Despite a 15-5 run to end the 3rd quarter that gave New Orleans the lead entering the fourth, the moaning and groaning will continue for Hornets fans after watching another game slip out of reach in the fourth quarter. In a matchup between two very young (and entertaining) squads that featured the past two number one overall picks squaring off against each other, it was the Cavs who got the win over the Hornets 105-100 in Cleveland.
Essentially the Cavs won this game because of three key reasons:
1) Kyrie Irving
2) No defensive rebounding (or defense in general) for the Hornets in the fourth quarter
3) Kyrie freaking Irving
In case you didn't catch the game or my drift on the keys to the game, Kyrie Irving was absolutely spectacular tonight. Not only is he fun as hell to watch, but you suddenly feel not even a little sorry for Cleveland anymore, since they now have another superstar player to build their franchise around for the next decade. Hopefully the ending is a little happier than the finish to the LeBron era, but I don't know if you'd want anyone else under the age of 25 (he's only 20!) to build your team around.
Kyrie dropped 20 of his 35 points in the 4th quarter, and killed the Hornets down the stretch with big shot after big shot, showcasing his entire repertoire from drives to the rack to pull up threes to step-back jumpers over big men. The Cavs wrapped this one up by going 13-of-14 from the free throw line in the last 2 minutes, and ended up outscoring New Orleans 37-31 in a very high-scoring 4th quarter.
All that being said, the Hornets were in this contest from the start, and kept things close/even took the lead at various points throughout the game. The most frustrating part of this game (stop me when this sounds familiar) was Monty's rotation strategy in the 4th quarter. The young trio of Davis, Rivers, and Aminu who started the game were kept on the bench until late in the 4th quarter, with Monty going with Robin Lopez (who had a nice game as we'll get to later on), Xavier Henry and Brian Roberts instead.
While we can all appreciate the player development Monty has been responsible for with numerous guys on this team, he continues to mystify me (and from the looks of recent gamethreads, most other Hornets fans as well) with his late game strategy and his inflexibility from his "normal" game rotations.
The question is when will fans (and hopefully the front office if they want to do their job to the best of their ability) get to a breaking point with Monty if his inability to make the necessary adjustments continues to cost the team games, especially when the "final" roster Demps and Co. envision is assembled. Losing games like these is ok for now, but starting next year when playoff aspirations are no longer a bonus but an expectation, this will not float with most fans.
Onto the player breakdowns, which unfortunately will not include Eric Gordon (again) because the team is continuing their policy of not playing him in the second game of back-to-backs:
- Anthony Davis, 12 points and only 4 rebounds; Davis struggled to get his mid-range game going, and didn't take the ball to the rack as much I would've liked him to early. I felt like he had a chance to take advantage of Tristan Thompson (like Lopez did on Zeller) by getting him into foul trouble, but AD settled for a lot of jumpers, and never got into an offensive groove. I still believe the team (and especially Hornets' guards) have to get him more involved in the offense and Monty needs to draw up more plays for him. AD with the ball in his hands is a good thing-I don't want to see a box score with less than 12-15 shots next to his name the rest of his season barring foul trouble.
- Robin Lopez, 15 points, only 3 rebounds, and 6 fouls: Lopez was taking Tyler Zeller to school in the post during stretches of this game, and you have to like it when Robin recognizes an advantage on offense and exploits it. I have to admit as a doubter of his when we acquired him I have been pleasantly surprised with his contributions (primarily on offense) to this team this season, and even if he's just a place-setter for the eventual move of Davis to center he has done a nice job of carrying the offensive load for this team when Gordon is out and the guards are struggling. That being said, you can't have your 7-foot center be such a poor rebounder (he killed the Hornets in the 4th with his inabillity to grab a defensive board before he fouled out) and though it wasn't his fault, I have no idea why he was in the game late instead of Davis, who could've provided the rebounding/defense that our starting center (who should have both) could not. Lopez's lack of speed hurts the team at times, and against quick, penetrating guards like Waiters (who had a nice game) and Irving, I feel like Davis would've been a better fit out there tonight.
- Al Farouq Aminu, 4 points, 10 rebounds: After watching how Aminu has played the last month or so, I am really hoping that Demps can convince the Nigerian to come back on a Jason Smith-type deal this offseason. I still feel the team made the right move in not picking up his final option for next year, but Aminu provides some key skills (GREAT rebounder, good at deflecting passes/starting and finishing fast breaks, much improved 1-on-1 defense, and even shot selection) this team needs/will miss if he leaves. Should he be the starter at small forward long-term for the franchise? That is yet to be seen. And we could definitely use an upgrade or two at the position. But his abilities make the Hornets a threat in transition and he has been one of the most consistent players for the team in a year that has seen nothing about inconsistency from its roster and rotation.
