CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cavaliers head coach Larry Drew changed his starting lineup once again Sunday afternoon, the 12th different group he has tried during an injury-filled season.
The change didn’t work. The five starters played a significant role in Cleveland’s 128-105 loss against the Philadelphia Sixers.
Tristan Thompson’s foot injury combined with Joel Embiid’s size led to the new quintet, with Drew believing he needed the bulk of Ante Zizic in this particular matchup. This is not the first time Drew has spoken about his concern with Larry Nance Jr. not being able to handle the bigger centers.
On Wednesday, Drew was worried about New York’s Enes Kanter. Friday, it was Milwaukee 7-footer Brook Lopez. Both times, Drew went with veteran Channing Frye instead of Nance. On Sunday, it was little-used Zizic getting the surprise promotion.
Zizic struggled, finishing with seven points and two rebounds in 17 mostly-unsuccessful minutes. Rodney Hood got into early foul trouble before rallying to finish with 13 points on 5-of-9 shooting. Collin Sexton struggled defensively and cooled off after a fiery start. Sexton tallied 12 points, with just four coming in the final three quarters. Alec Burks had another forgettable game as a starter.
In all, the Cavs’ starters were outscored 90-55. None of the five finished with a positive point differential. Not even Cedi Osman, who poured in 18 points.
“Defensively I need them to be more sound,” Drew said when asked after the game what he needs from his starters. “We have not been a sound defensive ball club at the start of the game and have not brought the type of physicality that I think a starting team should bring at the very beginning of the game. Your bench is supposed to bring energy, defense and if that starting group is not going good, they are supposed to kind of pick up the pace.”
The bench did its job. Each time the Cavs cut into Philadelphia’s lead, which happened a few different times throughout, it was the reserves sparking the turnaround.
Many teams are going to struggle against the Sixers’ loaded starters. But this has become a nasty trend that could force Drew into yet another lineup change.
“We have an energized bench and I love that about those guys, but our starters, we have to get more of an aggression out of them,” Drew said. “Have to be much more physical, much more aggressive and they have to move the basketball. When the ball sticks that’s when we get in trouble. With our team, margin for error is small. We have to accept that. We have to do all the little things because they sum up to be big things for our ball club and that’s just who we have to be.”
Osman played well on Sunday. But the Cavs are starting to wonder whether he is more suited to come off the bench, where not nearly as much is expected of him and he can spend a bulk of his minutes against other backups.
Burks hasn’t looked nearly as comfortable as a starter, failing to reach double figures in scoring for the third time in the last four games since his role changed.
At the start of this week, Drew kept raving about the combination of Jordan Clarkson and Burks, wanting to play both of those guys together because of how their games blend. Injuries have disrupted that plan and Drew pushed Burks into the starting group out of necessity.
“I really want to get back to the way it was,” Drew said. “We can’t do that until physically we are ready to move forward with a couple of guys getting back. I really thought with both Alec and JC and the way they were playing off each other, I thought we found something and I definitely want to get back to that eventually. Until we get everybody back or a couple more guys back we will just have to keep going the way we’re going.”
On Sunday, the lack of consistent production from the starting unit once again put too much pressure on the backups.
The reserves — led by Clarkson, Matthew Dellavedova, Nance and David Nwaba — helped rally the team from a sluggish start, even pushing the Cavs in front to a seven-point lead at the end of the first quarter. That same core was responsible for another late surge to pull within four heading into the fourth.
Cleveland’s bench combined for 50 points, outscoring Philadelphia’s reserves by 12.
But the Cavs couldn’t sustain that same effort in the fourth quarter and the Sixers pulled away late.
“Really thought the team wore us down a little bit,” Drew said. “We were trying to mix up some defenses, particularly when Embiid was in the game. Just so big and it’s a tough matchup for any of our guys. We tried to mix some things up. When we missed shots or took bad shots they made shots. It was just one of those situations. I thought our guys, we played hard. Stretches we could have been better. But margin for error in this game was very small for us.”
Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons recorded a triple-double, scoring 22 points to go with 14 assists and 11 rebounds. Embiid, the player who forced Drew to adjust, had 24 points and nine rebounds. Jimmy Butler added 19 points, making 6-of-10 field goals. Butler returned to the lineup after missing the past two games, both losses, with a groin strain.
All five of Philadelphia’s starters reached double figures, as the Cavs had few answers on the defensive end.
Drew spoke earlier Sunday about the challenge of this rebuilding season. He’s leaned on a few coaching friends to get through it. He’s even tried a variety of different lineup combinations and will keep mixing. But coaches have to play the cards they are dealt.
Thompson being sidelined didn’t help on a day Embiid came to Cleveland. Otherwise, Zizic probably wouldn’t have played. Nwaba on a minutes restriction has forced some more shuffling and the Cavs still can’t use him as much as they would like.
Drew recognizes he needs more from his team at the start of games. But figuring out how that’s going to happen with two — maybe three — starters missing or limited is a much harder question, one that may not even have an answer.
Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand.
The Cavaliers will open a three-game road trip against the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday night.