The Cavaliers beat the Grizzlies so badly last night you half expected candy to pour from their belly. Memphis took a lead at 6-5, then were plastered over like a billboard by a 19-2 run during which seven different Cavs players got baskets on assists from five different teammates. It was nearly a clinic on what sharing basketball is all about.
Since training camp began, the Cavaliers and Coach David Blatt have been preaching ball and player movement. During his post game on-court interview Kevin Love noted that the second side pick-and-roll was working well. That means when they ran the first pick-and-roll set they didn’t get bogged down but reversed the ball and ran it from the other side.
They finished with assists on 29 of their 41 baskets, and the play was the same whether starters or the bench were on the floor. (They also had 7 secondary assists, for the pass before the assisting pass.)
That same selflessness was visible on defense where rotations where much quicker than on Tuesday night in Chicago. What’s more, the Cavs were physical with the beefy Grizzlies. They pounded the boards, out-rebounding the Grizzlies by 14. Cavs players grabbed 49% of every rebound near them versus the Grizzlies' 35%. That’s a sign of how aggressively the players attacked the glass (which translated into 25 more opportunities).
Kevin Love led the carom-party putting his body within 3’ of the ricochet 19 times and securing 13 of them. (Thompson was 8 of 20, for comparison’s sake; Mozgov 4 of 9, and James a perfect 7 for 7.) On defense, 42 of the Grizzlies 82 shots were contested, versus just 39 of 84 Cavs' shots, as they made 51% of their contested jumpers versus the Grizzlies 33%.
All of this should tell you how seriously the Cavaliers dominated the Grizzlies. By the second half it was, for all intents and purposes, an exhibition game. That’s because the second team’s intensity didn’t slacken. From the outset they’ve talked about keeping a head-down, 1-through-15 mentality, about focusing on getting better.
Just last night Love said he didn’t want to hear the “C word” because they had to concentrate on the matter at hand. This isn’t surprising. Last season’s struggles and the bench’s playoff moxie pulled this team tighter. Watching the Warriors celebrate on your floor puts a special punctuation mark on the boot to the stomach of losing in the Finals. “So close… and look at all that champagne…..”
Of course, attention spans being what they are these days, talk is even cheaper. They came out lethargic against the Bulls then tore through the Grizzlies like wet tissue paper. Some of this just goes to show that preseason games don’t necessarily prepare you for when things count. Some of this is the fact that a focused Cavaliers team is a juggernaut, with or without their potential starting backcourt.
It’s good news that the Cavaliers reserves were able to maintain the intensity, and Blatt’s rotations seemed pretty good. Sometimes his man-crushes on Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson can leave the team a little short offensively. However, Delly (5-9 from the field, 2-4 from 3) looks more confident in his shot than last year. He scored 12 and was one of three reserves in double-digits.
Because of the blowout, the bench got a lot of burn and put up a fair percentage of the points, earning them a substantial share of the postgame press attention. They held the line which was important, but let’s not overstate things. When the Cavs punched the Grizzlies in the face they weren’t prepared and stood there sorta dumbfounded. When the next guys came in and hit them just as hard, you could see them kind of pack up and sock it away for their game tonight in Indiana.
Because of that it’d be a mistake to take too much away from this game. The Cavs won’t play this well that often (presumably) and their opponent usually won’t fold up shop so quickly once the season’s gotten going.
However we won’t dismiss this chance to throw some salutary light on the Richard Jefferson and Jared Cunningham. When Jefferson came into the league he was a high-flying, rim-rattling 20-point a game scorer. Then he was traded, got older and reinvented himself on the Warriors and Mavericks as a 3-point shooting specialist. Playing out West and on the bench it was easy to lose track of Jefferson over the years, but he’s still got something. RJ finished with 14 points on 5-6 shooting including a perfect 3 for 3 from beyond the boundary.
He’s also a great and willing interview which pretty much assures you’ll be hearing plenty of genuflecting about Jefferson’s skills.
What you probably won’t hear is people talking about how good J.R. Smith is. He’s got such a reputation that people don’t even necessarily see him even when they’re watching him. They see the shadow to which they’ve attached their prejudices (and they’re not all unwarranted).
But J.R. fell under LeBron James’ wing – like he did a dozen years ago when he trained during his junior year of high school in Akron – and has emerged a much different player. No longer do you see this guy with a great handle who uses it to go between his legs several times, crossover and take a fall-away jumper. He goes hard to the hole. Against the Bulls, half his shots came at the rim. He only got to the rim twice against the Grizzlies, but had seven assists to lead the team.
