PHOENIX: The longest road trip of the season is grinding down the Cavaliers, but it has nothing to do with the travel. Less than two weeks into the season, injuries are already beginning to pile up.
Anderson Varejao returned to practice Thursday and is expected to play in tonight’s game against the Phoenix Suns, but Dion Waiters is limping with a deep thigh bruise and is questionable.
Kyrie Irving and C.J. Miles also missed practice Thursday with food poisoning they contracted at the team hotel in San Francisco. Irving is expected to play after muddling through Wednesday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors despite feeling awful. Miles also played Wednesday, but was back at the team hotel on Thursday under the supervision of doctors.
The wild card among the injuries is Tyler Zeller, who remains in Cleveland after fracturing a cheekbone and suffering a concussion in Monday’s game in Los Angeles. Cavs coach Byron Scott didn’t rule out Zeller returning to the court today, but Sunday’s game in Oklahoma City remains a little more realistic timeline. The mask Zeller must wear isn’t ready yet and he still has to be cleared by league doctors from the concussion before he can return to the court.
Waiters was hobbling around the locker room after Wednesday’s loss and couldn’t put any weight on the leg. He’ll likely be a game-time decision.
With so many guys missing and wounded, the Cavs held an extended film session before Thursday’s practice. Scott showed nearly an hour’s worth of film, then quizzed the players to make sure they understand the team’s defensive principles. Everyone got all the answers right, Scott said, “so that means there’s no excuse not to do them on the basketball court.”
Opponents are shooting 51 percent against the Cavs, easily the worst mark in the league. The 102.2 points they’re giving up are sixth most.
“I don’t think any of us want to be the worst defensive team in the league,” Scott said. “We’ve got too much talent for that.”
Of course, playing better defensively is much easier with Varejao in the lineup. He said the knee is feeling better and he expects to play against the Suns. Missing Wednesday’s game allowed him a different vantage point to see what is wrong with the defense. The Warriors shot 54 percent against the Cavs.
“We definitely played hard, but we didn’t play smart,” Varejao said. “[The Warriors] were able to walk into shots and feel comfortable, that’s on us as a defense. We’ve got to pressure guys and get them out of their comfort zone.”
The players and Scott agree the biggest issue on defense is the lack of communication. This is now the third consecutive season Scott has been harping on that, yet there seems to be little improvement.
“When the game gets away from us, our guys don’t know yet how to really come together,” Scott said. “They seem to almost drift apart when it really, really gets tough. That’s something we have to continue to try to overcome.”
The cure for that, he said, is communication on the court and during timeouts.
“When we’re in a huddle [during a timeout] and they’re on the bench, they should be talking about what’s going on,” Scott said. “They should be holding each other accountable. Then when I come to the bench, a lot of that stuff should already be solved between them.
“When we get to that point, then I know as a coach we’re starting to grow and understand what it takes to be successful at that end of the floor.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.