The Cavaliers have been flirting with trouble, and last night trouble surprised them with a reversal, takedown and arm bar, ending in a painful double-overtime pegging by the Milwaukee Bucks and referee Marc Davis. In the end it was perhaps what they deserved.
Describing the team as good but not great at this point, LeBron James said, “We have to play a lot more sustainable effort throughout the 48 minutes. And we don’t do that. We give a half-assed effort sometimes and expect that we can just make a run at the end. We’re not good enough to do that right now.”
Of course, a little context is probably necessary. The Cavaliers were playing their second road game in two nights, and back-ends of back-to-backs are notoriously tough. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s been sitting, waiting for this game for three days. It’s not surprising they came out with significantly more energy to start the game.
The Cavaliers' defense was actually pretty good to start, and forced the Bucks into 37% shooting. But because of the Bucks’ energy and length (everyone in their starting lineup’s at least 6-7), they rebounded 8 of their first 17 misses, and ended the first with nearly twice as many shots (29-16) as the Cavs.
Many may recall that last season the Cavaliers tried to get Kevin Love going by feeding him in the first quarter. That move returned last night, as Love hit half his eight shots in the opening stanza. That’s as many as he would take in the second-half and overtime as the team tended to go away from Kevin Love.
Why would that be? It is often more difficult to get Kevin Love the ball in a scoring position than it is Mozgov, particularly against the long, athletic guys who are playing power forward today. Last night Love faced “the Greek Freak,” and future all-star, Giannis Antetokuonmpo, a 6-11, 225 lb beast that looks capable of kicking sand in Love’s face and getting away with it.
Whether it’s post-up or pick-and-roll, Love seems to have trouble getting himself open with team focused on him. Early in the game, when team’s are still getting in the flow it seems to happen much easier, then that avenue closes down and all the traffic is rerouted through LeBron James Street and the J.R. Smith’s Magic Eight Ball. (Will he show up? “Ask again later.”)
Only his second game back from a minor knee injury that sidelined him for three games, Smith was more trick than treat. He was second to LeBron with a dozen second-half shots making just three of them (finished 4-14), and committing three turnovers, two in the second half, including a crucial fumble in the lane during the second overtime.
Of course, there just weren’t a lot of options to choose from. The unusually reliable (so far this season) Mo Williams missed the only three shots he took during regulation, as did Matthew Dellavedova. Both seemed troubled by the long arms of 6-7 point guard Michael Carter-Williams. Williams did get a couple hoops in overtime, finishing with four points on 2-8 shooting.
Love has proven particularly adept at passing the ball to James, and this could be the future direction the team moves on this. Love’s inability to get himself open limits, hinders the LeBron James/Kevin Love pick-and-rolls, but they had success working James off-the-ball that last couple games including a beautiful play coming out of a timeout.
As you can see it’s with Love in the high post, which with the elbow is a place of comfort for him. If it’s hard to stay with James when he has the ball, its doubly so coming off screens. We saw a similar play two games ago where LeBron ran a backdoor along the baseline for a dunk. James playing off-the-ball may be the answer to Love’s issues.
It’s worth noting that even with LeBron dominating the ball down the stretch, he only finished with 10 more touches than Love, but probably 30% more opportunities that presented a way to score. If Love is going to play off the ball, they need to be a lot more damn creative getting it to him, or he’s got to figure out how to be a roll man in the pick and roll. (According to stats.nba.com, Love is in the 22nd percentile as a roll man.)
Love’s Defensive Aside
At halftime, Chris Fedor snarked about Kevin Love’s defense, and Fear the Sword’s David Zavac liked his response which referenced Love’s defensive field goal rate. You’ll find comparisons for the last three years. So far this year, you’ll see he’s doing far worse.
The thing is that this doesn’t necessarily match the eye-test. It’s seemed that Love’s played decent positional defense. Inconsistent, yes, but those stats suggest one of the worst defenders on the team. Alright, that might still be true, but it definitely doesn’t seem like he’s fallen off a cliff from last year.
Looking at his Defense +/- (DBPM), Love is + 0.6, his second best showing during his career. Also his defensive rate per 100 possessions is 98, far lower than last year’s 105. Admittedly his offensive rating is also lower, 107 versus 115, so perhaps that’s a pace issue, though it’s probably just the fact that Love’s offense has been the worst of his career so far this season. It’s just not clear-cut how bad his defense has been.
If you didn’t know better, you might think he’s injured, because the only season he’s looked worse was the year he played 18 games. He’s finishing at the rim at a 45% rate, well below his 60% career rate. (He shot 49% at the rim during the 18-game season.) He is blocking a smidge more shots (0.9) than last year, his best rate since his rookie season.
As we noted in our Sunday column two weeks ago, Love is looking like the guy who will perpetually be found wanting because he was the primary scorer on a shitty team, perhaps exaggerating his value to an offense not built around him. And his defensive deficits are a long-standing issue. To this point, Love seems to be what he is, which is a third wheel/sidecar on what generally becomes a motor-/uni-cycle at the end of games.