Repeat that to yourself. J.R. Smith led the team in assists. Yeah. It’s shaping up to be that kind of season. The temporary starting point guard Mo Williams is not good at defense, and we’ll leave it at that, but he is good at pushing the pace and the Cavaliers kept the ball coming up court all game long.
On rebounds that Love secures, Williams would head up court confident in Love’s ability to get the outlet to him, jumpstarting the team’s transition game, and allowing for quicker starts to the offensive sets. This isn’t something people will talk about a lot but it’s big. It also contributed to the high number of open threes (13-29 44.8%).
In the postgame LeBron said that he could get his points when needed but that the goal should be to make Kevin Love the focus of the offense. While Kyrie Irving will likely have something to say about that, his point is well-taken. James is much more efficient as a threat with the ball (but not necessarily a scorer), as he’s probably the team’s best distributor.
James has undoubtedly recognized that the team is much better if Kevin Love does what he does best – score and rebound – allowing LeBron to save his energy so that he can finish the kind of end-of-game drives that Pau Gasol rejected in Tuesday’s road loss. Indeed, perhaps the answer is that James isn’t the primary end of game option, but something of a decoy or even, perish that thought, an inbounder.
(After that insane media-generated firestorm around that Game #4 victory, you can’t blame Blatt for never letting James inbound the ball, even if it’s not a bad idea. We would’ve brought Varejao in for Thompson and have him trigger the ball, since Tristan’s unlikely to get an offensive board with just 3.6 on the clock.)
As an aside, we believe James asking for the ball looking for redemption before the media twisted the storyline to their needs. Just moments before he talked about how he “changed the play,” he’d noted how he’d stunk up the joint – 9-29, 8TOs to that point – making his plea to the coach for a chance at redemption.
However that context got lost and replaced by handy media storyline James was showing up Blatt and called the plays. This reinforced a questionable accusation earlier in the season during a Bill Simmons podcast that James called the plays and Blatt simply parroted them back to the team.
Love looked ready for the increased role, scoring 17 and shooting and making plays without the hesitation that sometimes marked last year’s play. James implied in his postgame comments that part of the poolside summer conversation was making Love more of an offensive focal point. It certainly makes sense.
Not being able to work his upper body thanks to the shoulder injury, Love not only got leaner but seems to have really worked his lower body. His base looks strong – in that when stops on a dime or makes a cut before going up for the shot, his legs and feet look set and he’s going up straight and strong, instead of leaning of falling away, reducing accuracy. Look for Love’s shooting percentages this year to jump, and it won’t be because he’s getting lots of alley-oops.
Varejao saw 11 minutes last night, same as the night before. Blatt’s clearly trying to manage Wild Thing’s minutes and that’s a good thing. Whenever Andy comes on the floor with the second team, the whole unit’s intensity and pace pick up.
His energy is infectious and the team really needs to make him the de facto second team captain when the playoffs come around. In his limited time Varejao was around a dozen boards, snaring five of them, scoring four points and dishing two assists.
Another guy who’s earned his time is Jared Cunningham. Someone asked why we keep talking about a scrub who scored 12 garbage time points in Memphis. These are the reasons: (1) former first-rounder is a perfect complement to Delly because he’s more of a SG, but is quick/good enough to guard PGs, (2) one of few players that can create his own shot, (3) drives more furiously Vin Diesel and draws plenty of fouls, (4) young enough that there’s still room to grow, (5) besides wild dervish drives, has acceptable three stroke.
Given the difficulty most of the Cavaliers point guards have staying in front of their man off the bounce, Cunningham has a real opportunity to carve out a 10-15 minute-a-night role on this team. Who’d have thunk that in training camp? Meanwhile, Joe Harris has slid down to the last seat on the bench, next to James Jones and Kaun.
The only blemish on the evening was the rather high 19 turnovers, which interestingly only produced 12 points for the Grizzlies, whose 16 turnovers gave the Cavaliers 23 points. That superiority turning turnovers into fastbreak/transition/quick points will be important to the team’s improvement this season.
It’s back home on Friday to host the Miami Heat, who remain one of the most chronically overrated teams in the league. Their aging stars offer more competition in people’s memories than they do on the court where their offensive spacing suffers for a lack of long-distance shooters, and their defense relies on a talented by moody and inconsistent center Hassan Whiteside, whose out of nowhere emergence last year changed the team’s trajectory. We see Miami suffering a raft of injuries this year which will take them out of tough Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
We’ll be at Quicken Loans Arena covering the game and tweeting during the action. We’ll provide analysis in the Scene on Saturday. You can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne.