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Can Cavs Learn From the Houston Rockets Post Season Journey?

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May 26, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2), guard J.R. Smith (5) and forward LeBron James (23) celebrates beating the Atlanta Hawks in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

News broke out within the past 24 hours that the Cleveland Cavaliers will have to play out the rest of the 2015 NBA Finals without their star-guard, Kyrie Irving.

While it’s a devastating blow to the Cavs franchise and fans, I don’t think it’s cause for panic.

Sure, there are concerns that Cavs coach David Blatt will have to address from a rotational point-of-view, but as is with any professional sports team – when one man (or woman) goes down, it’s about everyone stepping up to the challenge and rising above whatever adversity that may come.

It’s a must do. Every team faces adversity.

Houston Rockets fans should know about this all too well.

The Cavs’ journey is almost a mirror-image of the Rockets’ journey this season in terms of taking a team that was newly-acclimated and injury-plagued, and surpassing the challenges of finding ways to win regardless.

This season was one to celebrate if you’re a Rockets fan. Despite not winning the ultimate prize of an NBA Championship, they rallied the troops and left it all on the floor.

Similarly, Irving stepped on the floor at Oracle Arena for Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals ready to leave it all on the floor.

Time and time again, we see players coming back from injuries with questions looming over whether or not they will have what it takes to perform amidst injury concerns and the pressures of playing in a championship series.

I think it’s safe to say that Irving addressed those concerns if you want to judge him strictly by the numbers.

Even if he didn’t get injured, with the stat line that he finished with in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals, no one could blame him for the loss.

Coming off the knee injury he sustained prior to the Finals, everyone wondered how productive he would be.

I’d say 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals, and two blocks would be enough to silence the critics (at least the comments being directed at Irving).

While Irving was forced to hit the showers early thanks to a misfortunate injury, there’s likely some fans and critics questioning the management of Irving’s minutes. He logged 44 minutes in Game 1 before hobbling off the court and into the locker room.

I’m not going to throw the training or coaching staff under the bus. I’m old school in the sense where if you can walk, you suit up and be ready for when your coach calls your name.

Irving did just that, and I have to commend him for not only suiting up, but giving fans and more importantly, his team – everything he’s got.

Irving tweeted this following the news of him having to shut it down for the season.

I want to thank everyone for the well wishes. Saddened by the way I had to go out but it doesn’t take… https://t.co/zXY3mtV2vg

— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) June 5, 2015

He goes on to say he gave it everything he had and has no regrets.

That’s the way every athlete should compete if you ask me.

He refers to his teammates as his brothers, and gives his teammate Matthew Dellavedova a special shout out.

Basically, the message sent to his teammates is to bear down and to keep their eye on the prize.

I can’t help but think about the infamous Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, where Willis Reed inspired his fellow Knicks to compete by suiting up and playing through a torn thigh muscle when no one expected him to play.

He only scored two buckets, but the gesture alone was more than enough to be remembered as one of the greatest playoff moments in NBA history.

It’s too early to say, but moments like Irving’s showing in Game 1 of the 2015 NBA Finals could very well go down as one of the most memorable games of his career.

How his team rallies in competition moving forward will determine what kind of series this will be down the stretch.

It all comes back to my original point: if Irving’s perseverance wasn’t enough, look at what the Rockets did for the entire 2015 NBA Playoffs, and use it as an example of what good can come from working your butt off and not worrying about anything else.

Let’s look at what the Rockets did, how the Cavs can learn from it, and what each player on the Cavs must do in order to win the series for their teammates and for the city of Cleveland.

Then, perhaps every team will take a page out of the Cavs’ book.

Next: What did the Rockets do? - PART ONE

May 23, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Jason Terry (left) and guard James Harden (right) react during the game against the Golden State Warriors in game three of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

When the Rockets found out they’d be without the services of their starting point guard Patrick Beverley, they never gave up on their playoff hopes.

Rockets head coach Kevin McHale put the ball in the hands of his two best guards and asked them to step up to the challenge.

He asked James Harden, known best for being a prolific scorer, to become more than just someone who scored at will.

He asked him to be a playmaker, and Rockets fans know all too well how that turned out down the stretch (I’m referring to his 13 turnovers in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals), but when asked to play outside of his comfort zone, Harden stepped up to the challenge.

