CLEVELAND: For all the right answers he has given lately, for all the talk of wanting to improve defensively and evolve into the greatest player in the game, Kyrie Irving had to prove it on the court.
The Cavaliers were optimistic he was listening, that he was sincere when he insisted he would take defense seriously this season. So Mike Brown spoke with him about it over the summer and then again before the start of training camp. They watched film together and found areas for Irving to improve.
Then in the second quarter of the 99-87 preseason victory Tuesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, Irving finally gave Brown the proof he wanted so desperately to see. He buzzed around the court contesting three shots on one possession and he fought a little harder to get through screens. Byron Scott asked him to do those things for two years, but Irving finally delivered.
It was only one preseason game, but Brown was so excited watching Irving’s defensive effort that he pulled the clip out and showed it to the rest of the team at halftime.
“I can’t get on a guy if he’s going to give that type of effort,” Brown said. “If he gives that type of effort, everyone else needs to fall in line. If he doesn’t, now it’s harder for me to preach my message to everybody else. … That was a heck of a play. He was just running all over the place trying to help his teammates out.”
Irving scored 14 points, he made a couple of 3-pointers, but Brown is most excited about what he saw defensively.
“I’ve preached before I have to lead on both ends of the floor and that’s what I’m going to do,” Irving said. “Not just by voice, but by example.”
He wasn’t alone. Tristan Thompson had 17 points and eight rebounds, but his biggest improvement may have been how hard he would show on pick-and-rolls. Thompson forced a couple of turnovers just by jumping out on ball handlers coming off high screens and drawing contact.
For the past three years, the Cavs were terrible at defending the pick-and-roll in part because the bigs’ effort on hard shows seemed half-hearted. They jumped out only long enough to say they did it and then quickly scurried back to their man, often getting caught in the middle of nowhere as teams routinely beat them to the basket for easy dunks and layups. It’s part of the reason they were the worst team in the league at defending the basket, allowing opponents to shoot .476.
The Cavs held a bad Bucks team to just .377 in the preseason opener and forced 24 turnovers.
It was hardly perfect, however. Brown burned through timeouts quickly, often stopping the game every time the Cavs did something defensively he didn’t like. Once it was for not getting back quick enough on the defensive end, resulting in an easy fast break for the Bucks. Once it was the way the Cavs failed to defend properly on an eventual 3-pointer for the Bucks. He even called a pair of timeouts 20 seconds apart in the second quarter when the Cavs allowed a dunk off an offensive rebound (one timeout), then surrendered another dunk when they failed to get back on a Bucks fast break (second timeout).
In fact, Brown called at least five timeouts throughout the game immediately following defensive breakdowns.
“They’ve got to understand if I use all my timeouts in the first half and we go to a mandatory [timeout] and I don’t have any and it’s a technical foul, so be it,” Brown said. “They’ve got to understand how important each possession is. We talk about the commitment to the process. This process is not weekly or monthly, it’s a play by play by play process.”
Newly signed veteran Jarrett Jack just laughed at Brown’s use of the timeouts. This is his sixth team in nine years and Jack said the only other coach he has seen burn through so many timeouts because of missed assignments defensively is the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich – which isn’t all that surprising, given how much Brown has credited Pop for his coaching style
“Especially with a young team and a team that’s learning new things and trying to grow together, that’s important,” Thompson said. “Being 30th in the league in defense, he has all the right to stop us every possession when we do make a mistake. We haven’t proven we can stop teams, so we have to break down bit by bit and correct it.”
Top overall pick Anthony Bennett had seven points and 10 rebounds, but shot 2 of 12 and struggled defensively. Brown said if he called five timeouts following defensive breakdowns, four of them involved Bennett.
Dion Waiters had 12 points and Kenny Kadji had 15 points and five rebounds — all in the second half. Kadji is in competition for the final spot on the roster.
Brown has worked the players relentlessly the last couple of days, keeping them for five hours of practice on Monday and followed it up with a three-hour shootaround Tuesday morning.
“I love every minute of it. Every six hours of it,” Irving joked. “In order to be great in this league, everyone has to buy in. Obviously we have to buy into his principles and I think we’re doing that.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.