Back to the Game
The most frustrating thing about last night’s game was perhaps how often the Bucks were able to get into the lane. They treated Cavaliers guards like turnstiles, and brutalized pick and roll defense. That is presumably why Blatt only played Timofey Mozgov four and change minutes in the second half and overtimes.
Blatt didn’t go with Thompson either. Tristan had the team’s worst defensive rating during the game allowing 113.6 points per 100 possessions while on the floor. Mozgov, by comparison, allowed only 85.8 points, but Timo’s offensive rating was a woeful 82.9. Where he looked good moving against the Knicks, he seemed to have more trouble with the quickness and youth of the Bucks, plodding through a season-low 16 minutes.
Thompson only played about 13 of the 34 minutes of the second half and two overtimes, with Love playing center much of the time. That spoke to the team’s need to get more offense on the floor, a particularly glaring lack with literally zero production from the point guards.
In fact, Thompson’s second half ratings were frightening – offense 76, defense 106 – the team’s worst in both categories. Love’s 89.6 defensive rating in the second half was behind only Mozgov and James Jones who played a collective eight minutes to Love’s 25.
The Cavaliers actually entered the fourth with no right to win the game, down 70-61, and not playing worth a damn. The Cavs outscored the Bucks 27-18. The comeback was led improbably enough while LeBron and Love sat during the first 3 minutes of the fourth. Richard Jefferson led a 10-2 run with eight points and JR Smith contributed a hoop to pull within 2, 73-71.
Unfortunately, the Bucks answered wit ha 9-2 run of their own, more than half against the starters, and the Cavaliers were down 11, 82-71 with half the quarter gone. The Cavs closed the quarter on a 17-6 run led by James 11 points. However, they could’ve won the game in regulation if James or Love had not each missed a free throw down the stretch. The Cavs missed 10 FTs and shot 63%.
As you might’ve guessed James missed 6, and usually reliable Jefferson and Love missed two apiece. James also had seven turnovers, and 21 for the team. The Bucks turned those into 26 points, while only committing 13 which the Wine and Gold converted into 16 points. James committed four of those turnovers in the extra frames.
With a brilliant nine minutes of the fourth quarter and a strong defensive overtime, the Cavaliers seemed poised to win after stopping the Bucks with seven ticks left and securing the rebound.
The Cavaliers had planned to push the ball rather than call a timeout, hoping to take advantage of the Bucks’ probable expectation of a timeout to get into the offense quickly and maybe score in transition, where they were arguably most effective all night. (Early in the game the Cavaliers got the ball up the court to post players who ran the floor and got early position, making for some quick offense. It was great and they should look to do that more.)
However, other players on the Cavaliers bench, and the coaching staff didn’t get the memo and jumped up from the bench and cried “timeout” in that kind of group think that sometimes afflicts humans. Of course, Blatt, apparently at James’ suggestion, had encouraged the team to push the ball on a rebound.
Referee Marc Davis heard timeout and blew the whistle, though when he turned to the only person not-on the floor capable of calling a timeout, Blatt hadn’t called it and neither had anyone on the court, all of whom knew the playcall. It was some stupidity by the Cavs bench and a bad mistake by Davis, cutting short a potential fastbreak hoop. In the end they got a long James 3 which clanged away.
James hit a three to start the second overtime, but they made a couple costly turnovers and couldn’t stop the Bucks. After pulling to within 103-102 on a Williams layup with half the overtime gone, Greivis Vasquez sunk his second triple of the night and the Bucks Carter-Williams hit a couple free throws creating a six point deficit the Cavs didn’t have enough left in the tank to erase.
The team’s poor defensive play and inability to score are best chalked up to the tough back-to-back road games. The Cavaliers’ intermittent attention span and present inability to consistently be locked in before the fourth quarter continues to dog the team.
The even more daunting take away is two-fold. The Cavaliers have some demonstrated issues with long, athletic teams. Beyond that the Bucks look to be perhaps the Cavaliers biggest Eastern Conference challenge in another year or two as their young stars mature. That fact that they’re so athletic and have showed great ability to hang with LeBron and company is a little disturbing even if both teams are somewhat hamstrung by injuries.
On the positive side, the Cavs hung in there for a game they might have easily phoned in. While they didn’t showcase consistent intensity, it wasn’t nonexistent. Richard Jefferson played 39 minutes and provided a needed spark, counterbalancing the utter disappearance of the Cavs guards.
Kevin Love showed that while his defense is sketchy and his offense in-and-out, he can be a fine facilitator for LeBron, which may ultimately be a way to get Love going. Using Love in pick-and-rolls doesn’t seem to be working and despite an avowal to get Love going inside, he’s taken 47% of his shots from the 3-point line, well above his 27% career rate. What can you say Cleveland, it’s still construction season.
Hopefully the loss will be a quick wakeup for the team. More likely this kind of half-assed behavior will continue until they feel a real challenge. Tuesday’s game against Detroit is unlikely to be that inspiration, so let’s call it a work in progress.
We’ll be on 91.1, WRUW’s Defend Cleveland show with Michael James on Monday at 11 a.m., and we’ll be reporting live from the Pistons game on Tuesday, tweeting and posting live video. You can follow us on Twitter at @CRS_1ne, and read out columns the day after every game on the Scene blog.