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And, outside of that one meltdown of a performance, Harden did a rather solid job of finding his teammates while getting his own.

He also asked an aged veteran (yet seemingly ageless) Jason Terry to handle more of the ball-handling duties than he’s used to. Terry never complained to the media about the situation. He simply took it the way a mature veteran would and tried to step up to the challenge.

Given that you’ve asked two scoring guards to try and fill the void of a premiere defensive point guard like Beverley, no one would’ve been surprised if the Rockets had fallen short of what they achieved.

They gave fans a run for their money because of one critical reason: the players top to bottom on the roster stepped up and played inspiring basketball.

The stars in Dwight Howard and James Harden stepped up, posting monster numbers to keep their team afloat. And role players took turns throwing jabs at their opponent – just enough to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Next: What did the Rockets do? - PART TWO

May 19, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) dives for a loose ball against Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith (5) and forward Trevor Ariza (1) in the second half in game one of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

In the series against Golden State specifically, the Rockets went the distance, fighting until they lost in Game 7, but considering the fact that they didn’t have a complete roster, you really can’t pin their playoff exit on anything other than “what could have been if they had the rest of their team healthy.”

The Cavs don’t have time to ponder “what ifs,” but they can narrow things down to the basics.

If you look at the games the Rockets and Warriors faced off in during the WCF, the games that were close were in fact close because the Rockets did a stellar job of not giving up on any play, and they also did a decent job of taming Klay Thompson’s numbers.

Mind you, a part of it must have been due to him not finding rhythm, but the credit has to go to the Rockets’ defenders for making it hard for him to get into a comfortable rhythm.

The only way the Cavs are going to beat the Warriors is if they do something to make it difficult for Thompson to be effective.

On the flipside, Thompson cannot shy away from contact. If he can at least draw fouls and get to the line, he can score from the charity stripe all while giving the Cavs some potential foul trouble to slow the Cavs down.

Next: D12 vs. Double T

Jun 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Joe Harris (12) go for a rebound in game one of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: John G. Mabanglo-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports

And speaking of Thompson, another Thompson in the Finals worth noting is Tristan Thompson of the Cavaliers. Tristan (or as Lebron refers to him, “Double T”) has been proving to be a lucrative part of the Cavs’ success in the playoffs. In Kevin Love’s absence, Double T has been filling up the stat sheet, and often doing so without plays being called for him.

Those are coaches’ favorite players. The Joakim Noah’s of the NBA who have a knack for going after every loose ball, and effectively cleaning up a good chunk of the boards, creating extra opportunities for his respective team.

I don’t want you to think I’m getting too high on Double T’s game simply because he happens to be a fellow Canadian. I’m not comparing him to Noah in terms of value amongst NBA players. I’m simply referring to the value he brings to the Cavs in particular.

For the Rockets, it’s hard to evaluate because there was a lack of consistency if you look at stat lines and the fact that both teams ensued blowout games – giving and taking losses with big deficits.

But, if I had to peg one name as the guy who cleaned up the boards and kept possessions alive for the Rockets, it was the reincarnation of the good ol’ D12 we saw back in his days with the Orlando Magic.

I’ve always been a proponent of rewarding the big man for his efforts. If a big man is a part of a big play on the defensive end and has the heart to hustle by running the floor with his guards, I say feed the big man and let him go to work on the other end.

I’m not saying make Double T your go-to option in the paint, but when the guy plays 40+ minutes for you and only has four touches on offense, you have to ask yourself, what if Lebron saved some of his energy by taking less shots, and let Double T go to work more often? Could it have potentially led to Lebron having more legs in his shot when he took that fadaway three-point shot to ice the game?

A bonus question would be, why did Lebron even take a three-point shot when they only needed two points to win the game?

But I won’t elaborate on that aspect of analysis outside the fact that it’s been noted he’s hit game-winners from that spot in Oakland before. Perhaps he felt comfortable going to that move in that building and against that team. No need to speculate on that shot selection.

I will say that the Cavaliers do not need Lebron to score 40+ to win games unless the rest of the team doesn’t feel like showing up. In that case, the 40+ points won’t even matter. In fact, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr probably doesn’t mind it if it means the rest of the Cavs stay cold on the shooting front.

