The Cleveland Cavaliers found a good way to lose a game on Thursday night in Houston.
Hear us out. Yes, the Cavaliers dropped to 5-7 on the season as James Harden cut loose for 35 points and a triple-double, running riot against a defense that has struggled to contain far worse players than Harden this season. Eleventh in the Eastern Conference isn’t a good look for a team with championship-contending ambitions, although the season is only 12 games old and there are a clutch of middling teams sitting between the Cavaliers and the Wizards in fifth.
And there is still too much reliance on LeBron James. James was everywhere again against the Rockets, at one moment playing point guard, at another scoring from the post, rebounding, shot-blocking, on the floor fighting for loose balls… The sight of Isaiah Thomas exhorting from the sideline in civvies only seemed to reinforce the feeling that this is James’s team, for the foreseeable future. James had 33 points, four rebounds and seven assists in a monstrous 40 minutes, despite appearing to tweak an ankle early on. Right now, though, coach Tyronn Lue has to play the NBA’s best player into the ground as his team seeks to make up early ground ceded to Kyrie Irving’s Celtics, especially. That means putting up with James turning the ball over, too—he did so nine times on Thursday, which is understandable and logical when he is having to shoulder so much of the offensive burden.
For all their ongoing struggles, though, there were chinks of light in the darkness at Toyota Center. Despite Harden’s brilliance, particularly from three-point range (he faded in the fourth quarter, however), the Cavaliers pushed a Western Conference powerhouse really hard. They trailed at one stage by 18 points, and occasionally made the slick Rockets' ball-handlers appear rushed and sloppy in possession. Losing by four points to a team that may well emerge out of the West as the second seed is nothing to be ashamed of.
And then there is Jeff Green. Green, the 31-year-old former first-round pick who missed the 2011-12 season with a heart condition and has bounced around the NBA since leaving the Celtics in 2015, shone against the Rockets with 27 points, second on the team only to James. Green was excellent off the bench in Houston but he has been good all season long. Fearthesword, the Cavaliers blog, pointed out on November 7 that Green is averaging a career-high 10.1 points per game while shooting 48.6 percent from the field. “The Cavaliers don’t move. There hasn’t been a sign that they want to move. Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder—none of them have been willing to move without the ball how Green has,” Zak Geoghegan wrote, elucidating Green’s ability to drive to the basket.
Geoghegan also makes the salient point that Green’s standout play is an issue for the Cavaliers. “I would argue that Green is as average an NBA player as they come,” he writes. Until Love, Rose, Wade and the Cavaliers’ starry supporting cast for James start backing him up consistently though, Green’s unexpected excellence may be a good problem for Lue to have.