CLEVELAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers fell in new coach Tyronn Lue's debut but have since captured three in a row playing a more up-tempo style that features plenty of ball movement.
The clash with the San Antonio Spurs at the Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday (ABC, 8:30 ET) marks Lue's first matchup against a legitimate championship contender since being named head coach.
NBA reporters Dave McMenamin and Michael C. Wright discuss the teams:
McMenamin: What's the deal with Tim Duncan sitting out? Is this normal Gregg Popovich stuff -- looking out for Tim for the long haul -- or is there something more behind it?
Wright: I think it's a little of both, Dave. Look, last week the team held out Duncan against the Phoenix Suns. Then he returned to action the following night against the Los Angeles Lakers, before the team decided to hold Duncan out Monday at Golden State. At first I thought there was a little chicanery on Popovich's part. But when San Antonio came back home on Wednesday to host the Houston Rockets and Popovich decided to hold out Duncan again, I knew something way more serious was going on.
Popovich said Duncan has undergone an MRI on that sore knee, but he declined to divulge what the doctors found. Popovich also wouldn't put a timetable on Duncan's return, saying simply that he'll be back "when he's ready." I really think the Spurs are being proactive with Duncan's situation, and they're trying to handle it now as opposed to letting him continue to play, which could potentially jeopardize his availability for the end of the regular season and the playoffs.
You know the cliché about adversity potentially galvanizing teams. What's the atmosphere surrounding the Cavs after the firing of David Blatt and the promotion of Tyronn Lue now that we're a few games in since the change?
McMenamin: Things were understandably shaken up a bit. As Brian Windhorst and I tried to capture, the Blatt firing was a long time coming, but that doesn't mean there wasn't a bit of shock involved. GM David Griffin didn't want the Cavs to have Blatt to use as an excuse should they fall short of their championship goal at season's end. Now the stakes are raised. The atmosphere almost feels like the beginning of last season again, where every little thing is being scrutinized.
Only, instead of being 19-20, the Cavs remain in first place in the East and have that Finals experience under their belt. So the scrutiny has a layer of curiosity and hopefulness behind it rather than doubt and judgment. Their loss to Chicago was an inauspicious start to the Lue regime, but the three wins that followed showed glimpses of the connective tissue the team had been lacking. Too soon to call it an inarguable successful swap on the sidelines, but there's reason for optimism. What did you make of that 30-point loss to the Warriors? What does it mean in the grand scheme of things for the Spurs?
Wright: It was just one game. I didn't put a ton of stock in what happened, but no doubt about it, the Warriors brought the Spurs back down to earth, and I think that was a good thing. I thought it was a wake-up call for a few guys, especially LaMarcus Aldridge, who was awful against Golden State. After that devastating loss, Popovich gathered the squad at the facilities and they embarked on a long, instructional film session.
Danny Green said they noticed quite a few things on tape that should help the Spurs over the long haul and in future matchups with the Warriors. Coincidentally, Green went out against the Rockets and nailed 6 of 8 3-pointers for a season-high 18 points. Anyway, the Spurs and Warriors face each other three more times this season, and I believe they need to use each of those matchups to learn as much as possible about their potential foe in the Western Conference finals, should the teams advance that far.
How is LeBron James handling this perception that he's a coach killer? Is that a fair conclusion?
McMenamin: He doesn't like it -- at all. When questions arose about it, James was trapped. At first he said he didn't care what other people said about him. But the perception persisted that he was behind the decision. So in addressing it, he pointed out that of course he shared his knowledge of the game, but that wasn't meant to undermine Blatt. That led to people not only calling him a coach killer but also an arrogant coach killer. He can't win with this one. I think he plans to let his game and his team's play to do the talking for him from here on out.
The fact is Blatt was hired to coach Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett, not to try to lead James, Irving, Kevin Love & Co. on a championship-or-bust mission. Was James the easiest guy to coach? No. But did he single-handedly sabotage Blatt? Of course not. It was just a poor match. I look at it like this: Say you had foot pain and you went to see a pediatrician rather than a podiatrist. The pediatrician, with his or her background in medicine, would perhaps be able to provide some sort of diagnosis. But wouldn't you want the expert? This experienced Cavs group needed an expert, not an NBA newbie.
So -- Aldridge, an All-Star. Here's a what-if for you: What if he had gone to Phoenix instead? Are the Spurs still a legit contender? Or would things look a lot different?
Wright: Dave, that's a good one. Aldridge is coming off an outing in which he scored a game-high 25 points on 9-of-13 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and five assists. But for Aldridge, that was just his third game in which he scored 25 points and posted 10 rebounds. Let's not forget that he produced 18 such games last season as a Portland Trail Blazer. But I don't think Aldridge's true value to the Spurs lies in what he does offensively. I think, surprisingly, it is Aldridge's abilities as a defender that have helped the Spurs the most.
Popovich and the rest of the Spurs have been pleasantly surprised by Aldridge's defense because obviously when he joined the Spurs, everyone knew the power forward was a scorer. I honestly don't believe the Spurs are a serious contender without Aldridge in the mix. Paired with a healthy Duncan, Aldridge is a major part of everything the Spurs do defensively. Aldridge moves quickly in the team's rotations and is versatile enough to guard smaller guys on occasion. He also possesses an uncanny ability to alter shots, which has allowed the Spurs to hold opponents to such low shooting percentages.
The Cavaliers are looking very Spur-ish of late with all the ball movement. What went into the change in philosophy, and how is everybody responding to it?
McMenamin: I'm not quite ready to put them up there with a team that moves the ball like a shyster running a shell game on the subway platform, but Lue is certainly placing an emphasis on pace and passing. The idea is to get the team off and running so there is more time left on the shot clock when it begins its offensive possession. That way, the Cavs have time to swing the ball from side to side and get into a secondary option with the defense compromised, rather than be stuck needing a one-on-one situation to bail them out before the shot clock expires.
Not to mention, more possessions means more shots, and that's one way to engage a roster that had become somewhat fractured over its distribution of touches. Ideally, playing an accelerated style gets the Cavs jumping all over their opponents early. And building those leads will allow them to play a free-wheeling, open-court game more often, bringing back the joy of it all instead of playing so many grind-it-out affairs with the pressure building with each possession of a close game trying to fend off threat after threat as the team with the bull's-eye on its back.