There’s a legendary scene in On The Waterfront
, where Marlon Brando’s former prizefighter character, Terry Malloy, recounts how his mobbed-up brother (played by Rod Steiger) came into the locker room and told him it wasn’t his night.
“My night, I coulda taken the Pacers apart,” Brando replied, after losing to Indiana 103-99, and failing to tie the Cavaliers' record of 13 consecutive wins.
So it is with basketball. Sometimes it isn’t your night. You can minimize it by doing the little things like bringing consistent defensive pressure and not overlooking bottom-tier teams. That’s more difficult than it sounds.
When the Reporter Pack asked Doc Rivers about his Big 3, he talked about how quickly they came together because they were older. What he neglected to mention was that those Championship Celtics had a pernicious tendency to not turn it up past 7 or 8 until they needed it.
After playing with great intensity and consistency for most of the streak, that issue reared itself last night in Indiana, almost expectantly given they were playing a back-to-back while the Pacers had a couple days off. The Cavs were also coming off an emotional if blistering victory over fellow title contenders, the Clippers. It’s a scenario made for a letdown.
Though the team outplayed the Pacers for much of the first three quarters, they reprised their intermittent early season tendency of not closing out quarters strongly. The Cavs were outscored 22-6 in the final three-minutes of the first three quarters. You let a team hang around like that, they can hurt you, and that’s just what the Pacers did.
The Cavaliers held a seemingly comfortably nine point lead, 81-72, with eight minutes left. Then CJ Miles and Solomon Hill got hot, hit 5 consecutive shots over 180 seconds, while our man LeBron made a turnover and took a VERY ill-advised shot helping to open the door.
Let’s be clear, LeBron’s play has keyed the team during this run, but like anyone else he’ll have his moments. Indeed, the entire Big Three showed poor effort and decision making opening the door for the Pacers to take the lead, and once you’ve done that you allow lucky moments like George Hill’s absurd four-point play decide your fate.
Of course, at some point they were going to lose. And like their crushing home loss to the Pistons in December, they’re facing a team that is a lot better than their record indicates.
They’ve been beset by injuries but last night had three championship starters to go with Solomon Hill and Miles. Those two accounted for 22 of the team’s first 24 points in the fourth quarter, and then the veteran George Hill closed the Cavs down by hitting 6 of 7 free throws down the stretch.
For their part the Cavaliers’ defensive intensity was in and out. It’d be very easy to read too much into this loss given the length of the win-streak, the quality of the opponent, playing at home, with the disparity in rest.
Rather than worry about Kevin Love’s poor game and absence in favor of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson down the stretch — (Can you say work-in-progress? You should be used to that phrase by now) – let’s focus on the positives of the 12-game streak.
Defense showed up in earnest
Over the last 13 games the Cavaliers held opponents to 46.7% eFG (which accounts for added value of 3s) fourth-best during that stretch. The number of FTs opponents shoot has shot up from the least to eighth most during the streak – a sign of their greater defensive engagement.
During that time they were 10th in opponent FG% inside 6 ft (56.8% vs. 61.2% good for 26th) and their midrange defense FG% (40.5%, 21st for season) has been third best in the NBA (35.4%). They held opponents to the 4th lowest rate from 3 (32.8%). The number of points in the paint has improved as well, at 39.5 (8th in the leage) while being 20th (42.9) for the season. They also allowed the 4th-lowest amount of points of turnovers while being middle-of-the-pack all season.
Offense really gets going
Over the last 13 games they have the second best shooting percentage for midrange (45.5%), and the third-highest eFG at 53% (right behind Atlanta and Golden State). They got to the line at the league’s fifth-highest rate, offensively rebounded at the second-highest rate, shot 3s at the league’s 8th-best rate despite taking the league’s second-highest amount of threes per game and if you account for pace, perhaps the highest (Houston is first). Only Golden State has scored more points, or had a better point-differential.
Still Room for Improvement
Even during the last 13 games they weren’t creating many turnovers (13.7, 25th in league) and their fastbreak points sat at 15th in the league. They still aren’t much of a passing team. During the streak they actually were tied for the second-highest percentage of unassisted baskets at 48.1%. For the season they’re a more friendly 42.3%, 12th highest. (Some of this is reflective of the large number of points the Cavs score off offensive rebounds.) For the years they’re tied with the 76ers in allowing assists.
It’s been a terrific run, made all the sweeter because it followed a long losing streak that had caused people to lose faith in the team. Then in the course of three weeks that changed and everyone saw this team for the title contender they are.
Like any team, their best comes from consistent effort and they don’t always show that falling back on their obvious skill, particularly on offense. That said, we’ve seen some very clever pick plays the last few weeks as Blatt has begun to showcase his offensive creativity. Of course you only see that when guys pass the ball, and that’s still not a given.
On defense the team looks so much more engaged and better prepared with that big anchor in the middle. While Mozgov is still raw in ways, he’s physical enough to handle real size – like the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert (5-12 fg, 10pts, 8 rb). – and is one of the more versatile, athletic offensive 7-footers in the league. His addition not only fills Varejao’s shoes but the 28-year old offers a strong presence going forward.
Coach Blatt needs to figure out what he’s doing between Smith, Delly and Shumpert. Smith remains a starter and his offensive skills have somewhat displaced Love as the third-option. That’s not such a bad thing inasmuch as when Smith gets hot, you are well advised to ride it since he’s borderline unstoppable when that off-balanced fallaway is on target. As we said about Love yesterday, it’s a matter of adjustment, and maybe the offense won’t be what he consistently brings to the table.
Like every team in the NBA, the Cavs are going to shit the bed like they did last night from time to time. However that in no way diminishes the accomplishments of the team during this streak. We’ve really witnesses a team coming together both on the court, and, from appearances, off it as well. This is a looser, happier, tighter team than it was a month ago, and necessarily so. Winning solves a LOT of problems.
The Heat and Bulls await after Sunday’s game against the Lakers. Let’s hope the Cavs don’t look past them like I am. Those back-to-back games close out the first two-thirds of the season and bring us to the all-star break.
After that there are a TON of road games in March. Load up, it’s getting to be the stretch one, and the Cavs are well-placed beginning the day just a half-game behind the Washington Wizards for the third spot and three-and-a-half behind the second-place Toronto Raptors. The front-running Atlanta Hawks are probably uncatchable. (Quite the 12 months for that team.)
I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and read my game analysis Monday in the Cleveland Scene blog.