The tickets that fans bought for Wednesday night’s game in Memphis promised a matchup between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Grizzlies. And the paying customers did indeed get to see a game between the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies.
What they didn’t get to see were the Cavs’ three best players: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. That was great news for fans of Cleveland role players like Mike Dunleavy and DeAndre Liggins, but perhaps not for most of those in attendance.
After Tuesday night’s game between the teams in Cleveland, Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue announced that his big three would not play in the rematch the next night, in his team’s only trip of the season to Memphis. Lue said he believed that James would benefit from skipping a second game in two nights. Love had a slightly stiff back. Irving missed the first game with the Grizzlies, but General Manager David Griffin told Cleveland.com: “Kyrie is totally healthy. Ty just felt it was the best way to prepare for the upcoming stretch the rest of the month.”
“I do whatever my coach asks me to do,” James said Tuesday of the decision. “My coach wants me to rest, I don’t buck my coach.”
Cleveland left an awful lot of firepower at home for Wednesday’s game. The three stars are averaging a total of 71 points, 21 rebounds and 15 assists game: 64 percent, 48 percent and 70 percent of the Cavs’ output.
With the announcement of the three players’ absence, the expectations for the game shifted drastically. In ordinary circumstances, Cleveland might have expected to be a 6- to 8-point favorite, even on the road. Instead, the Grizzlies were favored by 7½.
The game was never really close. The depleted Cavaliers scored only 16 points in the first quarter and had to rally in garbage time just to post a respectable 93-85 loss.
Cleveland was led by 15 from James Jones, who pulled his season average up to 3.7 a game. Its second leading scorer was Kay Felder, with 14. (Not familiar with Kay Felder? He’s a 5-foot-9 rookie.)
Even the biggest name left in a Cavs uniform disappointed. The long-range gunner J. R. Smith, who averages seven 3-point attempts a game, took only three — and missed them all.
Attendance for the game was reported at 17,449, 96 percent of capacity.
It was just the second game of the season missed by James and Irving, and the first by Love.
What a difference from Tuesday night’s game. The Cavaliers won that one, 103-86. Love had 29 points and James 23.
Coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs has been the innovator of the tactic of resting important players in the regular season, even in big games. Players like Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan, now retired, were given the occasional break to help pace them through the long season.
If the trend continues to spread, fans may become a little disgruntled at paying full price but missing out on seeing big names.
Coach Lue explained why he didn’t have at least one of his three stars play: “It will be hard to go down and travel, and to ask one person to try to carry the team.” If you’re going to lose anyway, why not rest as many important players as possible?
It’s hard not to see the logic. The 82-game regular season is long and tiring, and a single game does not mean all that much. The Cavs are still 18-6 and on track to have the best record in the East.
Coaches and many players say they hate games on consecutive nights. And the new collective bargaining agreement will reduce those games.
Until then, N.B.A. tickets should perhaps come with a warning: “Understudies may substitute for stars.”