One of our favorite life lessons/sayings is that life is 85% showing up. It’s not about doing something extraordinary but rather doing the same thing reliably. This is truly a lot of what sports are about and why they go through so many practices in the season. Just like war, they’re drilled to shrug off the pressure and do their thing like they’re alone in the gym.
Last night the Cavaliers did just that to the shock and (maybe eventually) awe of the national media. Notice we didn’t say LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. This was a team victory built on the most team-oriented aspect of the game, defense, and that was by design. Irving left with an injury and James himself got injured though he kept going, as did the team… without them.
Not that defense hasn’t always been a focus, but because of personnel, and Love’s difficulty guarding perimeter players, the overall team balance leaned more toward offense during the regular season. They were one of the league’s two most efficient offensive teams after James’ January 13 return.
They could no longer take that approach after Love went out, so the team moved even more resolutely in the defensive direction. Playing small lineups with Tristan Thompson in the middle and James Jones or James at power forward, the team was able to switch every pick-and-roll.
This will sound like blasphemy, but when Irving went out the defense got even better. (Mozgov has his own defensive virtues which will be saved for another time.)
This isn’t just Dellavedova fandom, but actual fact. Two of the four best two-man defensive lineups for the Cavs this post-season have teamed Delly with either Timofey Mozgov or Iman Shumpert. The other two partnered Mozgov with Jones and J.R. Smit. (The fifth-best two-man lineup teamed Mozgov with Thompson, no surprise.)
What’s more the best net-differentials occurred when Dell, Shumpert and Smith were on the floor together followed by Delly/Shumpert/Mozgov and Delly/Shumpert/Thompson. (We’re ignoring the Love/Mozgov/Shumpert lineup.)
Which is to say that to some extent Delly’s performance is unsurprising. Indeed it could be argued the entire performance by the bench wasn’t as extraordinary as it seemed, only their strength has never been offense and they’ve never been called on to supply it. The bench excels at handling the ball without turnovers, shooting 3s, rebounding and playing defense, the type of things that don’t necessarily draw a lot of attention.
Last night they were asked to do a little bit more and they stepped up, none more so than Matthew Dellavedova who hit a couple of the type of in-between game floaters that he’s struggled with all year. During the regular season Delly shot 22-80 inside of 10’, but he’s 7 of 9 so far in the playoffs.
Many including yours truly have slagged Delly and by extension Coach David Blatt for all the rope he gave the spunky Aussie. Some mea culpas all around on that one.
Dellavedova is not only a high energy player who gives you 110% and inspires others to do the same, he’s a very good ballhandler (3.3 ast/to ration in regular season) and a decent 3-point shooter who’s shooting a hair below his regular season mark during the playoffs (39.3% vs. 40.7%).
The other guy who deserves a lot of credit and hasn’t always gotten it on these pages is James Jones. We’ve quarreled with Jones’ defense on more than one occasion and wondered how his preying mantis like limbs were expected to guard anyone of any heft. He proved us fallible when he successfully fronted Gasol and other Bulls bigs. He’s still not much of a rebounder but his ability to hit 3s is a difference-maker.
If you don’t believe us turn back to the three-minute mark in the first quarter. The Cavaliers are down 25-19 when Jones came in. The team was having trouble scoring but he made 3 of 4 triples as part of a 20-10 run in a six minute spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second. During that run James had but a single basket.
The Cavaliers came out a little flat and the Bulls exploited it, particularly in transition, the Cavs’ Achilles heel. Four of the Bulls’ first 10 baskets came in transition including buckets by Gasol, Butler, Rose and this transition three by Mike Dunleavy.
JR Smith sees the issue and points out the streaking Dunleavy to Irving, who apparently doesn’t hear/see him and goes in the other direction leaving Dunleavy wide wide open, and giving the Bulls a 25-18 lead, their biggest of the game with three minutes left in the first.
That was the Bulls high water mark. Over the next 22 minutes they wouldn’t even match what they scored the first nine. The Bulls were outscored 45-23, surrendered nearly as many offensive boards as defensive boards they secured (10 to 11), Chicago shot 10-37 (27%) and had more turnovers than assists (3 to 2).
It wasn’t like the Cavs’ offense did the job. Thought they outscored the Bulls by 22, they only shot 40% (15-40). However they were 8-14 from the arc including the aforementioned 3 by Jones, two each by Delly and Shumpert, and one by J.R. Smith. James scored but four of those 45 points as he turned facilitator getting half of the 10 assists the Cavs racked up
In the ensuring days as commentary about the Cavs’ bench ramps up keep in mind that it wasn’t their offensive prowess that’s really being discussed. Thompson and Shumpert were a combined 6-19 in this stretch where Cavs blew the game open. It was the team’s spunk on the offensive boards, willingness to share the ball and the defensive effort that won this game.
Also worth noting is the super, someone quiet performance put in by J.R. Smith, who hit half his shots including 3 threes/game against the Bulls. He was the team’s third-leading scorer in the series, a smidge ahead of Shumpert. He also possesses the team’s best +/- during the series.
