The way a team closes out a quarter tells you something about them. There’s a real, “No fella, you come here,” way the Cavaliers closed every quarter against the Celtics. There was no fear, just determination and the same solemn implacability as displayed by the coin-flipping, cattle gun-wielding, force of nature in No Country For Old Men.
The Celtics’ pesky, no-surrender spirit will help sharpen the Cavs for the next round, but in case you missed it, last night the Bulls dispatched their spunky hardnosed adversary the Milwaukee Bucks. So don’t expect this series to be a bellwether of the Cavaliers title chances, but there was certainly a lot to love about it, most notably their end of quarter play.
During the final three minutes of the first three quarters the Cavs turned into high-efficiency killing machine that makes the Terminator look like a Rock’em, Sock’em Robot. Here’s the Cavs’ line during those fateful nine minutes:
11-13 FG, 3-5 3s, 6-10 FTs, 8 Rbds , 5 Ast, 3 stls, 2 blks, 2 TO, 31 points
That focus and determination will serve them well as they move past Glassjaw Joe to the real contenders.
One of the other extraordinary things occurred during LeBron James’ postgame interview, when he showed the level of self-awareness and security that makes him capable of performing the way he does. Nobody becomes a great player without critiquing their game, and James seized upon something most dedicated fans presumed had been enveloped in a blind spot.
We’re speaking specifically of the LeBron Corners Offense which involves dribbling the ball down as if it were the end of the quarter, only it’s an offensive “play.” Sometimes he’ll even run a token pick and roll, and acquire a mismatch only to stand there dribbling, and, were it allowed, probably checking his phone.
We asked Blatt about the tendency of isolation to slow things down and question whether it was something they needed to temper. Blatt tapdanced like Mr. Bojangles before concluding, “We have great one-on-one talent and we use it to our advantage. But I don’t think we lack in ball movement.”
We say tomato you say a perfectly formed specimen of hydroponoic goodness of some indeterminate fruit or vegetable family, and delicious for the whole family. Coach Blatt may not be contractually allowed to called it an unsightly sin against basketball, but we will. But it’s not just us. Even it’s chief perpetrator accepts blame with more sincere contrition than either Frank Russo or Jimmy Dimora have exhibited to date.
James is a great example to his team not to get too high or think too far ahead. Humble focus is the best path and he’s looking like the sherpa for it. Speaking to Allie Clifton after the game he suggested they still had a ways to go, himself in particular.
“We have a lot of holes we need to continue to clean up,” he said, before uttering words that made our jaws scrape surface. “We got stagnant in the fourth quarter. Too much ISO ball and that’s my fault. I have to do a better job of not playing so much isolation ball, get guys involved.”
One of the team’s biggest issues offensively is for the ball to stick in James and Irving’s hands as they pass the drive-to-the-rack baton. It’s a very effective play, but like a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, the second or third time through the order guys are going to get pretty familiar with it, so your execution better be flawless.
Kyrie is in the 95th percentile in Isolation. James is in the 75th percentile. If that seems a little low, don’t feel bad for him, he’s got lots of company. Dion Waiters is 74th. This is an indication of how dysfunctional (and yet still rather effective) this is. It’s worth noting that it’s LeBron’s most effective high-volume scoring position. (He’s 67th percentile in the pick and roll, 46th in post-up, 89th in spot-up shooting but less attempts than Shumpert.)
The point is they’re both very good in isolation, but guys tend to slow down and not expend as much effort when they’re not involved offensively. It’s not even conscious, they’re just not as engaged in the game.
The fact that James recognizes this and his own culpability in this is a very good sign for the team, because the intermittent lack of ball movement has been the offense’s one glaring weakness, other than maybe the inability to get Kevin Love effectively integrated into the offense.
Then Game 3 happened. Kevin Love was clearly a big part of the plan from the outset. We’re betting that after witnessing Kryie Irving’s issues trying to beat the Celtics’ skill defender Avery Bradley off the bounce, Blatt decided to change the offense’s focus, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Irving had already demonstrated his ability to step up in his first playoffs, leading the Cavaliers in scoring through the first two games with 36 points. Love had played well, but looked passive offensively in Game 2 and at times it seemed to translate to his defense. (Of course he also could’ve been suffering from back issues that will be revealed after the season.)
