CHICAGO — Good thing it’s only preseason.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have more than two weeks until they open the 2021-22 campaign in Memphis. And if Tuesday night against the Chicago Bulls is any indication, they will need all 15 days — to shake off some rust, learn this new offense, create an identity, build chemistry and become a connected group. They are a long way from that.
Cleveland got crushed in Tuesday’s preseason opener, 131-95.
Looking uncomfortable and unsure on offense, the Cavs missed 13 of their first 14 shots before finishing the quarter on a flurry and cutting Chicago’s lead to six. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio — two of the expected veteran stabilizers — were at the center of the brief turnaround. Rubio orchestrated the offense and Love drained a couple quick 3-pointers. It all unraveled from there.
Cleveland’s youngsters started pressing and forcing things. Ill-advised shots. An abundance of turnovers. Sloppy, disconnected defense. Looks of bewilderment.
Prior to the game, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff spoke about wanting to see how the altered squad — with a rookie in the starting lineup, three new players in the rotation and what’s expected to be an overhauled offense that plays faster and creates more 3-pointers — looked against a quality opponent. Tuesday was a chance to put it all on film and dissect in the coming days.
There’s clearly plenty to learn.
“I wanted them to understand how difficult this league is and how hard it is to win and be good in this league and how you have to value all the small things in order to be a winner in this league,” Bickerstaff said of his message after the loss. “We talked about the grit that you have to play with when you are expected to carry a culture and carry an organization. Every night there’s targets on your back and you have to be prepared for that. It’s not an easy thing. But you have to learn and those are the choices you’re going to have to make. You have to understand people are coming at you and how do you respond when they come at you?”
In some ways, Chicago was a valuable measuring stick. The Bulls are also looking to make a playoff surge following a 31-win season and an abundance of impactful summer additions. There are technically 10 spots available in the Eastern Conference. That’s the route to the Play-In Tournament. The Bulls look like a formidable impediment to Cleveland’s goal.
Behind a pesky defense, 3-point barrage, lethal transition game ignited by the Cavaliers’ 22 miscues, the Bulls exploited Cleveland’s weaknesses and showed the value of experience. They pushed the lead to 43 points early in the second half — at a time when the regulars were still in.
It, somehow, got worse from there.
Evan Mobley, the prized No. 3 pick, started alongside Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen. Like the team, it took Mobley a while to get acclimated. Even in the preseason, there’s a different level of size, speed, length, athleticism and natural talent. Mobley learned the hard way.
His third possession ended with a travel. A couple minutes later, the 7-foot youngster had a layup attempt blocked by 6-foot-4 swingman Javonte Green. Mobley didn’t score his first basket until the 9:14 mark of the second quarter, flipping in a driving floater off Garland’s pass.
Mobley’s greatest impact came at the other end. His length, springs and instincts were apparent, helping him finish the debut with two blocks, one steal and a plethora of alterations. Mobley also tallied 10 points on 3-of-7 from the field and 4-of-4 from the foul line in 22 minutes.
“We’ve got to come out ready every single time we come out on the floor,” Mobley said, recapping his debut. “We came out a little slow. We were all jittery, first game, we’re a young team. A lot of that played a factor.”
Lauri Markkanen, another of the new additions, poured in 13 points off the bench. Acquired from the Bulls in a three-team trade with Portland and Chicago, the 24-year-old Markkanen is looking forward to a fresh start following four uneven seasons to begin his NBA career.
Sexton led all scorers with 14 points. Rubio also reached double figures, chipping in with 10 points to go with six assists and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
In all, the Cavs shot 30-of-84 (35.7%) from the field and 10-of-33 (30.3%) from long range. They had 21 assists.
This isn’t what Bickerstaff expected. Not what he wanted either. Hardly the exciting — and entertaining — style he’s been foreshadowing.
The good news: Preseason games don’t count — and there’s a chance to rebound Wednesday in Atlanta. The bad news: Pretty much everything else.
“Our guys are going to learn more, get better at what we’re asking them to do with the more reps they get,” Bickerstaff said. “We have had 10 days to do the things that we’re trying to get done. And you’re doing those things against yourself, against guys who are still learning. We are going to be continually growing and that’s what our young guys are going to have to do. They have to continue to focus every single day on how they can get better, not only individually, but at what it takes to be a good team and what it takes to lead and carry a team. Those are different things they have to continue to work on. We will do our best to help them.”
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