“If you’re looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball,” LeBron James said, almost wistful in the aftermath of Sunday’s 95-93 upset of the Warriors, “that’s not us right now.”
As the phrasing suggests, it was once the Cavaliers’ way as well, but like the soldiers storming Omaha Beach, they didn’t make it there whole. All that shiny armor and artillery was lost to a stray Olynyk and bad treads, leaving the infantry to move on. The war only pauses for commercials, not casualties, leaving the boys in Wine and Gold to man up or check out.
Easily outflanked or mowed over in their diminished state, the Cavs remained the aggressor, taking it to the Eastern Conference’s top team and their Coach of the Year, Mike Budenholzer. Now the Golden State Warriors are in their gunsights.
We’ve spoken before on Twitter and in these inches about the criminal disrespect the Cavaliers have received from the national press and even local beats at times. Not to hate, because doubt’s the easiest thing. Hoops is a prove-it kind of game, and that’s just what the Cavaliers are doing.
Of course, our overseas followers are well-acquainted with Coach David Blatt’s misbegotten lineups and undermanned teams overcoming more talented squads. Just last year his Maccabi Tel Aviv team first beat a superior Russian squad in the final moment after trailing all game, then beat Barcelona on their home floor for the Final Four-style, single-elimination European championship.
We’re talking a true Inspector Gadget here. Whatever he needs to do Blatt does. This was seen as weakness by the press. “Oh he scrapped his pretty offense; obviously he’s failed to reach his players.” Well, that’s one spin.
In a terrific exclusive
with USA Today
’s Jeff Zillgitt on Thursday, Blatt said it was a necessary move given the level of understanding and the time needed to implement, citing in a recent press conference the challenges of continuity (something the Spurs have enjoyed) and trust for a newly assembled team.
“I knew this before, but it's a lot truer here than it is over there,” Blatt told USA Today
. “What you learn is that you have to do in the short-term what works, not what you want to do necessarily.”
What worked was LeBron and Kyrie trading pick and rolls, not weave-like movement spiced with off-ball screens and backdoor cuts. They’re deadly penetrators, strong finishers and excellent passers making them perfect for the more mundane NBA drive-and-dish offense. It worked well enough that nobody was better from LeBron’s return on. Adapting means never being to headstrong to listen.
Then when the Cavs lost the ability to space the floor with Kevin Love, Blatt embraced what he did have – two amazing offensive rebounders and strong defenders in Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov, increasingly playing them together even though nobody these days plays 4s that can’t shoot. (This despite the history of championship success by offensively-limited, lunch-pail grunts like Ben Wallace, Cedric Maxwell and Dennis Rodman.)
Yet even trading offense for defense, Blatt and the Cavaliers were able to put together enough offense to cruise past the conference’s two best teams. What many missed is that the team had strong defense on the bench. They had scoring to spare. Now that Kyrie is down they don’t have the scoring, but in reserve Matthew Dellavedova were able to get enough scrappy defense to unhinge Stephen Curry a bit.
Looking for a little more offense, Blatt gave in to a vocal minority of writers and fans that have longed to see more of Timofey Mozgov. In the second quarter when LeBron began to facilitate more (after a zero-assist/ten-point opening quarter) he repeatedly found Mozgov cutting to the rim reducing the Warriors sidewalk spectators.
While Mozgov missed some freebies, his ability to punish Warriors bigs like misbehaving councilmen (“Don’t make us Russo you, Draymond!”), took pressure of James and presumably bolstered his confidence in his mates.
For the game Mozgov was +11, in almost 30 minutes – without playing at all in the fourth. When the Hack-A-Tristan began and TT came out for a few minutes, TMo initially stood up and seemed to be going in, but Mike Miller came in instead. Someone suggested they saw James saying something to the bench, and perhaps he asked that Mozgov not be brought back in because Bogut would soon follow and that could limit James’ ability to drive.
However the +/- all series has indicated that the team is a lot better with Mozgov is on the floor, particularly in this series where he’s been able to score at will almost over the smaller Green, and looked far more agile around the basket than Bogut. This on top of the rebounding advantage that has keyed every the Cavaliers off-season run. The #1 rebounding team in the playoffs has won every game in which they owned the rebounding advantage.
This is especially troublesome for the Warriors – as we noted previously – because it limits the ability of the Warriors to get up the court in transition. The lack of easy rebounds both allows the Cavs to get back and limits the Warriors ability to take advantage of transition mismatches. Increasingly they’ve had to send their wings into the lane to combat the Cavaliers’ rebounding edge.
Similarly, James, and in fact the whole Cavs team, settled less for jumpers. It wasn’t like they shot a lot better on these shots but they drew a large number of fouls.
All of these things – fouls, offensive rebounds, less long jumpers – tend to limit Golden State’s transition offense. And their proclivity toward quick 3s which often caught teams off-guard only seemed to shorten their offensive possessions and further limit halfcourt efficiency.
It’s amusing, but LeBron’s ISO-itis isn’t a lot different than the Splash Brothers’ quick 3s in terms of sapping will for movement on offense. By the end of the game that’s all it was. Thompson and Curry took 28 second-half shots collectively (making 8), Barnes took 7, and the rest of the team took 10.
On the other side of the ledger it was the rest of the team carrying LeBron, who suffered through a horrendous night of shooting disguised by his ability to get to the line and a couple made 3s. He was 2-18 on 2s in the second half. The rest of the team shot 4-13 from 2 and 4-14 from three, with half their 48 second half points coming from Mozgov (6), Delly and J.R. Smith (nine apiece).
James must continue to find his guys in the second half, and not get so bogged down in scoring. One factor would be playing Moz-erati more, but Blatt seems fundamentally against that even though Tristan was -19 in the first half and -21 for the game. Indeed, for the series, Stephen Curry is 6-10 shooting over Thompson but only 1-4 going against Mozgov.
Mozgov has done a pretty good job hedging the pick and roll. He doesn’t full switch like Thompson will, but strings it out like a DE holding the corner, forcing the ballhandler to travel far enough that his man has time to catch up. It’s been pretty effective and puts another non-scoring player on the floor for the Warriors, making them that much easier to defend. (That said, Bogut is a good passer, though he only has two assists in the series.)
In a tweet yesterday Akron Beacon Journal
writer Jason Lloyd suggested that because the first two games went into OT that we should have more. We’re not so convinced. The idea that the Cavaliers took the hometeam to OT tells us that the Warriors might have trouble competing at the Q.
It’s long held NBA “knowledge” that role players perform better at home. That could mean a lot more help for LeBron, but it’s a synergistic relationship. Back at home, James ought to feel more comfortable on the court and that might translate to better offensive efficiency which in turn could open up more shots for his mates.
While we agree with those that have argued that Curry won’t have another shooting night as poor as this one, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to shoot well. Further, Thompson had a sick first half (9-13, 20 pts) but cooled down considerably in the second half (5-15, 14 pts). Expecting both Splash Brothers to go off seems a tad wishful and it doesn’t look like the Warriors have a whole lot else.
Draymond Green is 6-20 and has yet to hit a three. A night after getting 15, Andrew Iguodala had just 7, and while Harrison Barnes had 11 for the second time, he didn’t hit a single three (0-4).
We’re not suggesting the Warriors don’t have talent, but what this series has been a lesson in is the many other things that make a champion outside of talent. The Cavaliers are offering a graduate level course, but we think the Warriors are still underclassmen mentally. The kind of grit and resolve it takes to win a championship may be a little too new for them.
Throughout NBA history there was a sort of apprenticeship program where you would have to lose to really bend yourself properly to the goal. For James it was beating the Celtics, and he had to leave town to do it.
This is where the Cavaliers' real advantage is. James comes off like a combination of Douglas MacArthur, Tony Robbins and LL Cool J, leading his crew of Dangerfields with a trust and commitment like brothers. Do you have any doubt these guys would throw themselves in front of a runaway slam for James?
Can you even imagine how it would feel to have the greatest player of his generation and maybe in the history of the game believe in and trust you to take that shot at the end of the game? Call’em the Grit Crew, call’em mudders, because they don’t mind diving in the slop. Just don’t forget to call them when it’s time for a long-awaited parade because Cleveland’s finally gotten a team who’s spirit and resilience truly embodies the city, led by a guy who made a mistake and came back even bigger and better with little in his heart but to atone.
What can we say, he had us at I’m coming home.