Whatever the case, Love was more in need of attention than a divorced guy displaying unhealthy interest in Ben, Jerry, Dungeons and Dragons. He was the guy in the dog kennel coated in peanut butter. He was getting it from every direction.
He scored in every quarter and hit two huge threes in the fourth despite playing just over five minutes. He was the only guy in the final frame with multiple baskets besides LeBron as the team went stone cold. Love and LeBron were 5-8, the rest of the team was 2-12.
That’s what made :Love’s two baskets so big – they seemed just about the only way station in a sea of missed opportunities. The first came after Evan Tuner, a 28% three-point shooter, drained a wide-open 3 the Cavs seemed to dare him to take, closing the lead to 3, 95-92. Love answered with a three of his own.
Then a minute later bailed out otherwise fruitless James hold-the-ball-forever-then-drive possession with a corner 3 to push the lead to 8 and seal the Game 3 victory. In both cases the initially useless one-one-one possession (the first one featuring Irving) yielded an offensive rebound to yeoman glass miner Tristan Thompson. Perhaps next time they can pass the ball to other guys to start and not necessitate an offensive rebound and corner 3 to bail their butts out. James appears to have gotten the message.
We could leave right now, satisfied with a good column, but I wouldn’t have gotten to genuflect at these great plays the Cavs ran to open the game. Any worries some of you had that Blatt was not up to incorporating all his toys was clearly misplaced.
We couldn’t leave without taken a quick look at some of the fine sets the Cavs ran with the Big 3 to start the game. Take a good look because we’ll see a lot more of this, indeed already have to some extent, but the focus and determination with which they found Love has only rarely been seen this year and he responded.
If you’ve watched, you’ve noticed that Kevin Love is not a great pick setter. He doesn’t make contact that often and is usually more of a threat to fake a pick and flare to the three line than actually set one .But here he sets a beautiful pick on Evan Turner than appears to hook Turner’s arm and drag him down into the post where Love was able to exploit him for hoops two out of the three times he got the matchup during the next several possessions.
The Love pick & flare threat is particularly troublesome on the high pick and roll since Love’s defender has to move more or less laterally to stay with Love, bringing him right across the path of Kyrie’s man. Typically the roll defender can go under a little but not when the pick is so close to the three line and Love is just a few feet to the right.
As Kyrie breaks free on the pick and roll, Zellar steps up to handle Kyrie and Mozgov cuts to the basket just behind Kyrie, receiving a dish-back for a slam.
These next two involve LeBron and are my favorites. On this one, LeBron posts drawing a doubleteam from Zellar. Mozgov cuts through the lane from the weakside prompting Love’s man to pinch into the lane a tad to pick up Mozgov, opening Love by another couple feet. LeBron finds him for the open three.
This is also cool as Kyrie drives off a Kevin Love pick to the free throw line where he draws a crowd, including LeBron’s man. He cuts right behind his man then makes for the basket receiving the pass and laying it in easily. LeBron is an extraordinary player off the ball, but he’s such a good decision-maker with it he doesn’t get to showcase it too often.
Blatt’s admitted that he hasn’t shown all his cards and felt confident that was the case of his adversaries. We’re not so sure, but we’re just happy to see a lot more options and movement in this first game in Boston. The team recognized they’d need to bring a different energy to the game and they brought it for most of the game.
As James said there are still lots of issues to work out. The Celtics got inside on the Cavs (beating them 48-28 in the paint), the type of thing that can’t happen against the more physical Bulls. If the Cavaliers don’t narrow that paint-points gap, it will be a long series with the Bulls.
But in the meantime, the Celtics are ahead with a (final?) game on Sunday at 1pm. As always, we’ll be live tweeting and posting video from the game. We can be followed on Twitter @CRS_1ne. We’ll be back Monday with a post-game recap (promise!). You can also hear us on Michael James’ Defend Cleveland show on Mondays around 10:45 a.m.