LeBron James has been the greatest basketball player on this planet for a great many years, and testament to that power is his ability to still surprise and awe us even when we’ve already seen his best. He pressed another such gold medal moment in taking over last night’s Raptors game and willing the team to a 120-112 victory.
The game was one of the stranger ones you’ll witness in that the Cavaliers played well enough to push the lead to 19 points with 6 minutes left in the 3rd before succumbing to a 40-19 run over the next 10 minutes. (Not even a full quarter!) They shot 11 of 14 from the field, including four threes and twelve free throws, of which they made every one.
What happened during this run? Well it started out modest enough. Kyrie Irving went for a steal that put him out of position allowing a Greivis Vasquez three, and DeMarr DeRozan got a little hot with consecutive threes right in Iman Shumpert's face. DeRozan’s not a three shooter, but they were pretty well challenged, tip-your hat kind of plays.
This allowed Toronto to cut 7 from the lead with 2:30 left in the quarter, making it 78-66 when Timofey Mozgov, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving left the game for Tristan Thompson, James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova. This small lineup essentially features James Jones at power forward, something Blatt’s been experimenting with since just before the break. This lineup would surrender 6 free throws to the Raptors, but the Cavs entered the quarter with a “secure” ten point lead.
Up until that point the Cavs had shot 22 free thows and the Raptors just 9. The Cavs were shooting 33% on 27 3s. They would hit 6 of their next 9 thanks to LeBron, Jones and JR Smith. Meanwhile Toronto which was also shooting 33% would hit 5 of its last 6.
This was part of a bizarre lineup Blatt tried with Kevin Love at center and James Jones at power forward, Shumpert, Smith and Irving. Let’s just say watching James Jones trying to pick someone with his reed-like body was amusing. (Even more amusing was when Vasquez tried to flop on one.)
The run that got the Raptors back into it were sparked not by Love’s lack of rim protection but by a pair of stupid fouls by James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova on three point attempts.
Jones pushed Williams 23 feet from the baseline which he turned into continuation by launching a shot. While the call was a little iffy, Jones has no business riding Williams' hip so far from the basket. Delly fell for a headfake and leapt about 4 feet into the guy at the arc.
My guess is that James Jones should maybe be looking at the ball on this play not Coach Blatt, as Williams takes it to the hole unmolested. People compliment James Jones’ defense, but it thoroughly escapes us. He hits 3s, the one thing he does well, but this writer’s not convinced he doesn’t yield just as many the other way playing the “4”.
Without Mozgov in the game the team has the same trouble controlling pick and roll drives they did before the trade. On this play Jones gets caught in no-man’s land between guarding the roll man and guarding his own man. In the end he yields a three to Terrence Ross. (Please note – the Cavs are playing smaller than the Raptors with Love/Jones matching up against Patterson/Johnson.)
While people will remember the Jones 3 off the James drive out of the time out that gave them a lead the Cavs would never relinquish, do they remember all the points the defense gave up? Do they remember James trying to defend Valanciunas on the pick and roll?
That wasn’t the only time Jones was forced to defend the rim and it met each time with predictable results. You can argue that you need the three-point shooting, but is it doing you enough good if you wind up allowing easy shots at the rim with startling frequency? I like Jones’ shot, but see lots of problems and mismatches with him playing the “4”. Marion can’t come back soon enough for me, even if he’s a FAR worse three-point shooter.
As for Thompson, there’s an argument that Mozgov would be a better choice than Thompson because he’s better rim protection. However the way the Raptors were shooting last night, Tristan may well have been the right choice because of Thompson’s better agility in space.
But it’s a trade-off. There were at least two drives right over and into Thompson during the fourth that would not have been attempted with Mozgov, and T-Mo’s offense is better. The issue is when someone like Williams is hitting from 3’-4’ beyond the line there’s not a lot a big can do on the pick & roll whether he’s Thompson, Love or Jones. My preference would be to tip your hat if they can continue to hit the threes and keep the middle protected.
