CLEVELAND — The postgame ritual of the winning team presenting a game ball to its most effective performer has never quite officially taken hold in the NBA the way it’s become a big part of the culture of the NFL. Nonetheless, LeBron James had one person in mind to single out with the honor — whether there was an actual leather sphere involved or not — after the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ 105-100 come-from-behind win over Portland on Tuesday.
“I thought Jared, the game ball definitely goes to him tonight,” James said of Jared Cunningham. “I thought he was exceptional. I mean, 34 minutes is the most he’s ever played. He told me after the game he’s never played in a late game like that where it’s a close-out game, he’s never played in a game like that. I think he accepted the challenge very well.”
Cunningham was the feel-good story of the night. The training camp invitee — who was just trying to latch on to a team in the league after four stops during his first three seasons — not only made the Cleveland roster, but he carved out a place in the rotation.
His 34 1/2 minutes against the Trail Blazers might have been a career high, but his points (7), rebounds (1) and steals (1) were all totals he eclipsed previously.
Cunningham’s appearance in the lineup to start the second half in place of Timofey Mozgov was instrumental in Cleveland erasing a nine-point deficit against the guard-dominant Blazers and blowing them out, 58-44, in the final two periods.
With Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum giving the Blazers the same type of backcourt as Washington and Golden State — the two teams that James compared them to — Cleveland flanked him with Cunningham, Matthew Dellavedova, Mo Williams and Kevin Love for most of the second half as the Cavaliers neutralized Portland’s small ball.
It was an encouraging sign that Cleveland could be so effective on the fly, and it speaks to the versatility of the players the Cavs have collected.
“We really haven’t practiced that a lot,” Cunningham said. “We [were] led by LeBron and he just took over and told us what to do, Coach told us what to do, and it worked out.”
The other side of that decision was what it all means for Mozgov. The 7-foot-1 center, for whom Cleveland traded away two future first-round picks to acquire last January, played just seven minutes Tuesday — all in the first quarter — and did not register a single statistic. Zeros across the board.
Mozgov was a huge part of the Cavs’ late-season run last year, as he allowed Cleveland to revamp its defense with a true rim protector backing up its perimeter defenders.
This season, after coming into training camp still ailing from an offseason scope of his right knee, Mozgov has been a shell of himself.
With the Cavs finding success in a small-ball lineup, there will be a temptation to ride it for as many wins as it’s worth, especially since they want to play catch-up in the standings, with their 14-7 start looking downright pedestrian compared to the Warriors’ unblemished 23-0 mark.
Burying Mozgov in the rotation more than he already has been — Tuesday was the third time in the last seven games he’s played where he logged 11 minutes or less — will only kill whatever confidence he’s struggled to manufacture up to this point.
Blatt maintains there are “no problems” physically with Mozgov and it was purely a matchup-based decision to sit him against Portland.
“We just played the lineup that we had to play in order to win that game,” Blatt said. “That’s what you got to do sometimes, and maybe it’s not exactly how you want to do it or even comfortable for somebody, but you got to play to win and you got to play the lineup that you think you can win with.”
James went even further with his support of the suddenly shrinking big man.
“He’s the anchor of our defense,” he said. “And he’s going to get back to that. He’s had a little tough stretch right now, which is OK. Everyone has tough stretches and it’s our job to help him get out of it. And it’s his job to continue to stay with the process, continue to get better, keep his head in the right place, and we will do a good job of helping him get back.”
Maybe James is right. Maybe Mozgov just needs more time to get right. But maybe with both Kyrie Irving‘s and Iman Shumpert‘s returns around the corner, Cleveland’s best choice will be to go small like they did in the second half on Tuesday and never look back.
The Cavs should be the team dictating the pace, not having the opponent bring their game to them. Starting small and springing a big lineup as a surprise on your opponents should be the norm — rather than abandoning your look from the start and scrambling to react to what the other team is dictating.