There’s no place for haters to hide when the Cavaliers are rolling like this – as evidenced by their 94-82 win over Atlanta, giving them a near insurmountable 2-0 series lead.
With their fifth straight win – four of them on the road – it’s hard to deny Cleveland’s talent as a team. While many in the media cling to the idea LeBron James makes it all happen – and his superstar status has been undeniable – the idea that he’s doing it alone has become completely untenable.
The idea that James has been carrying Blatt also seems an increasingly desperate reach by those whose anti-Blatt sentiments are now as unmistakable as one of Craig Sager’s suits.
Running a seven-man rotation (not counting the three minutes given to prior milk-carton candidate Shawn Marion through the three relevant quarters), it’s hard to deny the quality of his gameplans. Coach of the Year runner-up Miek Budenholzer looks like the high school chess champ squaring off against Deep Blue. Blatt’s always a couple moves ahead.
Indeed, Budenholzer still hasn’t adequately addressed Blatt’s tactics against his Hawks’ ball-movement oriented offense. For the last two games, the Cavs have dared Teague to beat them. They’ve gone under all the picks and screens tempting him to shoot, which he did more than anyone else in the lineup for the second consecutive game.
However where Teague was able to score 27 on 11-24 in the first game, the Cavs tightened the defense (thanks in some part to sitting increasingly frustrating defensive liablility Kyrie Irving) and held Teague to 5-16 shooting. Over two games he has 10 assists after averaging seven a game, and is averaging 20 shots after only taking 12/game during the season.
As you can see in above, the Cavaliers sagged into the lane and sent a man to help (LeBron), while whomever was on Korver stayed glued, taking away the Hawks’ main three point threat. Even when Korver saw the ball, the Cavs closed him out so hard he either had to take a contested 3 or put the ball on the floor.
While JR Smith is very effective off the bounce (unusual in a catch & shoot 3 guy), Korver is not and wound up 4-11, hitting only 2-6 from distance for 12 points, before leaving with a sprained ankle in the third when Matthew Dellavedova rolled over it going for a loose ball.
The Hawks second best three-point shooter is DaMarre Carroll who played more minutes than anyone else on the Hawks despite a bone bruise and sprained knee. He was a shell of himself (once the team’s playoff high scorer), scoring 6 points and not taking a single three after making 1.7/gm during the season.
Interestingly, despite the amazing defensive job, Blatt didn’t field a single question in the postgame presser about the defense, but five of the eight questions Blatt answered were about LeBron. We asked about the defense of Teague at the pregame presser and got this “meh” answer.
“Jeff is an all-star point guard, and we try to focus in on a team defensive scheme that allows us to limit the Hawks, it wasn’t about limiting one guy necessarily,” Blatt said. “The important thing for us is the sum total as opposed to the individual. We use different defensive schemes during the game. We had a plan [in Game 1] and we executed it really well.”
Over the two games the Hawks are 10-49 from the arc while the Cavs are 22-56. The Hawks had the second best 3-point percentage in the league behind only the Golden State Warriors at 38%. That should give pause to anyone who believes the Warriors will just roll over the Cavaliers.
As we’ve mentioned before, the loss of Kevin Love almost necessitated the team turning up the defense. They don’t have anyone as good as Love offensively to step in, but Tristan Thompson has been a monster, not just on the offensive boards where he resembles Ben Wallace and Dennis Rodman, but on defense where he seems capable of checking anybody on the court. Last night Thompson had 16 rebounds (five offensive) and two block shots including this nasty rejection of Paul Milsap
, who finished 2-8 for four points.
As is the case with defense, it’s about everyone doing their part, and so to some extent you can’t pick any one guy out. However, we still reserved special praise for James Jones, who came into the playoffs with a (well-deserved, this season at least) reputation for bad defense (which is allegedly why Spoelstra never played him). We had complained vociferously about his defensive shortcomings, and are now enjoying some fine crow.
All playoffs long Jones has played his ass off on D, effectively fronting guys much bigger than him, like Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. Last night was the coupe de grace as Jones not only handled Horford surprisingly well on a couple switches, but handled the Hawks big 7-footer Pero Antic, holding him to 0-1 and no rebounds while covering him for several minutes. Jones also added two steals and an absurd block of Dennis Schroeder’s three – from behind the screen – making his long arms count from several feet away.
On offense Jones added three triples leading the team in scoring during the second quarter, along with Iman Shumpert’s eight accounting for 17 of the team’s 28 points in the second half. Things were going so well Blatt was able to sit James for the first three minutes of the second quarter during which time the reserves expanded the lead by 3.
Shumpert got his points off three terrific reads by LeBron James off drive and dishes (see below). The first features LeBron actually taking it to the hole, receiving contact (no call) and, before hitting the ground, bouncing pass to Shumpert in the corner. The second came as Korver tried to help on James from the weakside. Shumpert sees and slides into view of James who hits him with a crosscourt pass. On the final clip, James splits a trap gets to the rack before hitting Shumpert in the corner for another 3.
The Hawks did what they could to try to force LeBron. Whereas they switched a lot in the first game and sent help, they tried to trap James in the pick and roll and make him give up the ball. Only they couldn’t really do that, as James noted after the game.
