CLEVELAND • The Cleveland Cavaliers have received a defensive boost from an unlikely source at a time they needed it most. Now that J.R. Smith could be headed back to the line-up, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue is still trying to make room for defensive weapon DeAndre Liggins.
LeBron James scored 27 points against his former team to move into ninth place on the National Basketball Association's career scoring list after the Cavaliers' 114-84 win over the Miami Heat on Friday, but it was the defensive contribution from Liggins that caught Lue's eye.
"He's done a great job for us and he's a big part of this three-game winning streak we have right now," Lue said. "His defence and his deflections, it's contagious."
Liggins started the last two games in place of the injured Smith, and while he totalled just 11 points, the Cavs (16-5) produced two of their best defensive games of the season. Two nights after Cleveland defeated the New York Knicks 126-94, they held the Heat to a season-low 34.8 per cent shooting.
Liggins kept Heat star Goran Dragic to 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting. The guard also had three blocks and two rebounds. James added eight rebounds and eight assists, and Kevin Love fought through back spasms to contribute 28 points and 15 rebounds.
"Everyone's been a part of it and his energy and his effort have been a huge part of it as well," James said of Liggins.
Derrick Williams scored 18 points and Hassan Whiteside had eight points and 12 rebounds for the Heat (7-16). Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said before the game that despite his gaudy numbers, he needed more out of Whiteside. When he did not deliver, Spoelstra benched his centre early in the third quarter.
"This league is for competitors only," he said. "I just wanted more energy, more life defending the pick and roll."
Whiteside was benched after the Cavs shot 52 per cent from the field in the first half, then opened the third quarter by scoring four of their first five baskets at the rim.
Injuries and Dwyane Wade's defection in free agency have reduced the Heat to smouldering ashes, last place in the south-east division and little hope of making the play-offs.
Udonis Haslem was a late scratch for personal reasons, wiping away the final link between James and the Heat's championship past.
There was no one on the floor in a Miami jersey whom James played with - and he left the franchise only three seasons ago.
"It does feel like a former team, but it's not many ties left besides the coaches," he said.