- Austin Rivers, 11 points: I predicted before the game that Rivers would have one of his best games as a pro, and I feel like I was right on the mark. Not a great game by any means, but Austin played solid defense (which as Rohan had pointed out in past articles, he has improved at drastically over the course of the season) and probably should've played even more than he did in the 4th quarter, instead of Mason and/or Roberts. Austin loves the teardrop in the lane (aka the Tony Parker special), and is pretty good at converting it, unlike most of his attempts at the rim which make you cringe when he releases it. I still want Austin to take more threes when he gets an open look or even a little separation when the ball gets rotated to him, but that will come with repetition in practice and confidence during games. It's been really easy to pick on Austin this year (and at times justifiably so), but be patient with him guys; I think he's really starting to come around and that will only come with more and more time.
- Greivis Vasquez: 13 points, 8 assists, 4 turnovers: Not a premier Vasquez performance, but not necessarily a bad game either. Lets call it an average/slightly subpar game. As a Vasquez supported I may be a little biased here, but I feel like Greivis has spoiled fans this season with some of his performances to the point that a 13 and 8 game feels underwhelming. I liked that Vasquez looked to Davis early in the game with some nice passes at the rim that got AD to the line (where he went a perfect 8-for-8 btw) and Vasquez is so in-tune with the offense now that he knows when and where to look for Davis or Lopez in the paint; or Smith in the pick-and-pop at the elbow; or Anderson streaking up the court for the transition 3-pointer. And I really appreciate that from a point guard. Vasquez has perfected his own running teardrop off the glass, and when he knows when to pick his spots, Greivis can truly be unstoppable in the half-court. It just sucked tonight because he went up against the second-best point guard in basketball.
- Rest of the team: Ryan Anderson struggled from the floor tonight (3-for-11 from field and 1-for-4 from 3) but played the entire 4th quarter and is a threat the other team has to account for. His presence transforms the team's offense and helps spread the floor for others. I'm impressed with how the rest of Anderson's offensive game has improved as well, as he looks a lot smoother driving/spinning to the whole, which he looks comfortable doing now. Jason Smith had a very Jason Smith-ish game, adding 12 points and 6 boards in only 20 minutes of play. Love Smitty's hustle/blitzes on defense (especially in pick and roll), how he always streaks to the rim when he comes down the court, how he sets really solid screens for his guards and how confident his 18-footer looks when he releases it. This dude is our Nick Collison, I hope we can hang onto him for hte rest of his career. Roger Mason had a decent game, but I have no idea why he played 20 minutes. 10 to 15 minutes is all I want to see from Mason in the box score, unless he's so hot from downtown Monty can't afford to take him out (ala the Charlotte game when Gordon made his debut). And for the 415th time, I have NO idea why Roberts and Henry continue to see time. At all. Period. Why are they playing (at all)?? Let alone extended minutes in the 4th quarter of a close game on national television?? Infuriating Monty, just hair-pulling stuff at this point. Roberts had a couple nice buckets and poured in 17 points for the team, but he cannot run this team in the half-court, is atrocious on defense, and is usually looking for his shot anyway. If I never see either of these guys play again, I can die a happy Hornets fan.
The team as whole played well, and the game itself was entertaining, which is more than I can say for the last time New Orleans was on ESPN (the 77-62 drubbing at the hands of the Sixers). Dion Waiters had a nice game for Cleveland, and his ability to fill it up is justifying Chris Grant's decision to draft him 4th overall last summer. His game is a little similar to Irving's, but its still not a bad backcourt combo to have going forward. I was not that impressed with Tristan Thompson, and although he grabbed 13 rebounds I feel that if Davis had gotten more run/more touches, he could've had a bigger impact on the game.
The biggest point to harp on this game though continues to be the rotation decisions Monty is making with this team, especially in the 4th quarter. It is a serious issue which could hold back this team going forward, and made all the more unnerving by the fact that Williams was handed a contract extension during the season. I have been a Monty supporter throughout his tenure on the Hornets bench and feel his still has time to improve as a coach. But there comes a point where the coach's (negative) impact on a team can hinder a team's ability to be successful, and we can only hope Monty shows the same growth as a strategist that his players have shown on the court during his time in charge.