The Cavs Finally, Mercifully, End Losing Streak and Show Small Signs of Growth


The Cavs won last night beating the Los Angeles Lakers 109-102, ending a six-game losing streak in LeBron’s second game back. The win showcased better shot distribution and offensively efficiency, better ball-handling and for a half at least, good defense.

Sadly, the most important take away will NOT be a team that looks a lot better with the best player in basketball no longer grinding through injuries, but back instead guiding the offense. (Um, “Duh.”) The most important thing is that the media glare will get dialed back a notch.

Given that this is not quite midway through a turnover-lined season fraught with injuries, one might expect that the media-sketched noose around David Blatt’s neck might be a little looser. But always talking about basketball and X & Os for some reason kinda seems to bore most basketball writers, who’d apparently be much happier writing for Revenge or Pretty Little Liars.

As a result we get discussions about how Coach Blatt allocates power, whether Coach Tyronn Lue is a loose, timeout -calling cannon, and a vague accusation that our players are a bunch of bitchy little gossips with other players in the league. (It probably has nothing to do with the fact that three guys remain from last year on the playing roster, and all their friends are elsewhere.) And obviously we have no context as to whether NBA players might be bitchy little gossips in general.

But not matter. Like a desperate guy at closing time, some of our beat reporters have one line and they’re working it to the bone. Despite Love, Kyrie and LeBron’s comments to the contrary, the GM’s declaration this is a non-story, and the coach’s protestations before last night’s game that the team’s chemistry is fine, the national narrative has been set. Other writers tend to queue up behind the sports leader, and as a result we hear them parsing LeBron’s verbiage like it’s the Monica Lewinsky trial.

Why not? It beats writing again about how defense takes focus or transition takes energy. Or that a bunch of guys who never have played together are going to take time to gel. Or talking about the issues playing two subpar defenders WITH a bunch of guys who don’t know each other.

We hear you, what a bore. Let’s talk about the Coach getting fired. It doesn’t take any evidence or much analysis. The team does look sucky out there, no doubt. The Spurs look pretty shitty too, but they don’t have LeBron, so their troubles get one-tenth the coverage. (We’d like to note that the Thunder are 1-2 since adding Dion Waiters; plant the seed and see if it gets any traction.)

Not to deny that tongues are wagging about the Cavaliers in the Association. However it’s a long way from barroom blather to credible evidence in most parts of the journalistic world. People always talk about LeBron wherever he goes, go figure.

It probably doesn’t help that Blatt’s not part of the former coaches/announcers old boys network, which puts guys looking for new jobs in close contact with guys who write about potential job openings. It probably also doesn’t hurt that reporters wrote this same story when Spoelstra was a new coach in Miami, and like with network television sitcoms or cop shows, familiarity has a strong draw.

Now we’ve dumped 500 words on this narrative, let’s flush. Hopefully going forward we can exile the coach lynchings to the nether reaches of sports talk radio and get on to discussing the tender new buds of growth on this “Wind”-bent sapling we call LeBron’s return season.

Not that some of Blatt’s decisions haven’t raised questions, but losing tends to amplify these warts, and the fact the team played so much worse without LeBron facilitating the offense didn’t help.

As we’ve mentioned before this team gets bored easy and loses focus against bad teams. This is not unusual. Doc Rivers endured similar issues with the Celtics their championships season, and those were pros. So naturally they smoked this particularly lousy Lakers team 19-8 in the first five minutes.

They moved the ball, hit six straight shots and everyone in the lineup got a basket. Apparently Jordan Hill got a look at what Markieff Morris did to the Cavs on Tuesday night and dropped four straight buckets on the Cavs. Of course, most of this was just bad defense. Indeed the reason the Lakers shot 65% for the first was they were getting wide open jumpers.

On the first play, LeBron lets Hill pass through the lane as the Lakers beat the Cavs 3-on-5, in part due to Timofey Mozgov's failure to see the cutter and/or LeBron failing to notify him. On the second one, Hill steps in front of Kyrie Irving, who’s at the free throw line watching Kobe, and arrives too late to challenge the shot. On the fourth, four guys collapse into the lane on a Kobe drive, a bit of overkill that leaves Hill open by about 8 feet, despite only being 16 feet away. 

