There are many cogs behind a fine Swiss watch like Audemars Piguet. Last night, the timepiece’s stylish front awed a national audience with the kind of jaw-dropping excellence that’s been LeBron James’ signature in a convincing 110-99 win over the league-leading Golden State Warriors.
There’s no overstating the dominance of James’ performance. Through three quarters, James had scored 38 of the team’s 90 points on 13-20 shooting including 4-8 on 3s in just 28 minutes of court time. He finished with a double-double, 42 points and 11 rebounds, as well as 11 of the team’s 35 free throws.
James was spectacular from his passing lane poaching to his swooping drives to the rim. Here are but a few of LeBron’s highlights.
He drove and drew fouls. When they hung off him, he hit jumpers in their face. At times he was completely unstoppable, and they tried different people on him from Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to Andrew Iguodala and Harrison Barnes.
None of them made any difference. James scored 9 points on a string of jumpers in a 16-5 run shortly after the start of the 3rd quarter that put the game away. After taking the 14-point lead midway through the third, the Warriors never got closer than 9.
The team had a huge number of free throws including 14 in the first quarter. They finished with 35 for the game. Fourteen of their 20 shots game in the lane, during that first quarter as the team really went at the Warriors.
“We played inside and we went downhill with the ball on the drives. Those were the two main things,” he said after the game. “We’re a pretty good pick and roll team in general, so if [Golden State got caught out of position on pick & rolls as well] that’s not unusual.”
Even when the ball came back out, it got swung around the three-point line and then they attacked the closing defenders. While the Warriors took 10 3pt shots in the first frame, the Cavs only took four and held a 16-12 edge in paint points.
For the game, the Cavs held the Warriors to 47% at the rim while hitting 55% there themselves against one of the league’s best defensive centers. (The Cavs were only 4-8 against center Andrew Bogut but 6-7 taking Draymond Green to the hole.)
That early exposure of the Warriors’ interior underbelly helped establish an interior presence and kept the Warriors from going too small. It was also manifest in a 51-44 rebounding. In the postgame interview from the court Kevin Love credited Coach Blatt with a great gameplan.
Indeed, one of the somewhat unseen cogs in the team’s present 18 of 20 game streak is the staff’s game-planning. While every team tries to adapt their approach to what their opponent likes to do, Blatt seems to modify the Cavs’ game-to-game approach more like a football coach than most basketball guys, who tend to run what they like and force the opponent to stop them.
(Indeed, during the game, Marv Albert related a funny anecdote about how Lenny Wilkins would only have a few plays but made sure the team ran them very well, something that Kerr didn’t appreciate until this year. He credited their takeoff with simplifying what they were doing.)
It’s more than just the plays; even the types of rotations seem to be subject to the opponent’s personnel. He’s alluded to the fact that he doesn’t want to be predictable, and he’s shown a canny ability to carry that out.
He even sounded a little like Mike Maddux (who famously is said to have let a guy hit a homer off a pitch in spring training to set him up later) when asked about whether he likes to make the first move or wait and respond to moves like the other coach going small.
“A little of both,” Blatt said before the game, before suggesting a third possibility. “There are times in the game when you’re doing things rotation-wise that you want to do and you aren’t always thinking about that quarter or that half or even that game.”
Not suggesting this guy is Tony LaRussa, but that there may be a reason why he’s one of the most respected coaches in Europe. Part of it was preparation, and it would seem that as he’s gotten more comfortable with the league’s personnel as well as his own (and vice-versa), they’ve been able to do and incorporate more things.
“We’ve definitely had the opportunity now that the base is set, our rotation is pretty set, the plays are set and we know who we are to really make the kind of small adjustments we think we need for each and every game without losing the whole,” said Blatt during the pregame.
In a sort of statistical oddity, Kyrie Irving had 24 points without playing a particularly amazing game. He got to the line 10 times and sunk all of them, which compensated for some 6-17 shooting. Meanwhile, Iman Shumpert and JR Smith played 67 minutes between them but scored only 4 points. However their play was equally important.
After Stephen Curry got 12 of his 18 points in the first quarter, Blatt brought in Iman Shumpert to guard him and during at times had Kyrie on Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala. Smith, on the other hand had the job of stopping Klay Thompson much of the game, helping hold the 22-point/game scorer to 13. Curry and Thompson were 10-30 combined and had more turnovers (7) than free throws (5).
There aren’t enough superlatives for the way J.R. Smith’s bought in from the jump, and it’s manifested in better defense than anyone could’ve expected. His quick, active hands may be the best on the team. Last night he had four steals, the fifth time in the last nine games he’s had at least three steals. While Kyrie deserves credit too for shutting Curry down in the second half, Smith and Shumpert deserve at least as much for as easily as it might have gone unnoticed.
Similarly it was hard to miss how hard Timofey Mozgov played. Never a particularly great defensive rebounder, he hit the boards hard last night grabbing 10 defensive boards. He was imposing inside and produced a team best +17 in just 25 minutes. Love continues to improve his defense at the rim where he held Golden State to 4 of 9 as the Cavs held the Warriors to 42% shooting and 38% in the second half when they were held to 43 points.
While the game was a huge and encouraging win, there were a couple down notes. Mainly, Kyrie Irving hurt his shoulder late in the 3rd quarter and will not be making the trip with the team to Indiana for tonight’s game with the Pacers. At least, not at first. Irving will be getting an MRI on the shoulder this afternoon at the Cleveland Clinic.
If cleared Irving could potentially catch a flight to Indianapolis for the game, though it’s questionable whether they’d do that on the second night of a back-to-back. Perhaps better to let him rest, though, this Pacers squad did beat the Cavs on February 6 in Indiana 103-99, ending the Cavs’ 12-game win streak. With Paul George returned to practice from this summer’s horrific leg injury, the Pacers are going to be playing hard fighting for the last playoff slot, currently sitting two losses behind the 8th place Brooklyn Nets.
I’ll be live tweeting during the tonight’s game with video. I’ll also be covering Sunday’s 3:30 game in Houston on Twitter. However I will not be doing a game analysis for the blog on Saturday. I’ll be back on Monday where you can read my analysis of the weekend’s games here in the Cleveland Scene. You can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and \read my other writing at chrisparker.contently.