HOUSTON — Tristan Thompson believes there’s been enough time for the young Cavaliers to learn. It’s January. More than half of the season has been played. It’s time to bring those first-half-of-the-year lessons to the court.
The Cavs failed to do that on Friday night, ignoring the game plan and getting blown out by the Houston Rockets — a game in which Cleveland trailed by 44 at one point in the second half.
“Our plan was to keep it 2-on-2 on the ball. If (James) Harden and (Clint) Capela combine for over 100 points together then we will take that on the chin,” Thompson said. “But we can’t let the other guys score or be effective and clearly defensively guys weren’t in the right spots and their rotational guys were able to have good nights. That’s when they are at their best.
“Obviously have to give Harden a lot of credit for his scoring ability, but we can live with him scoring all the points as long as other guys are not contributing. We didn’t do that tonight. Didn’t do that at all.”
Harden scored 43 points on 12-of-24 from the field and 8-of-16 from 3-point range in 30 minutes. That’s 15 straight for Harden with at least 30 points. He’s terrorizing all opponents during this stretch. Cavs head coach Larry Drew called Harden unstoppable following the game. The challenge is clearly immense.
Still, every team has a choice to make before tipoff. The biggest no-no is letting him get everything.
On Friday night, Harden added 12 assists and 10 rebounds, another triple-double. Forget those stats. The most irritating number to Thompson was six — as in the amount of players who scored double figures for Houston.
If the Cavs entered the night determined to take Harden’s teammates out of the game then how did that many get going?
“How many games has it been? At this point, we’ve taught everything we can teach,” Thompson said. “Now it’s up to the players to come out there and just do their job. Do your job. Simple. Our players didn’t do their job.”
Capela scored 19. Danuel House Jr. tallied 14 on 4-of-9 from the field and 3-of-7 from beyond the arc. House was averaging just 5.3 points over the previous three games.
Austin Rivers and Brandon Knight each added 12. That’s the most Knight has scored since coming back from a significant knee injury in mid-December. P.J. Tucker poured in 10 points.
On Friday night, every member of the Rockets — all 11 that played — scored at least four points. The non-Hardens erupted for 98 points, as Houston scored a season-high 141 points.
“He’s a dynamic scorer, one of the best scorers in our league,” Thompson said of Harden. “But what makes him more dangerous is when he’s finding guys and getting other guys going. Rather have him score all the points and have the other guys be cold and not engaged in the game. That’s what we did last time. That’s what teams do. That’s what Milwaukee was doing. Had some success. Guys just didn’t follow along the game plan.”
Thompson admitted that David Nwaba’s absence was felt. In the first meeting between the two teams on Nov. 24, Nwaba guarded Harden on 50 possessions, holding him to 4-of-15 from the field.
But Nwaba thinks he’s still about a week away from returning from his ankle injury. So on Friday, that left Alec Burks matched up against Harden most often while Thompson tried to stick with Clint Capela.
Given Thompson’s comments, ones with a level of frustration attached, that would put Cedi Osman, Collin Sexton and Rodney Hood in the crosshairs.
Thompson, of course, didn’t single anyone out after the game. He hasn’t all season. Leaders don’t do that in public. Behind the scenes it’s a little different, a chance for him to pull guys aside and chat with them. But his remarks in his postgame session with reporters made it easy to connect the dots. So, too, did one moment at the start of the game.
In the first quarter, Thompson chastised Osman for failing to pick up Capela in transition. It was Thompson’s man, of course, but he was trailing the play so he pointed to Osman and shouted instructions at him, putting trust in one of his teammates to pick up the slack. The break ended in a Capela dunk, which then led to a Cavaliers timeout and a teaching moment. Thompson raised his palms and discussed the breakdown with Osman for most of the timeout.
That was just one of a handful of defensive lapses on a night the Cavaliers gave up 140 points for the second straight game.
“We just couldn’t stop them. They were raining 3’s all over the place. They were breaking us down off the dribble. Couldn’t stop them,” Head coach Larry Drew said. “They’re in a rhythm, playing very good basketball. We knew it coming in. Nothing surprising. Didn’t do a good enough job defending the 3-point line, which was a point of emphasis prior to the game.”