The fifth is the most damning as Kobe throws crosscourt to Price who LeBron doesn’t even make the faintest attempt of closing out on, after which Kyrie pounds the ball. LeBron passes WAY UNDER a pick, his feet in the lane while his man calmly drills a three-pointer. Then it’s Kyrie failing to rotate/Love sagging too far into the lane on the pick and roll, leaving Carloz Boozer an open jumper at the top of the key, and then just consistent issues with the very same pick and roll play over and over again. It’s sad really, though Kobe makes it happen, on the way to a career-high 18 assists. (The Cavs were hedging him hard, leaving a lot of guys open, a move that might be questioned.)

Suffice to say, the Cavs’ heads weren’t completely in the game for most of the first half as they allowed the Lakers 61 points. They’d cut that by a third in the second half, highlighted by a 14-point third period where the Cavaliers actually played hard. Kyrie in particular seems to have figured it out a bit.

Watch these three plays – including the second in which he’s the help guy on the pick and roll, then closes out the shooter with verve we hadn’t often seen. Also see how he fights through the pick. This is the first step toward being a better defensive player, and it’s absolutely essential if the Cavaliers are ever going to advance in the playoffs. (We’ll see how he does with a higher caliber of competition today, when he takes on Chris Paul and the Clippers at 10:30 p.m.) 

The offense, obviously, is not really a problem, but it’s really not a problem when you have explosive players like Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith. Whatever his reputation, he’s able to run the pick and roll, create out of it, hit catch & shoot 3s and even make something out of nothing as on this play, which follows a clip of Kyrie’s ridiculous between the legs/behind the back crossover and double clutch layup.

As I say, offense really isn’t an issue, though distribution of shots and touches has been. In the two games since LeBron returned it’s not really been an issue as Love, Irving and even Smith have comfortably picked their spots, mixed in with occasional post-up calls for everyone, including Irving. To wit- Irving had 16 shots, 4 free throws, Love 12/9, Smith 13/2 and LeBron 24/13, though a third of those field goals came in the final quarter.

Love also won kudos all around for gutting through another set of back spasms. (He missed a game already earlier this season with the malady.) Despite the fact that he was wincing in obvious pain throughout the second half, he continued to pose a three-point threat and took a (questionable) charge call that seemed to fire up the team.

He was in the game for much of the 19-7 run from four minutes left in the third until 9 minutes left in the fourth, during which they turned a one-point deficit to a 89-78 lead. The Lakers would close to within 4, but never really challenged after that. Hopefully that will counterweight his absence for the final 16 minutes of their failed comeback against the Suns on Tuesday

The lineup for much of it featured LeBron at point, Kyrie at shooting guard, Shawn Marion at small forward with Love and Tristan Thompson up front. It’s a nice lineup that features the team’s three best defenders (at least until  Shumpert returns from his shoulder injury and sees his first time with Cavs).

LeBron willed them to the finish with 11 fourth quarter points, alleviating some of their issues closing out games. He made long 3s and (despite a couple questionable shot selections) buried them with strong hard takes of the type he might not have had pre-rehab.

Shawn Marion continues to be an unsung cog, taking on the job of covering Kobe for much of the second half, and just generally providing a level of hustle that doesn’t always show up in the stats. (Against the Suns, he had 11 rebounds in 22 minutes, tonight just 1 despite playing more minutes and just as hard.)

It’s also worth noting that Blatt’s shortened his bench with Thompson and Marion getting most (57 of 68) of the more limited bench minutes. But what’s bad news for James Jones and Mike Miller is good news for Cavs fans, we think.

Tonight they take on the Clippers, for their second game in two nights. It’s also the last day of the road trip – notorious for team let-downs. Also, you might’ve heard, the Clippers are a LOT better than the Lakers, and are getting hot, winning 7 of their last 10. Bear that in mind as you watch the game tonight, because there is potential for it to get ugly. That is not a reason to start calling for David Blatt’s head. Please. We need to be better than the Browns’ front office.

I will be live tweeting with video from the game on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and look for my game analysis on Saturday in the Cleveland Scene blog.

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