Mozgov's Fourth Quarter Absence Leaves a Hole in the Middle as Cavs Lose to Nets

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The Cavaliers lost to the Nets last night 106-98 in a game where the team came out flat. The Nets are fighting for their playoff life, so their intensity was a given. They’ve played a lot of road games of late and it’s not surprising their focus flagged.

It was a game that they could easily have won, and this outcome necessarily focused on Blatt’s belief that Tristan Thompson poses the best opportunity for the team down the stretch. This is sometimes true. However when you see the Nets driving like a teen that just got his license – without regard or warrant — you begin to wonder about such decisions.

My esteemed colleagues didn’t quite ask Blatt directly enough to get an answer, suggesting the Brooklyn center Brooks Lopez was an issue, which Blatt denied and to some extent correctly. Lopez only had 20 points, but the team was outrebounded 46-40 and allowed 10 offensive rebounds, in part because of Blatt’s decision to play much of the game small.

That meant when aggressive seven-footer Timofey Mozgov left with five minutes gone in the third quarter, it was for good. Similarly, Kevin Love left the game with the Cavaliers down 74-72 and just over two minutes left in the third.

When he reentered with 5:46 left in the fourth the lead was 5. Brooklyn would make only one more basket the rest of the way – a 26+ foot three-pointer from Joe Jonson – but would shoot 11 free throws. All of this obscure the simple fact that the Cavaliers were getting beaten on dribble penetration like they were in December or November. The glaring difference is the Russian difference-maker.

It’s true that Mozgov has some steel mittens for hands especially on bounce passes. Perhaps someone could inform his teammates since they haven’t seemed to noticed or maybe just want a few turnovers as a break from the steady steam of alley-oop flushes.

Even more important than his offensive skills – which outstrip Tristan’s – are his rim protection ability. Since coming to Cleveland Mozgov is tenth in the league in rim protection (holding opponents to 45.6% FG), just below Nerlens Noel and Dwight Howard (45.1%).

So you’d think if you’re getting beat off the dribble for repeated forays at the rim, you might want to bring Mozgov in. But that’s only true if you’re not Coach David Blatt.

The offense wasn’t the issue so much for the Cavs as the defense. There were 15 possessions by the Nets while Love was out of the game, postly pick and rolls with Jarrett Jack. On a third of them they got by their man and into the lane. There were two times where Johnson successfully posted up Shumpert. After that they put James on him and brought Love back in.

There were three back-breaking plays in a game that would never had come to this if the Cavaliers had the right intensity from the start.

5th possession. Cavs 79-78, 6 seconds left in third. Jack beats Kyrie off the dribble after letting the ball roll up court before touching it. How Jack can get all the way to the basket from the 3-point line with 6 seconds left and draw a foul? Some piss poor help defense and poor attentiveness on Irving’s part. Jack has not hit a 3 for eight games and is 0-11 in that time. Irving probably didn’t need to pick him up so far out that he allowed such a wide-open drive. This will be the Cavs’ last lead of the night.

Seventh opportunity. Nets 81-79, 10:50 final frame. Shumpert gets caught over-playing Bogdanovich to his left, and he drives right to the bucket from the 3-pt line, scoring right over Thompson’s outstretched arms. Some think that’s a deterrent. It might be if he ever blocked shots, but for a guy that’s always leaping, he’s got 4 blocks in the last 10 games, and as we know, there’s been no lack of opportunity.

9th possession. Nets 83-81, 9:44 fourth. LeBron James doesn’t follow his man, Bogdanoivh, after he passes it to Jack in the right corner. When Bogdanovich continues down the baseline into the corner James starts to take Thompson’s guy, but Thompson is right there. Bad focus on James’ part results in 5-point lead because the wide open Bogdanovich drills his second three

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That play pushed the lead to six, and thought the Cavs would pull to within 3 on three subsequent occasions, they could never get over the hump. Part of this is because it’s impossible to get stops if you foul.

Here’s where its disingenuous to say Lopez didn’t hurt you. The Cavs finally brought Love back at this point, but not for James Jones but for Tristan Thompson. This is about the point where you wonder if David Blatt is smelling burnt toast. If he wasn’t sensing that familiar warning sign of a stroke, he smelt it soon enough because that’s what Lopez did to the undersized Love down-low.

First James fouled Johnson on a floater/jump shot. Then the Nets posted up Lopez. The Cavs doubled with LeBron but picked up a foul. Bogdanovich missed a wide open three, of a drive and dish. Next time down Lopez caught the ball in the middle of the lane when Love got sucked near the hoop thinking rebound. Lopez drained those two as well.

With the lead eight, the Nets ran a pick and roll with Lopez and Jack that the Cavs covered with Love and Shumpert. Jack was able to take it all the way to the basket without anyone stepping up to stop him.

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Usually on the pick and roll a third man comes over, but not this time, whether that’s the weakside guy Smith or James who seems well position to step up, it’s not clear, but nobody should get that close to the hole without help.

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The larger point is that a frontcourt of Mozgov and Love or even Thompson and Love is infinitely preferable to ones with James and/or James Jones as your power forward. Further, Tristan Thompson doesn’t protect the rim very well so if you’re giving up a lot of layups, as they were to the Nets, maybe an inside presence would help.

Finally, there’s no maybes that playing Kevin Love at center against high quality scorer like Brook Lopez and expecting that your quickness and athleticism is going to make up the difference is a losing bet. Doubly so if LeBron James is looking lacksadaisical on defense like he did last night.

“One thing we can do is try to control how hard we play and how much we communicate and I don't think we did that to our capabilities tonight," James said, and we’ll assume he included himself among that number.

Kyrie said it last night in the midst of dissing Chris Haynes in a hard, and seemingly unfair way. Irving asked Haynes whether he wanted to ask another question rather than answer his one about the team’s effort, and tendency to wait until late in the game to really turn it one. After not really answering the question, he finally found a suitable reply a moment later.

“You guys expect us to be at the all-time level, we expect ourselves to be at an all-time level, but sometimes it's not going to happen,” Irving said. “There are obviously going to be games where there are lulls and guys are not in there right rhythms. We just have to find a way to win and sometimes we have to win ugly.”

Coach Blatt can be a big help in that but not if he doesn’t deploy the personnel he has into the best position to win. Maybe he just wants to see how Love responds to guarding a scoring center in crunch time. Hopefully given the outcome that particular lineup will be given long thought before we get another look at it. Love isn’t a center and to dissuade penetration the team needs to use its size.

Mozgov isn’t going to be the right guy to play every fourth quarter, but the small lineups Blatt has used since the all-star break haven’t always seemed a very good idea, and it’s apparent in the way the team is getting beaten on the offensive boards and on dribble penetration.

These were the same problems the team had before they got the prescription for Timofey Mozgov. We’re not trying to be cute, but it seems time to get Blatt and the Cavaliers back on their meds – a big dose of the large Russian, as part of putting the game to bed.

We’ll be at the game with Philadelphia Sunday, tweeting and posting live video. You can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my analysis on Monday, one of my daily pieces in the Cleveland Scene blog. 


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