Fortunately, we have basketball’s greatest active player. LeBron ran the offense and attacked relentlessly. He scored eight points in a 90-second stretch after Jones three gave them the lead to push the lead to 7. When the Raptors closed it to two, JR Smith answered with a three, and Toronto never got closer.
A day after getting 27 points in 26 minutes, LeBron had more than half his 29 points in the fourth quarter, while racking up an additional 14 assists. James was named the NBA player of the month in February despite his lowest ppg average of any month this year (24.4). Indeed by almost any statistical measure – FG% (48.1), 3% (27.3), FTA (6.8), TO (5.5), Ast (his 7.3 was only better than January’s 6.3) – it was his worst month of the year.
Pause on that a moment. James just had one of the worst offensive months of his year, but won player of the month, and the team rolled. Meanwhile his March stats show signs of being his best month yet, though he’s shooting more threes than any month yet, and the team seems to be following suit to an unfortunate degree. IMO, this team’s a lot better attacking the paint – though that does open up the 3, you must continue to attack closing shooters and not always settle for the open 3.
Another thing that shouldn’t go unnoticed – LeBron has especially stepped up his game on the road. He’s averaging nearly 4 more points, 3 more shots, 2 more threes, and one more free throw attempt a game on the road than at home. That’s big because Kyrie and Love are shooting 60 points worse on the road than at home.
Home 15.2 FGA 49.8 FG% 44.8 3p% 4.3 FTA 5.6 Ast 2.1 TO 21.2 ppg
Away 18.1 FGA 43.7 FG% 34.6 3p% 5.3 FTA 4.9 Ast 2.6 TO 22.3 ppg
Home 13.0 FGA 46.0 FG% 40.0 3p% 4.5 FTA 2.7 Ast 1.7 TO 17.6 ppg
Away 13.2 FGA 40.1 FG% 32.1 3p% 5.1 FTA 1.9 Ast 1.3 TO 16.4 ppg
It’s tough to win on the road, and tough to win the second half of a back-to-back when you’re opponent had last night off. It’s even more challenging when a victory puts you in a tie with that team for second place in the Eastern Conference.
Every challenge the Cavs have faced, they’ve pretty much beaten. They’ve lost focus a couple times, though allowing 69 points to the Raptors and over 50% shooting seems at least as much about a tired team in the midpoint of 5 games in 7 days. Toronto’s a good team even if they’ve lost 6 of 7 lately. The Cavs took their punch and came out smiling.
This team is very very good. It’s mildly concerning that they’ve fallen so in love with the 3-pointer of late, and we’re not excited about Jones at the “4”, but we did see Dellavedova have his minutes cut to nine as JR Smith did more initiating of the offense and Kyrie or LeBron were in the game at all times.
The rotation is a work in progress as are Coach David Blatt’s gameplans. He seems more prone to changing his team’s approach based on their opponent's style of play than most of his competitors who’s strategy is to stick to what you do best. Who can blame Blatt – this team’s VERY versatile offensively and can do just about anything it wants from isolation to post-up to pick & roll to motion.
In another month we’ll be talking about how this team ranks with the all-time teams and wondering what kind of records they might’ve set if they’d had this roster all season. In the meantime there are still a few big games left. Tomorrow night it’s into Atlanta to face the league leading Hawks. They have the Eastern Conference’s best defense and the match-up could be a preview of the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hawks have won two of the three this year, but all occurred before the New Year and the big roster-shuffling trade that got this team jumpstarted. But after the Phoenix game they’ve got but two games next week – on the road in Dallas and San Antonio. After that the schedule eases considerably. If they guys can maintain their focus through San Antonio, only seven of their last 15 game are against playoff contenders.
The Cavs play the Hawks on Friday and the Suns here on Saturday. I’ll be covering both games live and posting video. You can follow me on Twitter at @CRS_1ne, and read my analysis of the weekend game here Sunday on the Scene blog.