“I have a gift,” James said. “That's why I'm able to keep defenses off guard because, you know, they say, okay, we're going to make him score or make him pass. They really can't make me do what I don't want to do. I go out, and I play the game the right way. And whatever that moment, that possession presents itself, I try to do what's best for our team at that very moment.“
When they tried to trap him on the side, James turned the corner and got a slam.
The ability of James to break down the defense early put a lot of weight on the Hawks. He scored half the team’s 26 first quarter points. The Hawks soon started collapsing hard on the lane on James’ drives. This allowed him to find Shumpert who instead of settling for the three also drove. The Cavs only took five first quarter threes, often penetrating instead.
This opened things up in the second and third quarters when the Cavs made 10 of 17 three pointers. (They were only 10-21 on two-pointers.) The Hawks tried to close off the lane even when Delly was driving (yes, a little insane) which naturally opened up other open shots like this baseline jumper by Mozgov after his man went to help on Delly.
The breakdown became endemic in the third quarter much like in Game 1, only in the early part of the quarter. Where the Cavaliers ignited a 21-4 from the third into the fourth on Wednesday, last night they completed a 21-6 run in the mid-third after the Hawks closed it to four, 54-50.
The run was comprised of exactly what the Cavaliers want from their offense – layups (2 by T-Mo, one by LeBron), threes (two each by Delly and Shumpert), and three free throws. It put the game out of reach and you could see the will go out of the Hawks.
Entering the fourth up 84-66, the Cavaliers were shooting 52%. That included 17-38 (45%) on uncontested shots and 16-38 (42.1%) on contested shots. The Hawks actually hit half their 44 contested shots but were only 11-35 on uncontested field goals.
Now ready yourself for the stat of the night. The Cavaliers managed to make 16-21 (76.2%) shots at the rim about 28% of their shots. The Hawks on the other hand were 26-37 (70.3%) at the rim. Pause on that a moment.
That means that whenever the Hawks couldn’t get to the hole, they settled for shots on which they shot 7-42 (17%). Honestly can’t even get my head around that, but I suppose it’s symbolic of how much the Cavs upset the Hawks’ offensive rhythm and forced them to play in a way which they weren’t really accustomed.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that the Cavs crushed the Hawks on the boards 38-26 entering the fourth quarter. The Cavs are the best rebounding team in the playoffs, as playing Thompson with Mozgov has given them a dominating board game.
Even the wine and gold only came up with 9 offensive rebounds in the first three quarters they only missed 27 shots, meaning the Cavs got an extra possession every third miss. The Hawks missed 36 shots entering the fourth and only recovered five.
This isn’t the same team that finished the season – injuries made sure of that. But as we’ve told you, these reserves (Delly, Thompson, Shumpert) are much better than they were pegged by most media. None of them are typically great scorers (though Shumpert finished the team’s second-leading scorer with 16), but they know how to play, bring great energy and really play defense.
When Love went down the only way to cover the hole was with defense because nobody could fill his shoes offensively. But there was plenty of defensive potential on the bench and of course, in the playoffs defense is the often difference between advancing and going home.
During the playoffs the Cavs nearly matched the regular season’s offensive efficiency (107.6 vs. 107.7) but improved their defense dramatically. They have the playoff’s best defensive efficiency at 98.1 – a six point improvement – nearly tripling their regular season net efficency from 3.6 to 9.5. Even LeBron’s been impressed, expressing surprise they could even get to this level defensively.
“We understand that ultimately, if we want to win long term, we have to defend. It's going to give us the best possible chance to win because the ball don't go through the rim all the time, and you have to be able to get stops,” said James. “Defensively, we've been locked in. When the ball is entered, either if it's their possession or it's our possession, we've just been very, very in tune with the game plan, and that's allowed us to get some leads in the third quarter and push the game out of reach.”
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention what LeBron did. (Of course, we expect every other writer led with LeBron, so it’s mostly for those who don’t read anyone else.) He came one rebound away from another triple double, scoring 30 points, getting 11 assists, 9 boards and only making four turnovers.
James took control in the first when he scored 13 and then added 11 in the third when they put it out of reach.
“We were terrible in the third quarter versus the Bulls,” James said. “We understood, if we want to be really good, we have to come out with a little bit more sense of urgency. We have to play more pedal to the metal in the third quarter.”
James Jones credited James great court vision and determination to make plays for others, though it also implies that’s not always the case – something apparent to anyone who watched the 4th quarter on Wednesday when they almost let the Hawks back into the game. They didn’t allow them any breathing room last night.
“The spacing has been there,” said Jones of the team’s 12 threes. “LeBron just made a very concerted effort to spread the ball and get us good looks. He got into the paint and made them feel the pressure, and we were lucky enough to receive those shots and make them.”
Now the Cavaliers come home where they haven’t lost in the playoffs, with a sweep in sight. The injured Kyrie may not even have to play in Cleveland until the team reaches the NBA Finals. Yes, it’s blue skies in Cleveland. We’re going to take a leap of faith and believe the other shoot is not about to drop.