Tonight’s Cavalier opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, pose issues for anyone without bonafide heft. They boast Marc Gasol, maybe the best big man in the league, and one of the NBA’s finest low post scorers in Zach Randolph. While the addition of Mozgov has helped, the Cavaliers still have trouble with teams that are big. (Indeed it seems they’d rather go small rather than matchup with size for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.)
As we were saying in yesterday’s article, there are essentially two philosophies in NBA toward scoring these days – score inside or score from the three-point line. While there are a few teams that still score from mid-range (Portland comes to mind), most teams find it too hard to shoot well enough to justify not taking threes instead. Last year teams shot about 40% from outside the restricted circle (directly in front of the basket) to arc – essentially all two-pointers not at the rim.
“What that tells me,” said Campy Russell at yesterday’s Cavs practice, “is that too many guys can’t shoot.” No argument there Campy.
It’s hard to know which came first, ubiquitous embrace of the three-point play or the loss of fundamental skills such that NBA players can’t stick that 17’ jumper like they used to a quarter-century ago.
Most teams try to minimize shots from 10’ to the three point line, other than for big men. For bigs, pick-and-pop jumpers or some kind of facing-the-basket game can be extremely valuable. It lures opposing rim protectors away from the basket, increasing the chances of scoring that way. Sensible, right?
Unfortunately most NBA stretch fours have chests like runway models and long-distance shooting seven-footers tend to look like Brad Lohaus and Spencer Hawes, which is to say an extremely large deck chair with arms and a long-distance stroke. Just don’t ask it to move or withstand a breeze.
It’s simply a lot easier to find a big that can shoot 3s than one which can get points inside. You can count the number of centers with a back-to-the-basket game on Lefty’s remaining hand. The top five teams in (pace-adjusted) Points in the Paint (PITP) are in ascending order, the Spurs, Pistons, Magic, Pelicans and Grizzlies.
Assume Dwight Howard returns in something close to top form and count the Nets’ one-way force, Brook Lopez, you maybe have seven teams with legitimate inside games, and only three of them (Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies) are legitimate contenders. This is the big fear for Eastern teams and why, when you add the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors, it seems a lot easier to visualize the West winning the NBA Championship than the Eastern Conference.
How well the Cavaliers can deal with size will be the big attraction of the game because the record says it gives us trouble. The Cavaliers are 27-5 when they outscore their opponent in the paint. That makes them 19-21 when they don’t.
Since LeBron’s return they’re 15th in allowed points in the paint, and 15th in points scored in the paint with 41.8 each way. As a team they allow the sixth high field goal percentage at the rim. That’s for the year, so it’s improved, but that’s mainly when Timofey Mozgov is in, and he often plays twenty minutes or less.
While the inside is the soft underside of the Cavaliers and will be sorely tested if they reach the NBA Finals, the peculiar thing is that none of their Eastern Conference foes is very consistently good in the paint, though obviously the Pacers and Bulls could pose issues.
That’s the half-empty side of the glass which is mediated by the fact that there are so few teams that can play that way. The half-full part is when you realize the Cavaliers have held opponents to the sixth-lowest (32.6%) three-point percentage in the NBA since LeBron’s return, and allowed the 12th fewest three-point attempts. That’s welcome news given the league’s heavy reliance on the three-ball
The Grizzlies were in town in December falling 105-91 at the Q on December 21, the last full game Anderson Varejao played before going down. The Grizzlies were without Zach Randolph for the game as well as Tony Allen, so it’s hard to know how much to extrapolate.
However Gasol had 23 through three quarters before sitting much of the fourth as an early quarter scoring burst gave the Cavs a double-digit lead and Memphis seemed to concede the game. They won’t be so accommodating at home.
Gasol’s ability to pass and drive makes him a nightmare much like what Al Horford posed. Timofey doesn’t always have great lateral quickness in space (which is weird because he’s pretty agile defending the pick and roll) and big men who can face him and up and put it on the deck can hurt him. They like also to run the offense through the high post forcing Timofey away from the basket, opening the lane for cutters like Mike Conley or former Celtic small forward Jeff Green.
The Cavaliers have shown real moxie on the road the last two months beating a steady stream of playoff teams on their home floor, none bigger than San Antonio. A win over Memphis would be in the same category, perhaps even better. The Grizzlies are well-designed to take advantage of one of the Cavaliers few vulnerabilities. How the Cavs withstand that will say a lot about how playoff-ready they are.
As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, where I will be tweeting during the game and posting video highlights. You’ll find my game analysis on Thursday in the Cleveland Scene blog.