Some believe in the power of mind, heart and intention to conjure a desired outcome. It’s not the type of thing that yields easily to scientific study but if ever there were a case study it was LeBron James last night. (And Kyrie Irving to a lesser extent.)
The beauty of sports from Spartacus to Jim Brown is the real life manifestation of clouds in your coffee. The cream rises and in very special moments brands an indelible Rorschach in the historical record. However you interpret James' performance last night, there’s no doubt he made the moment his own.
With the series tied and heading back to Chicago Thursday, the Cavaliers could not afford to lose.
They rose to the occasion with their most spirited interior game of the playoffs. They had twelve blocks, including three each by James and Iman Shumpert, who redeemed a poor Game 4 (1-8 FG, 5 pts) with a terrific effort. The Cavs played great team defense all game long with two notable exceptions we’ll get to later.
"Tonight was our most active game of the postseason,” James said afterwards. “Being able to know that even if you break down you have someone that can protect you, it makes our defense even greater. We had some breakdowns tonight and guys covering for each other and that’s the trust we have for each other right now.”
Aside from the swarming interior D, the story of the game has to be the first half performance of LeBron James, who shot 10-12 in the first half and looked like he’d gotten a blood transfusion from Wolverine. If it weren’t for the receding hairline – visible sans headband – you’d never know this wasn’t the 25-year old LeBron.
Someone asked James about going quicker, but James didn’t really say anything too momentous, though he credited the coaching staff, something peppered through the speech, as though the ones there to hear it had any interest in passing that kind of information along.
“Our coaching staff did a great job of putting me in positions where I could be successful,” James said about his not ‘holding onto the ball’ and attacking aggressively in the first half. “I just try to read and react. I try to play my game, be aggressive, maintain and get some shots going early. I feel pretty good. I was able to get my jumper on and I was able to get my post-up game and my attack game going pretty early. So I just try to feed off of it, just try to feed off the rhythm that I had and stay in the rhythm as long as I could.”
His movements were decisive and cat-quick. None of that endless backdown, hold-the-ball slow-down game. Just pure, quick, try to stop me brashness – without the manic intensity that seems to lead to turnovers. He made none. Even James – who noted that he doesn’t accept compliments from himself — offered a self-congratulatory pat on the back for that.
It’s pretty astounding. After 23 turnovers the first four games including eight during Game 4, he didn’t make a single gaffe even as he scored 38 and passed out six assists. He also led the team in rebounds with 12, as the Cavaliers out-rebounded the Bulls 41-40.
The winner on the boards has won every game and the Cavaliers ability to shut down the lane is equally important. In their two losses they were outscored 90-52 in the paint. The Cavs have tied or had two-point advantages in their three victories. Obviously that’s a lot easier since Pau Gasol went down.
“At halftime coach got on us about not rebounding the way we’re capable of rebounding,” James said. “I think they had 8 offensive rebounds and 13 second chance points in the first half. It didn’t hurt us tonight because we didn’t turn the ball over.”
That’s key because the Cavaliers don’t create many turnovers. If they don’t get offensive rebounds they don’t get any extra possessions.
While by virtue of their athleticism they can turn a substantial percentage of their turnovers into points (allowing them to subsist on less), the team plays a type of defense where they would rather force you into pull-up jump shots by protecting the lane and not overextending themselves in the passing lanes (and exposing themselves defensively).
Even last night, the Bulls wound up with seven more shots and three more free throws. The Cavs could afford to have less possessions during the season because they hit a lot of threes, helping them run one of the leagues most efficient offenses (tied with Golden State for highest eFG%, 53.8, since James’ 1/13 return).
The loss of Love took away the offensive side of that equation, but they’ve been able to make the philosophy work by reducing the opponents’ offensive efficiency.
The last three games the Cavaliers have held the Bulls below 40% shooting while they shot better than 50% last night for the first time in the postseason. You read that correctly. The Cavaliers didn’t perform as well as they did last night as when they had Kevin Love.
Blatt noted how the team moved the ball and that James found the ball in motion instead of attacking off the bounce, as in earlier games. This allowed James to receive the ball and attack the defense before they had time to react.
