The Cavaliers fell last night to the Chicago Bulls 113-98 in a game for which even LeBron James would (if he were honest) probably admit he bears a substantial part of the blame. That doesn’t happen often, and certainly not in games where the goat-in-question scores 31 points. But James’ play too often suggested the me-first star of a second-division team rather than the guy willing to sit on the bench if it helps the team.
That’s just where James found himself during the final five minutes of the second quarter as Blatt went super-small with Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, James Jones and Tristan Thompson. They closed a 12 point lead to 8 points with 2:40 left and held the Bulls to three points during the last three-and-a-half minutes.
The Bulls aren’t usually an offensive juggernaut, but the Cavs made them look that way Thursday. Kevin Love sat out the game after suffering a corneal abrasion courtesy of Mario Chalmers’ wayward claws on Wednesday. It left the Cavaliers overly small and hopefully caught the attention of David Griffin. (The addition of Pau Gasol HAS made the Bulls much better up front and offensively.)
With Love out and Mozgov plagued by fouls, the Cavs were left with Thompson at center and James Jones or Shawn Marion as the power forward. Though Jones did quite well during that second quarter run, he didn’t add much in the second half, going 1-6 from three. Meanwhile Marion couldn’t make it off the bench and Shumpert only saw 9 minutes of play and never with LeBron James. (Blatt refused to go to a lineup with James playing the power forward.)
Jones is a terrific three-point shooter (40% career; a disappointing 32% this season) who was once a dynamic defender, much like Marion, but far longer ago. This season he’s been fair inside 10 feet (only +1.1% to opponents’ FG%) but he seems real slow to defend outside 15 feet (+13.9%) so at least you can see the logic of playing him at power forward.
But for THIRTY minutes?? That’s more than all the playing time combined that he’s seen the last 30 days! Marion, in comparison, is -2.2% within 10 feet, and -5.3% greater than 15 feet, though his recent defense has been more sporadic, like his minutes.
The biggest problem is that Jones’ rebounding ability is just about non-existent. He played all but one minute of the second half and the team was outrebounded badly, 24-16, including six offensive boards. After generating 7 offensives boards in the first half, they only generated three in the second.
Whatever your qualms with Marion, that’s one way he definitely helps you. Even Shumpert offers more rebounding ability and (at least) no worse of a handle. (Perhaps an even larger question is how much we’ll ever see LeBron James at the 4 position again. He’s been there just 3% of the time this year, and could be an effective mismatch if Blatt so chose.)
The problem, of course, is that the team dug themselves a hole in the second quarter, and the Bulls aren’t one of these Eastern Conference “renos” full of young guys and flotsam. They knew what to do with a lead. This is a playoff contender and they had an answer for every Cavaliers run. They took over in the second quarter with a 15-3 run and the Cavaliers never seriously challenged again.
You might argue that the Cavs energy was so poor in the beginning that maybe they didn’t deserve to win. It picked up, but the offensive rhythm without Kevin Love and with Mozgov missing time was all but shot. LeBron wound up taking a lot of contested jump shots and took just six free throws despite 26 shots. His assists to turnovers ration was 1 to 2, producing eight turnovers and just four assists, two of those in the final four and change of the game, when the lead was 17.
One of the issues was a much more focused Derrick Rose. Not only has he been rounding into form the last four weeks (his point per play according to Synergy Sports has gone up from .8 to .9 since January 15), but he has some vengeance on his mind. When last they faced off on January 19, Kyrie Irving held Rose to 5-14 shooting and two assists. This weekend Kyrie will participate in the Allstar festivities while Rose sits at home.
Whatever the motivation, Rose was difficult to stop, posting 30 points on 12-24 shooting, handing out 7 assists and committing but two of the team’s eight turnovers. He attacked aggressively and because of Mozgov’s foul trouble, the Cavs had very little answer. Even when they had guys in front of the basket, Rose went by or through them.
The Cavaliers inability to create turnovers could be their undoing in the end; they’ve compensated the last few weeks by adding possessions with offensive boards – something they couldn’t do last night.
