar season to the Clippers. 

Both teams were lauded with lofty preseason expectations — they were Finals favorites, depending on where you looked — but have yet to live up to them. 

The Clips and Cavs have also failed to cultivate defensive identities, largely because of their limited personnel on that end, and generally rely on their otherworldly offensive firepower to wear down opponents.

That was the case on Friday night, as neither team could seemingly muster consecutive possessions of sound defense, yet both scored with relative ease. The Cavs ultimately prevailed, 126-121, as the Clippers (26-14) dropped another winnable home game in the newly acquired guard Austin Rivers’ debut.

"We could not get stops," Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. "They scored 7 times in a row one time. That makes it hard for us to get a rhythm."

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The Cavs ultimately caught fire at the right moments in the fourth quarter, withstanding a furious Clippers rally, and Cavs stars Kyrie Irving and LeBron James (69 combined points) outperformed Blake Griffin and Chris Paul (49 combined points).

"They made a lot of shots," Doc Rivers said, "but we can also be a better defensive team than that."

Here are five takeaways from tonight’s game:

The first impression

Analysis of the biggest pre-game story: Austin Rivers underwhelmed in his first game as a Clipper, to say the least. "He struggled tonight, clearly," Doc Rivers said. Austin Rivers added: "I just felt too tentative tonight. I was trying to fit in instead of just playing." Austin Rivers never found his groove offensively, and struggled keeping up with Irving defensively. He finished 0-for-4, with a couple bad misses, and generally played within the team’s schemes on both ends — almost to his detriment. It’s difficult to play worse than Jordan Farmar was playing, but Austin Rivers’ first game was awful.

Can’t keep up with Kyrie

For the first time this season, an opposing point guard scored 30-plus points against the Clippers. Paul — an All-NBA defender for most of his career — normally locks down opposing floor generals to well below their season averages, but had trouble keeping up with the nifty ball-handling and quick footwork of Kyrie Irving (37 points, 12-of-18 shooting). Irving split traps out of pick and rolls, crossed over defenders, and sliced his way to the rim rather effortlessly, where his deft touch usually led to a basket, foul or assist. Paul’s athleticism has noticeably declined this season, and his off-night against Irving further supports that notion.

Watch the throne

The primary challenge for the Clippers’ defense this season has been containing penetration, especially against elite wing scorers. LeBron James fits the prototype of the oversize small forward that gives L.A. fits — if we’re being honest, no team can really "guard" LeBron — and despite solid efforts from Matt Barnes, Griffin and Dahntay Jones, LeBron pretty much had his way against the Clippers’ defense late in the game. Doc Rivers’ odd decision to bench DeAndre Jordan over the game’s final minutes proved costly, as James was able to attack and find open teammates without much resistance.

Basketball at its finest

Despite the disappointing outcome — at least from a Clippers perspective — tonight’s game was as beautiful of an offensive performances as you’ll see. Irving’s dancing with the ball, LeBron’s bulldozing drives, Griffin’s post moves, Paul’s meticulous decision-making — it was a true joy to watch. There wasn’t much defense, and the flow of the game was mucked up towards the end of the third quarter, when the Cavs resorted to intentionally fouling DeAndre Jordan. But otherwise, this was one of the better games of the season.

As it stands…

At the midway point of the season, the Clippers continue to be the most confusing team in basketball. In some games — most recently in Portland, and then against Golden State on Christmas — they look like the best team in the West. In others, they look like a team primed for an embarrassing first-round exit. Tonight was somewhere in the middle, and that’s not a surprise; the Clips are all over the place. Their bench continues to be a major minus, quite possibly devolving into the worst among West playoff hopefuls. Things aren’t as bad as they may seem at times, but there is cause for concern.