“We played with a lot more continuity than we have the last few games,” Blatt said, a subtle reference to the grinding one-on-one play of prior games. “We were moving the basketball more and even to get into situations where we want a player to attack and (LeBron James) comes off of some motion. It’s a lot more effective for our scorers to make a play. “
Another big part of the victory was the way Kyrie Irving stepped up. He said the coming into the game he felt better than he’s felt in a while.
According to the cameras the NBA have in the arenas, Irving moved faster (3.99 mph) than he has the last two games (3.82-3.83) and indication of his improving health and peace of mind after an MRI this week revealed no structural damage.
Another part of last night’s success is “just finding ways I can still be effective” as he explained after practice on Monday. “I still can shoot,” he said at the time.
Indeed, Irving made 5 of his 6 open jumpers last night, some set up by picks others in transition or off pick and roll action with LeBron. The rest of the team was 6-20 on such shots so it was important that Irving come through.
He wasn’t alone. Shumpert really picked his game up hitting all five of contested jumpers (1 of 5 on open ones) on his way to 12 points. (Unfortunately he’s not shown the inclination/ability to attack his close outs and convert them to free throws of late.) He also grabbed the key offensive rebound in the final seconds to help ice the victory.
Tristan was also good offensively, converting several shots at the rim and tying Iman Shumpert for a game high four offensive rebounds. Thompson finished with 12 and helped provide an interior scoring threat in the absence of Timofey Mozgov who’s game was AWOL.
Mozgov struggles with consistency, and though he was moving and cutting well he missed all seven of his shots including a dunk. Remove Mozgov and Kendrick Perkins’ three missed shots in a minute of play from the ledger and the team shot 58%, including an absurd 29-46 (63%) on contested shots.
“We made shots and some of those were the same shots that we were missing in recent games. I’m talking about shots that were not easy shots,” Blatt said. “A lot of times off of movement, you catch and face and you have to shoot a two-pointer. That’s not an easy shot and we knocked a lot of those shots down today.” We made a few more threes than we did last game… and that was important because they were momentum threes that really helped us.”
The Cavaliers again had trouble with the Bulls early allowing them to jump out to a 16-6 lead. Part of the issue was that the Cavaliers insisted on playing Kyrie on Derrick Rose to start the game. This helped Rose get off to a quick start making 5 of 7 shots and scoring 12 points.
He was 2-17 the rest of the way and was arguably the biggest reason the team lost. In the second half the other Bulls shot 19-30, while Rose was 1-12 with but four assists. Of course 12-16 of that was Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy going off, much of it in the fourth quarter when the Cavaliers surrendered a shocking 30 points. That’s the most they’ve allowed the Bulls since they got 32 in the 3rd quarter of the Bulls’ Game 1 win.
The Bulls played vey well in the second half but the Cavs kept them at arm’s difference. However after the Gibson foul and disqualification the Bulls got lava hot.
The Cavs had a 90-73 lead with 9:27 left. Five minutes and change later the Bulls had made 6 of 8 FGs and sunk 6 free throws, outscoring the Cavalier 20-7. There were some long rebounds off long shots that the Bulls were able to take advantage of in transition and a couple missed free throws by Thompson.
It was a loss of focus of the type the team can ill afford. James was very cognizant of it and blamed the team’s youth and inexperience, something each game helps wear away.
”We were up 17 and we just kind of got into a trance defensively. We gave too many backdoor cuts. We gave a couple and-ones. We had a couple open threes in the fourth quarter. I think those are things that we will watch tomorrow and say, ‘OK. We can’t have these types of lulls defensively,’” James said.
“When we’re not locked in – when one guy is off or two guys are off, it’s (like) a pick-six. He scores it’s a 3 point play (or) a layup,” he continued. “Those are things that as a young group, you know are going to happen, you just don’t want them to happen consistently. I think tonight, we did a great job of playing our game. But there are some things that we can still continue to get better with.”
We’ll be doing a game breakdown and looking at the tape next. Just too much to talk about to go into the tape here as well. Look for that this afternoon or first thing tomorrow. As always you can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our columns and post-game analysis on the Scene blog.