The Cavaliers have come so far since those early season defensive struggles such that even James confessed his surprise. Blatt won’t get any credit, that’s been firmly established, but hard not to wonder how he got team to buy into defense so completely and learn to win games without their three biggest scores providing more than a handful of buckets against a team backed into close-out corner.
Impressive however you look at it, and we can’t help but feel that their performance made an imprint on James such that he might be more willing to facilitate the offense and hold/dominate the ball less going forward, knowing these guys have and can pick him and Kyrie up if need be.
Twin Tower Offense
We jest, as Thompson is a generous 6’8” and hardly a tower, but the very concept of two traditional bigs is such an anomaly in the NBA at this juncture that the idea of playing Thompson and Mozgov caused unjust concern among the chattering class. There was basketball before God created Stretch 4s (or more accurately, began importing them from Europe), and it’s possible to score without stretching the floor.
As the Cavaliers are going to be doing more of this going forward, we thought we’d assay some of the sets we’d see. First off, you probably noticed a lot more post-up, because that keys things. Many a great scorer has worked out of the post because it can allow you to hit cutters and see where help was coming from. In the case of Chicago it wasn’t so much help coming as Noah leaving his man and camping out under the basket.
The Cavs immediately took advantage of this by flashing Tristan Thompson in front of Dunleavy. He caught the ball, was able to gather himself and score on a nifty floater over Noah.
A few plays later we saw Shump the point guard as they put Shumpert into the type of pick-and-roll (PnR) action that J.R. Smith was seeing some of when he was starting. J.R. Smith is not a particularly effective finisher or passer (though he has an excellent handle) so Shumpert is actually better at this. Shumpert’s handle isn’t bad either as he showcases on this take.
He finished with four assists after getting three assists in Game 5, evidence of his increased use in this role. While many will focus on Shumpert’s 13 points and ability to create his own shot, I’m struck by the passing (with no turnovers). It’s his best showing assist-wise since getting 6 March 10th,
Below you can see Shumpert penetrate the lane and ultimately dish to Mozgov on the right baseline for a shot jumper. But you can see that as Shumpert emerges from the PnR, he has a trailing Dunleavy and backpedaling Gasol. Noah has to handle the roll guy, Mozgov, while his own man stands near the basket. (James and Irving stand on the perimeter as spacers.) In such close quarters – if you can thread the pass – it’s hard to rotate fast enough.
Smith was also able to create off the pick and roll finding Delly in the corner for a 3.
Shumpert ran a nice PnR with Mozogv feeding him a no look pass that had Noah badly out of position, but he recovered quickly enough to block Mozzy’s shot. At that point the lead was 47-42. Blatt subbed in Thompson and over the next three minutes and change the Cavs outscored the Bulls 11-2, another solid close-out to a quarter, something that’s quickly becoming a Cavs calling card.
Again it was Shumpert showing his skills, this time on the boards. We had to vid this because the pass is so quick and almost instinctual (if a little to Smith’s left) that we actually leapt up. Fortunately we weren’t sitting near any media.
In transition the next time down LeBron would find Shumpert miss-matched on Mirotic allowing him to take a pull-up three. Add a long contested two by James and three free throws after Tony Snell fouled a three, and suddenly the Cavs were up 16.
However unlike Game 5, the Bulls would not come back from this deficit or even draw that close thanks to smother Cavs D. From about 3:30 in the second to 3:30 left in the third they scored but 6 points, going 2-20. It was equal opportunity. Duneleavy missed 5, Butler missed 6, Rose missed 4.
It wasn’t anything super specific. They were switching a lot – something they’d done all year, but the execution of the switches and the coverage off the dribble were great. Even in the first quarter when the Bulls shot 57% the halfcourt defense wasn’t bad.
(The less said about transition with this team the better. Fortunately they don’t surrender that many opportunities so their inefficiency getting back isn’t exposed, plus their offensive rebounding puts pressure on opponents not to leak players lest they give up offensive boards followed by threes by the now-undefended player.)
We have two clips here. On the first, watch under the basket as they try to pick run Irving off Butler and then run James into Thompson and Smith. Though James and Thompson momentarily head to Butler, Thompson recovers quickly enough that Bulls can’t take advantage.
The second part of the clip features the Bulls trying vainly to get Rose open as Thompson and Delly switch the PnR without yielding anything. Then with Delly covering Noah under the basket the 6’3” guard’s able to muscle him off the board and allow the Cavs to take possession.
Part of it was the Bulls just didn’t hit their shots. They got a decent number of open looks (from 44%-46% in the games they lost) but actually shot a little worse on the uncontested than on their contested shots, 37.1% to 37.8%. Meanwhile the Cavs made almost half (19-39) their open looks. Those six more open makes and seven more free throws were the difference in the game.
Butler scored 10 of the Bulls next 12 points, helping them pull within 13, but it just didn’t seem like they had it. When Delly scored 7 of the first nine points of the quarter pushing the lead out to 20 you could just see the air go out of the Bulls.
James had actually talked about it before the game.
“You’ll see them break. You’ll see a team crack,” James told FoxSports Ohio in the pregame. “But you have to continue to work the habits. You have to continue to push forward. You can not stop.”
Let’s hope the Cavs take that same attitude into the next game.
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