The Rockets certainly relied heavily on Harden and Howard to carry the bulk of the load, but everyone bought in to chipping in somewhere and trying to be most effective in some way or another.

The difference between what McHale had to work with and what Blatt has to work with is Blatt has the best player in the league (or second if you put Curry in front of him) and arguably the best “point forward” the game has ever seen.

Next: What the Cavs can learn - INTRO

Mar 1, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt congratulates forward James Jones (1) after a play during the second quarter against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at the Cavs’ box score following Game 1, outside of Lebron and Kyrie, the next most notable numbers come from Timofey Mozgov (17 points, seven rebounds, one block, shooting 50% from the field), and Iman Shumpert’s six points and four steals.

Now, I know the Cavs can do better than that. Again, give credit to the Warriors’ defensive schemes to force Lebron to basically do it all, but if I’m being critical of the Cavs, it’s because other guys have to step up.

There’s really no other way of putting it than this: everyone has to step up.

I’m not sure what Cavs coach Blatt does in terms of how many minutes are allocated for the guys who were DNP’s in Game 1 (Joe Harris, Brendan Haywood, Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, and Kendrick Perkins), but focusing on those who contributed in Game 1, here’s what each of the remaining Cavs must do in order to help the Cavs bring the City of Cleveland to a championship win.

Next: What the Cavs must do - PART ONE

Jun 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) guards Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova (8) during the fourth quarter in game one of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The guard play must be exceptional and nothing less.

As much as we all want to see “Della” step up to the challenge, I’m not about to ask him to match the performances of either Splash Brothers. The challenge here will be for all three guards (Matthew Dellavedova, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert) to be hard-nosed defenders with a no-quit attitude.

Something to note: Shumpert could very well be the assigned defender on the star-studded backcourt of the Warriors, taking Shumpert back to his days playing as a point guard for Georgia Tech. Smith made light of this advantage for the Cavs, but the task falls not just on one guy.

Take a page out of the Rockets’ run this year and understand you take it one game at a time, and guys are going to have to step up.

As J.R. pointed out, Shumpert may very well handle a bulk of the minutes at the point, but I can see coach Blatt stressing more attention on defense by utilizing a blend of rotations that involve flashing different defenders in front of the Warriors’ backcourt. On offense, you also have this guy named Lebron that can easily run point forward.

The key here will be to have the rotation be strong enough that they’re at least making it extremely difficult for the Warriors’ guards to get into a rhythm and get hot.

As Lebron mentioned prior to the series starting, when asked about how the Cavs will try to stop Steph Curry, Lebron answered by saying you stop him the same way you stop Lebron. You can’t.

We’re not asking this trio to stop the Splash Brothers. Simply frustrate them and don’t be the ones getting frustrated. While all three have been known to play the role of the pest fairly well when on their A-game, Shumpert and Smith have also been known to be players with a short fuse.

Up until now, Lebron and the coaching staff have done a good job of keeping those two level-headed and they’ve been entrusted to come through by rising above the very doubts that led to them joining the Cavs after their not-so-bright stint in New York with the Knicks.

At this point, it isn’t Lebron’s job to babysit these guys. He’s brought them along for the journey not because he felt bad for the guys often labelled “the misfits,” but he brought them along because he knew what they were capable of, and that alone should be enough for these guys to experience a wake-up call and find their calling.

I’ve been saying this ever since Smith and Shump arrived in Cleveland – these two guards have what it takes defensively-speaking to be lockdown defenders in this league, and they will be the combined x-factor in the series if they want to win.

If these two can get their heads on straight, the Warriors will be in for a long night each time these two teams suit up.

I’m sorry Double T. I wanted to name you the team’s x-factor simply because you’re a beast that this team so desperately needs, but I’ll get into the big men next.

Next: What the Cavs must do - PART TWO

May 14, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13), Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13), and center Timofey Mozgov (20) go for the ball during the first quarter in game six of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Tristan Thompson might not have been considered a monumental part of the Cavs’ future or success for everyone, but he’s got Lebron’s approval, and clearly he’s built up quite the season – full of positives regardless of where this team finishes at the end of the 2015 NBA Finals.

