The Cleveland Cavaliers made their return to the Schottenstein Center for the third straight year to play host to the Memphis Grizzlies in a preseason contest, which resulted in a 91-81 victory for Memphis.
Small forward LeBron James led the way for the Cavs with 14 points, while Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph matched that number for Memphis.
Here are five observations from The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz after Monday’s exhibition.
Experimental lineup combos
With three usual starters in point guard Kyrie Irving, shooting guard J.R. Smith and power forward Kevin Love held out on Monday due to injuries, as well as backup point guard Mo Williams (rest) and power forward Tristan Thompson (contract holdout) absent, Cavs coach David Blatt had to insert some unfamiliar lineups.
Joining James and center Timofey Mozgov in the starting five were point guard Matthew Dellavedova, shooting guard Richard Jefferson and power forward Anderson Varejao.
Blatt said after the game that the big man pairing of Mozgov and Varejao didn’t show great results, but he finds it an intriguing concept in the future.
“It wasn’t as effective tonight as I had hoped, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Blatt said. “They played against two really good players (in the Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol and Randolph) … it wasn’t easy for them, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t use (the combination) going forward.”
Other interesting lineup combinations, such as Mozgov and fellow Russian big man Sasha Kaun in the game together, were on display throughout the contest.
James said after the game that the preseason is as much about finding what works individually and collectively as mirroring actual game situations.
“I think it’s both,” James said. “You want to try to work on you as an individual as well, but in a team aspect of things. If we continue to do that, then we’ll be fine.”
Varejao started for the Wine and Gold on Monday night and logged a preseason-high 21 minutes, while collecting seven rebounds, six points and four assists.
Varejao, who is the only remaining player on the Cavs roster to have been teammates with James during his first tenure in Cleveland, has battled injuries for the past five seasons but is finally back healthy.
The energy that has made Varejao a fan favorite throughout his entire 11-year career in Cleveland was on display early on at the Schott.
On the game’s first possession, the 33-year-old Brazilian stole an errant pass and embarked on a fast break. Varejao took it the length of the floor before drawing a foul from Memphis’ Marc Gasol. He then stepped to the line and hit both free throws for the game’s first points.
With the cloudiness around Thompson’s contract and Love’s health, Varejao looks to see extended minutes early on in the season. His performance on Monday, as well as in the other two preseason games, are positive signs for the Cavalier frontcourt.
The preseason stands as an opportunity for several players — the majority of whom will end up on another team, in the D-League or playing overseas.
That is no different for the seven training camp invites looking to find a stray spot or two on the bottom of the Cavs’ roster.
Of the seven, only two — point guard Quinn Cook and combo guard Jared Cunningham — received minutes in the first three quarters of the game.
With the rostered players resting in the fourth, forward Austin Daye got a chance to showcase his abilities and played well with seven points on 2-of-3 shooting in eight minutes.
Daye said a player in his position has nothing to do but wait for his moment.
“It’s not really frustrating,” he said. “I kind of knew the situation tonight because of lineups and stuff like that.
“I’m just being patient, just trying to make an impact right when I get in the game, and I’ve been able to do that, so I just hope they can see that.”
Cunningham, who turned heads after scoring 31 points in the Cavs’ previous preseason game, turned heads again on Monday by scoring 13 points and racking up four steals. He electrified the Schottenstein Center with two powerful dunks in the second half.
“I think he’s been great,” James said. “He’s been doing everything that coaches have asked of him. He’s been very aggressive, not on the offensive end but more importantly defensively. It’s great to have him around so far.”
Cook, the other non-rostered player to find minutes in the game, scored five points and added two assists and two rebounds in 18 minutes.
LeBron fires up Columbus
For the second straight year, James returned to Ohio State — a school he didn’t attend, as he jumped straight from high school to the professional ranks, but has publically supported throughout his career.
The Akron native received a huge ovation from the crowd throughout the contest, in which he scored 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting. He also added three assists and three steals, but did not grab a rebound and had four turnovers in 26 minutes.
After the game, James said he always enjoys taking his talents to other parts of the state that he has lived his entire life in sans four seasons in Miami from 2010-2014. Before Monday night’s game, the Cavs opened their preseason in Cincinnati.
“It was fun. These fans are always great to us,” James said.
A belated homecoming
OSU’s Homecoming weekend wrapped up on Sunday, but there was one more to be had on Monday.
Former OSU star and now Memphis point guard Mike Conley Jr. made his return to Columbus, exactly eight years, seven months and 17 days since his last game at the Schott.
In that game, on Feb. 25, 2007, Conley lifted the then-top ranked Buckeyes to a 49-48 victory over Wisconsin when he hit a game-winning runner inside the paint. He finished the game with 11 points, four assists and six boards.
Conley, alongside fellow then-freshman Greg Oden, guided OSU to a national title game appearance before falling to the Florida Gators in 2007.
On Monday, the former fourth-overall selection tallied just four points, but dished out nine assists and corralled four boards in 26 minutes.
Conley said it was a nice feeling to be back in a city he called home for one year, adding that he enjoyed hearing the Cavalier-centered crowd’s cheer when his name was called during the starting lineups.
“It felt good just to see the crowd, and when you look down at the court and look at something familiar,” he said. “It was cool to see the response that the crowd gave me during the starting lineup. So, it was just a fun environment.”
Memphis was only in Ohio’s capital city for one day, but Conley said he tried to visit old places and faces.
“Over the 24 hours I’ve been everywhere and driven around,” he said. “It’s hard to focus but it was a fun experience for me to have my family and my friend and some old teammates.”