CLEVELAND -- Dispatching the Cleveland Cavaliers’ junior varsity team on your home court is one thing.
Beating the Cavaliers with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and doing it at Quicken Loans Arena, is quite another.
After demolishing a Cleveland team without James, Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith, Heat players openly regard Monday’s game as something of a measuring stick against the Eastern Conference’s best team.
Though Love and Smith remain sidelined with injuries, James and Irving are expected back Monday after being given the night off on Saturday, an approach designed to preserve their bodies for the playoffs.
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“We want to measure ourselves and see where we're at against the best,” guard Tyler Johnson said after Miami’s 120-92 rout on Saturday. “We're looking forward to Monday. They will bring their A game. They’re the top team in the league for a reason.”
Johnson, Rodney McGruder and Wayne Ellington said Heat players were disappointed when James and Irving were held out Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back set.
“We wanted those guys to play,” Ellington said. “When we found out they were sitting out, we were like, 'Ah, man.’ We wanted that challenge. We look forward to that. [Monday] is a huge test for us.”
Still, James Johnson said the Heat felt no disrespect because the Cavs rested their two stars.
“You're going to rest players like that,” he said. “They're at the top. Everyone is chasing them. They can do whatever they want.”
Though the Heat has beaten Golden State once and Houston twice during this stretch of 18 wins in 22 games, Ellington said there is curiousity inside the Heat about how Miami matches up with a James-led Cleveland team. This is a far different Heat team than the one that lost 114-84 on Dec. 9 in Cleveland.
But so are the Cavs, who have added rotation players Deron Williams, Andrew Bogut, Derrick Williams and Kyle Korver since then. Bogut is scheduled to make his Cleveland debut on Monday.
“I'm excited,” Heat center Hassan Whiteside said. “We are a whole different team than we were at the beginning of the season.”
And Tyler Johnson conceded there’s another reason why Miami is especially interested to see how it fares Monday: The teams might meet in a first-round playoff series, with the Heat standing 1.5 games behind Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
“Especially this late in the season and what we're fighting for and how this could be a potential matchup going forward, I think this next game is really important,” Johnson said.
Saturday’s game ended in contentious fashion, with players exchanging words and referees and coaches needing to intervene.
Tempers began to flare when McGruder dunked over Cleveland forward Channing Frye with 1:14 left, his extended arm making insignificant contact with Frye and eliciting an angry response from the Cavaliers’ Smith, who yelled at Heat players for the duration of the game and a minute or two afterward.
Smith and Heat guard Dion Waiters exchanged loud, expletive-laced insults as they walked, in opposite directions, to their respective locker-rooms.
“We got J.R. off the floor,” Cavaliers coach Tyron Lue said. “He’s fiery, feisty, trying to get back on the floor. It happens throughout the course of the game.”
McGruder said he never shoved Frye – “I was surprised by their reaction” - and Frye said, “It’s not really a story. Tempers flared.”
Ellington said “J.R. jumped out and made it a bigger deal than it had to be.”
So does that postgame incident give the Cavaliers more motivation Monday?
“It gives us a little bit more also,” Ellington said. “It heats it up. No question. It heats it up for Monday night. We like that. We like that challenge. I think it definitely woke them up, but we have another level we want to get to as well.”
The Cavaliers are 0-5 without James this season and 42-14 with him. Cleveland is 4-3 without Irving but 0-2 without James, Irving and Love, with those losses against Memphis and Miami.
“It's going to be tougher [Monday], not only because LeBron and Kyrie are playing, but it's going to be tougher because it's their house,” Whiteside said. “I expect a strong pushback from them off the simple fact they're the defending champions. I don't expect them to come out and play around.”
Saturday was hardly the first time McGruder has gotten under the skin of opposing players with his relentless energy and defensive bent, though coach Erik Spoelstra said: “If anybody knows Rodney, he’s just out there competing. He’s not trying to show up anybody.”
So has McGruder replaced Udonis Haslem as the Heat’s enforcer?
“Them two as a tandem have been working together,” Tyler Johnson said. “U.D. has definitely rubbed off on Rodney.”
During Saturday’s incident, Haslem told Smith to “sit his [butt] back down.”
Tyler Johnson noted that Haslem and McGruder both played for hard-nosed South Carolina coach Frank Martin – Haslem at Miami High, McGruder at Kansas State – “so that might be what it is.”
So are teammates afraid of McGruder, Tyler Johnson was asked in jest.
“No; Rodney is a sweetheart,” Johnson said. “He's got eyelashes, got them pretty eyes. Nobody in here is afraid of Rodney. But word around the league is he might be a bully.”
• Saturday’s game was Heat guard Josh Richardson’s best in six games since returning from a 19-game absence due to a foot injury. He had eight points, seven rebounds and a block in 25 minutes.
“I’m encouraged by the activity level now; it’s probably getting closer to who he was last year,” Spoelstra said. “I tell him every single day: I don’t care about the offense. Get us organized, which he does a terrific job at. Getting the ball where it needs to go. It’s the defensive activity, the energy, the versatility he brings.”
Richardson said he is trusting “my legs more. I’m just trying to get back to where I was.”
Please click here for my UM post from Sunday, including an NBA scout’s evaluation of Bruce Brown and Davon Reed and some football notes.... And if you missed it Saturday, here’s what Udonis Haslem has decided about his future.