He recently turned down an offer from the Cavs, estimated in the ballpark range of $12-14 million. I believe, along with his agent, that he will likely command a higher price tag following his contributions this season.

We can worry about that later though. Right now, the focus has to be on rewarding both Double T and Timofey Mozgov for getting up and down the court. I can’t say that either of these two big men have the mold to be effective players in a run-and-gun system, but they’ve sure stepped up to the challenge well. These two have been under-utilized, more so in Double T’s case.

Mozgov’s 16 points and seven rebounds isn’t a bad stat line, but considering the fact that the Cavs gave up two first-round draft picks to get this guy, they should be getting the ball to him more often if you ask me.

He shot 50 per cent from the field off of only 10 shot attempts, and he made six of his eight free throw attempts (rather impressive for a big man). This leads me to think while fatigue will certainly play a role with him getting more touches, it will also slow the game down and allow the Cavs to play more at a pace that the Warriors might not want to play at.

I mentioned at the beginning that Double T is the type of player that will go after it whether you run plays for him or not, but the truth is, he’s not going to be effective for the Cavs shooting only four shots in a game. Also note that he didn’t have a single trip to the free throw line, so part of the reason for his lack of scoring could be due to a lack of calls made in his favor from the officials.

I say, let him pound the paint and continue to scrap for loose balls. Keep attacking the rim at will like you’re Karl Malone.

An increase of trips to the charity stripe might not result in the same percentages that Mozgov was providing, but it’ll add to the foul count for the Warriors, and thus leading to matchups that could very well favor the Cavs if the Warriors’ big men are in foul trouble.

After all, the Cavs do have one of the most versatile players to ever play this game in Lebron James. I’m sure he can find a way to beast down low and help his two big men own the painted area.

If you ask me, Double T needs to get his double-double for the Cavs to have a chance. This should translate into a big boost of confidence for everyone on the team, extra possessions off of timely rebounds, and potential kick-out situations to the shooters along the perimeter.

Next: What the Cavs must do - PART THREE

May 22, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (center) reacts during the fourth quarter in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. Cavaliers won 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

And now, the supporting cast.

James jones was the only other player to suit up for the Cavs, so in retrospect, it’s a shock how the Cavs intend on winning the series playing such a tight rotation.

I can’t see the Cavs winning without utilizing more of their bench.

James Jones is no Corey Brewer, but if you’re going to join the Lebron James bandwagon, the least you can do is play with a little more passion.

It looked like Jones was playing passive as if he was trying to preserve his legs for another tagalong season with Lebron next year. Forget next year Jones. This is likely your last chance at winning a championship, let alone playing in the NBA as a whole.

You might as well start diving for loose balls and find ways to impact the game instead of parking yourself along the three-point line (which is good for nothing other than spot-up threes and spreading the defense).

Take a page out of your teammate Mike Miller’s book. Miller would certainly be on the floor if his health was not a factor, but Miller has always been known to be as scrappy a defender as he was a prolific shooter. Maybe he’s not an All-NBA defensive team candidate, but he sure plays with a lot of heart. That’s what Jones will need if he wants to earn his pay or at least honorable mentions.

It’s really hard to give tips on how to play for the remaining players because who knows if they’ll see any PT.

The simple message to those guys: be ready, and be ready to dog it out.

Clearly, they don’t have the depth to their bench the way the Warriors or our beloved Rockets have.

But the difference is quite monumental when you’ve got a guy like Lebron on your side.

Jun 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives to the basket against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) in game one of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Really, it’s going to require an inspirational run, much like the one Rockets fans got to enjoy this season, and in the end, the only reason why anyone should count out the Cavs is if they count themselves out of contention.

Take a page out of the Rockets’ run this year and understand you take it one game at a time, and guys are going to have to step up.

The Rockets were without their starting point guard, but the Cavs are now playing without their star point guard and big man. The odds may be in favor of the Warriors to everyone except those in the Cavs’ locker room.

To Lebron and company, I believe they still have reason to laugh when the word underdog gets mentioned. They sort of have this guy named Lebron. He’s only been to the Finals for five straight years. But like Lebron said himself, who’s counting?

Give us your thoughts and predictions for what happens in this series.

By the way, what was your favorite Rockets moment in this year’s playoffs?

Next: Something Smells Foul.. Playoff Bias?

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