If it wasn’t clear already, it is going to be hard for the Cleveland Cavaliers to win games without Kyrie Irving. Sure the Cavs played tough on a three-game road trip, playing the likes of Miami and Memphis down to the wire, but they could not quite close out those two teams. After that road trip, the Cavaliers came back to Quicken Loans Arena to play the Phoenix Suns, a team not too different from Cleveland in terms of talent level. But, alas, the Cavaliers lost more decisively than they did at any point on the road trip, losing to the Suns 91-78 even with Anderson Varejao putting up 20 points and 18 rebounds. Tonight is another chance for the Cavaliers to steal a game without Irving available, as they take on the Atlanta Hawks at home. Tip off is at 7:30, live on Fox Sports Time Ohio. As usual, the game will also be available on WTAM 1100.
Before we dive into the preview, let’s talk about Varejao. Right now, I don’t think there is a better center in the Eastern Conference or possibly the entire NBA right now. Coach Byron Scott said after the Phoenix game that, “Anderson Varejao was fantastic. Everyone else sucked tonight,” as well as, “He’s the best center in the NBA right now. By far the best in the Eastern Conference.” I could not agree with this assessment more, and if you want to read more, make sure you check out Zak’s Kolesar excellent take on the matter.
Now, let’s talk about tonight’s game. Atlanta, much to my surprise, currently stands at 9-4. After losing Joe Johnson, arguably their best scorer, I had my doubts that that they would be any good this season. Sure Al Horford is a nice piece, but do you see any stars on this roster? I sure don’t. I see a lot of solid guys who can put quality numbers up, but no one that really is the bona fide superstar you need to seriously contend. And to be frank, Johnson wasn’t really that type of player either. He’s phenomenal, no doubt – just not quite a star.
What this Hawks team does best is play defense, as they only allow 92.0 points per game, good for fourth in the NBA. Offensively, they are very balanced. They have five players (Horford, Josh Smith, Lou Williams, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver) that score in double figures. Horford leads that group with a 16.0 scoring average, with Smith coming in second at 15.3 points per game. Tonight, Korver will be out with injury, and that is good news for Cleveland. For a long time one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA, the elimination of Korver will make Atlanta a lot easier to defend.
The key for Cleveland is making this game as ugly as possible. The Hawks aren’t a good rebounding team (they only pull down 40.2 boards per game, good for 24th in the NBA), and that gives the Cavaliers a golden opportunity to steal this game. Cleveland is only slightly better (averaging 41.2, good for 17th in the NBA), but they do have the aforementioned Varejao. If he can have another out-of-his-mind game, coupled with quality time from Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson, then the Cavaliers can win this game. Plus, Daniel “Boobie” Gibson is expected back tonight, meaning the bench will have its best player back. This game may not be pretty, but the Cavaliers can definitely win a game against Atlanta.