Marion got some time in the second quarter, right as Chicago went on its big run, beginning with this Taj Gibson three-point play on which he overpowered Marion down-low. After that play it was pretty much James Jones the rest of the way.
For the night, Marion surrendered three hoops within 10 feet in 3 attempts, while in the second half, Jones allowed five baskets in eight defenses. So, pretty potato, potatoe, excluding the idea that Jones played the entire half. You think he was winded? Would that ever affect a three-point specialist’s shot? Especially one not used to seeing much more than six minutes of play a game?
But quibbling over such byzantine matters as the playing rotation when two frontcourt players are down/foul-plagued is probably beside the point. The team shot way way way too many pull-up 2 point jump shots. They were 6-22 on such shots shooting nearly as badly as they did on three-pointers (8-31). Kyrie (1-6) and LeBron (3-8) account for a lot of those issues. They were 20-27 within 10 feet (credit Tristan and Mozgov who went 11-12 for 23 pts and 19 rebounds between them).
The shooting is probably just one of those things, but the large number of turnovers may be another. As we said, the team doesn’t force a lot of turnovers, and given their intermittent defense for the season (of not lately) you’d want to minimize how many more opportunities your opponent has.
LeBron has committed at least five turnovers in six of the last eight games and as a team they’re making 4.5 more turnovers than their opponents over the last six. James is averaging nearly six turnovers in that stretch while matching his season average 7.3 assists.
At various times this season James’ high turnover rate has drawn some commentary from the scribes. To some extent it raises the question of how much you want LeBron initiating the offense.
Indeed, during the last couple weeks we’ve seen several sets with J.R. Smith as the trigger man. It’s worth wondering what’s going on here because his turnovers (4.2/gm) are dramatically higher than his career high (3.6 his first year in Miami). It’s also worth noting that LeBron is playing 36.6 mpg, a full minute less than he did last year, and almost three minutes less than his career average (39.4). So his turnovers should be going down.
Since coming back, his turnovers been even higher, 5.1/gm, but then so has his usage. In 14 games since his return, his usage rate has spiked at 36.3 of the team’s offensive possessions (vs. 32.7 for the season). It’s even more dramatic in their five road games when it jumps to 38.6.
What’s more troubling is during those road games he takes 35.2% of the team’s shots (from 31.5% at home, and 30.4% for the season). He accounts for more than HALF their road turnovers but only 38% of their assists (vs. 46% & 44% at home) since his return. This is not a season long issue – but only since his return. For the season he’s had less turnovers on the road.
All of this is to suggest that LeBron may try to do too much in road games and ultimately hurt the team. It seems that James’ usages has a point of diminishing returns – and we really don’t need to go back and learn that Pre-The Decision lesson, do we?
However one wonders if it might not be appropriate to hand more of the playmaking responsibility to Kyrie Irving? While James’ put-them-on-my-back mentality is admirable, it can also lead to ill-advised over-compensation. At times last night, the offense stood there waiting for LeBron to make something happen.
Of course, there’s perhaps too much to be read into a game like that. It was the second in two nights against a very good, resting team, playing at home, looking to avenge a loss three weeks ago, with their star looking to make a statement after being snubbed. Certainly we have a right to expect a little more engagement on defense then this, which recalled the torpor and inattentiveness that James sometimes displayed on defense early in the season.
The team has recovered from an awful stretch to put themselves right in the fight for one of the top four seeds in the East, and within three of second place Toronto. They could’ve sat in third place with a victory, but perhaps it’s not the worst thing for the team to go into the break with that sour memory to niggle at them until they get a chance to right it.
That’ll be a week from today against the Washington Wizards – a nice change to immediately make some hay against the team immediately in front of them, a half-a-game ahead. It will be the teams’ third meeting, with each taking the home half of the home and away so far, both games in November before Varejao’s injury or the trade, which should make it an even more interesting match-up.
I won’t be taking the full week off. I will be offering a preview of our Eastern Conference competitors and another column which will look at potential additions to the far end of the bench (extra big man, with 3pt range if possible, backup point guard). So keep checking back with the Cleveland Scene’s blog for my latest or you can also follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne.