The best thing about traveling by rails happens to be the best thing about following the Cavaliers this year and the name of a classic Yardbirds blues cover: “The Train Kept A-Rollin (All Night Long).” With each game they come closer to eradicating the distance between the end of last season and the beginning of this like a wormhole through time.
The same defensive effort that allowed the shorthanded Cavaliers to be an uncalled foul on a LeBron drive at the end of regulation in Game 1 from being up 3-0 on the Warriors is now showing up on a more regular basis.
Meanwhile the offensive juggernaut of last year's 33-3 second half regular season run is coming into better focus, even as the team sheds members to injury on a weekly basis. Even the guys that are playing are battered.
J.R. Smith unknowingly played through a broken bone in his hand, which is healed but still swells. Last night, Matthew Dellavedova played despite an ankle, and perhaps a back injury (he wore a weight-belt like accessory while on the bench), and put up 15 points (4 of 6 from 3) with 9 assists and no turnovers.
In their second game without injured center Timofey Mozgov, the team played hard defensively (for stretches). This appears to be a recurrent theme. Against the Hawks, Coach David Blatt disparaged the team’s bursts of inattentiveness.
“We played a lot of good minutes in that game and that should be noted,” Blatt said in Magic pregame presser. “At times we weren’t playing right. We weren’t good with the ball, we weren’t making good decisions, and we weren’t as focused in different areas of both sides of the ball as we need to be. That’s part of disciplining ourselves to play at a high level all the time.”
It’s been suggested that this is the same button James is trying to push, and clearly the increased comity between the two can partially be attributed to them being on the same page about what needs to be done with this team. Let’s be frank: the schemes and talent are both here. It’s just a matter of doing it consistently on a night-in/night-out basis.
That same issue reared its head against the Magic, who aren’t as good as the Hawks, but do have some talent. So far this year Magic Coach Scott Skiles has them playing hard enough defensively to be the 6th ranked team in defensive field goal percentage and 10th in defensive 3pt field goal percentage, a firm basis for taking the step to a playoff team.
Before the game he commented on the team’s fragility, and whether that’s the right term or not, the Magic had the Cavaliers on the ropes at one point, but lacked the kind of killer instinct that would’ve at least prevented them from having their doors blown off in the second half.
Let’s Talk Defense
Meanwhile the Cavaliers struggled mightily to score with their second team (which is realistically their third team when their four injured core players return), and had equal trouble defending the Magic in the paint. This is going to be an issue for as long as Mozgov is out. While the team has done well in defending the rim (fifth in league by FG%) they’ve allowed a lot their opponents to get a lot of shots there (19th).
This is no doubt a result of their troubles with the pick and roll, where they (have to) devote so much energy to stopping the ballhandler that the roll man winds up getting some unimpeded takes to the hole.
The other major issue the team’s had is allowing teams to convert a lot of their turnovers into points. The Cavaliers are 19th in defending the transition play and 22nd in points allowed off turnovers. Last night the Magic turned 10 Cavaliers turnovers into 21 points. That may be fine in a regular season game that was a laugher for long stretches, but as the season moves along that will need to improve.
Here’s a quick snapshot of the Cavaliers defense in key different categories.
With Mozgov out it’s going to be even more difficult to maintain that level of play. He’s one of the best players in the league at protecting the paint. While some have complained that he looks slow and not at the level he was during the playoffs, that’s more true offensively than defensively, where even at 80-85% he’s a formidable defensively presence.
Thus far this year Mozgov’s seventh in the league in rim protection (at least 6 FGA/gm) at 40.7% behind Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka, Derrick Favors, Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert. Below you can see that LeBron James, Timofey Mozgov and Matthew Dellavedova are among the league’s top defenders as measure by their defended FG% versus the expected one from that part of the court.
It’s a small sample size which includes some very odd names (David Lee & Kelly Olynyk aren’t known for defense, but playing on good defensive Celtics team, Austin Rivers) with the more expected ones.
The fact that LeBron James is playing the best defense in the league right next to Carmelo Anthony is going to blow some people’s minds but it passes the eye test. Dellavedova it should be noted is the third-ranked guard, a testament to the intensity of his play despite not having the greatest of foot speed.
Back to the Game
The Cavaliers came out like Ru Paul – there was no doubt. Before seven minutes were gone in the first quarter, the Cavaliers were up 22-10. James and Dellavedova split the team’s six assists and everyone on the team had a bucket, including three guys with a three.
The ball was moving around the court and it was creating open looks for everyone. For the game the team finished with 34 assists on 43 baskets and a year best rate (74.4%) of passes/touches. They had a season-best 11 secondary assists (third straight with over 9) and another 4 assists on missed shots that drew foul shots. This team was playing right all night on offense.
One thing the Cavaliers took advantage of early was a cross-match they created. Those are when a team decides to guard a different player on defense than guards them on offense. In this case it was Kevin Love choosing to guard the 3”-4” taller Nikola Vucevic, the Magic center. Vucevic is more of a pick-and-pop type who shoots well close to the basket but isn’t a post-up threat per se even on the smaller Love.
This left Thompson matched up on Tobias Harris defensively andallowed Love to get up court and spot up on offense while Harris had to locate his man in transition. It played very nicely into the Cavs’ recent tendency to get into their offense much quicker. But it also put the Cavaliers at threat, as Harris & Vucevic won the first quarter 11-9 over Thompson and Love.
“When teams play you situationally or by nature of their roster with small lineups for mismatch purposes or because that’s the best lineup they can put on the floor, one of two things can happen from it,” said Blatt after the game. “It either causes you problems offensively or you take advantage of it offensively. Little bit of both of that was happening in the first half.”
After jumping out to the big lead, the Cavs sat Delly for newcomer Jared Cunningham, the only healthy point guard on the roster. He joined a lineup featuring J.R. Smith and over-the-hill gang – Richard Jefferson, James Jones and Anderson Varejao. Not only did they lose all sync offensively, but lost the thread defensively as well.
From five minutes left in the first to six minutes left in the second, the Magic went 16-21 from the field, hitting 5 of 7 threes, and posting 38 points against the Cavaliers 16. LeBron sat for most it while Delly, Cunningham, Smith and Richard Jefferson bore the brunt. Jones, Varejao, Thompson and Love all racked up -11 +/- during this stretch.
Part of the issue was the Cavs committed 60% of their turnovers for game during this stretch. Orlando had 10 assists during this stretch going to six different guys, none with more than one.
Harris sat for much of this time as well, as little used reserve Andrew Nicholson got to star in the running Cavaliers feature, Making A Backup Look Like a Hall of Famer. You may remember last year’s show featured extras like Sheldon Mack and Justin Holiday. Tonight it was Nicholson’s turn as in 10 minutes he matched his season’s output for points with 12.
As you can see in the above clip of the sequence it as a combination of typical Cavaliers bugaboos – penetration, transition defense, rotating to the 3 shooter. Anderson Varejao gets caught on more than a couple occasions failing to rotate quick enough. Given his limited floor time to date, that’s forgivable. Other times the defense feels lackadaisical at best.
Asked if the fault was more the Magic getting hot or bad defense, Blatt faulted a little of both.
“I thought they shot the ball very well in the first half,” Blatt said. “They do move the ball. They run the ball at you fast, and I think we just had to pick it up a few notches in order to slow them down.”
As the run extended, Blatt didn’t panic and go back to his starters, instead giving Love and James extended breaks. When the King finally did reenter the game he made sure that Kevin Love was the happy recipient of the largesse such that he felt like a Kardashian where moments earlier he was just a Jenner.
Love who had 11 points to that moment got SI Bathing Suit issue hot, hitting his next five shots, including 4 threes for 16 points. JR Smith added another couple hoops as the Cavaliers outscore the Magic 21-7 over the last half of the second.
The second half started began with the teams trading baskets. With 7 minutes left the lead was 70-64. Then the wine and gold went on a 19-4 run over the next 5 minutes to blow open the game. They went 5-6 from the field, shot 6-6 from the line, and everyone on the starting team scored between 4-6 points in the run, except LeBron, who stood back and watched. (He had a steal and an assist, but this was team offense.) Suddenly it was 89-68, and the game was over.
“We were sort of running alongside the game defensively in the first half in the second half we imposed our will and that was the difference,” said Blatt.
Long Live the King
LeBron joined Oscar Robertson last night as the only other basketball player to finish in the top 25 in scoring and assists. As the game was something of a blowout, this trivia received some good run today.
If you’ve watched him for any time you’ve notice that LeBron James struggles with personal accolades. In talking about his passing the other day he referenced his first organized basketball where the team received the most valuable player award, and it informed his perspective.
He’s no doubt proud and wants to be as dominant as any player who has ever played. But where in his early career he was occasionally maligned for his knowledge and desire to follow stats, it’s not something that defined him, quite the opposite. As he’s racked up impressive trophies he’s seemed less and less interested in anything outside the Lawrence O’Brien award.
“For me all I care about is winning,” he said after the game. “I have enough stats.”
Perhaps that’s because it’s the only award he can’t go out and win himself. Indeed, to win the NBA Championship you have to be a selfless cog in the machine. Even if that means shooting every time because that’s what’s required, as James had to do – rather uncomfortably – in the Finals.
In noting the season-high 18 threes the team shot, nine of which LeBron assisted on, he noted how that was part of the team concept for how the Magic played him.
“I sensed earlier they were doubling me on the pass and they were going to try to make [my teammates] beat them by me passing the ball. Every time I caught the ball in the post they doubled me right away,” James said. “I just found my guys and my guys were knocking them down.”
As we noted in the column yesterday, many teams like to double James and force him to give up the ball. But when J.R. Smith is knocking down 10 of 16 shots (including 6-10 from three) and Kevin Love is making 11 of 18, what can opponents do. The way the Cavs are moving the ball on offense, that’s increasingly becoming an expected result. If J.R. can start to untrack his shooting like during last year’s run, the league better watch out, with or without Kyrie.
Anderson has played 32 minutes the last two games, as much as he’d played in the previous five. It’s tough to create an continuity on offense or defense when you’re getting so little time, and Varejao’s rust has been particularly evident on defense.
His rotations are slow, particularly to the three line, and he’s not providing any rim protection whatsoever. Opponents are shooting 17% better from within 10’ than they normally would and he’s allowing a 60% shooting rate at the rim. Only James Jones (62.5%) on the team is worse.
He’s an eleven-year pro so it’s perhaps not surprising his shot’s come back. (He’s shooting 48% from the field.) Last night he demonstrated his boundless energy on the boards. He had 11 rebound opportunities in under 13 minutes and grabbed eight of them, three on the offensive end. Tristan only had 20 opportunities in 34 minutes. That level of activity is a good sign, even if the defense still has some ways to go.
In the postgame, Blatt commended Varejao on the work he’s put in to come back from last December’s achilles tendon rupture.
“It’s not an easy injury – it finished my career,” Blatt said, recalling the injury that finished him at 32. “He really worked hard from day one. I can still remember him coming to the gym after he got out of surgery and starting the process. From day one he was already thinking how am I going to come back and be the same player that I was.”
For his own part Varejao confessed that of all the injuries, this has been the toughest to rehab and get back into the game flow.
“It’s tough not only because of the time I was out, but coming back from the injury that I had, it’s by far the toughest one I’ve had in my career, and I’ve had some tough ones,” said Varejao. “I’m feeling good. I’m getting what I wasn’t getting before, which is some basketball rhythm. Just getting my leg back into basketball rhythm. I’m just trying to stay ready to help the team.”
Back on the Road
The Cavaliers have been astounding at home since the big trade and are still undefeated at the Q this season. The real tests come when they hit the road. Tomorrow’s game against Toronto could be one of those game, though the Raptors’ recent loss of center Jonas Valinciunas to a broken bone in his hand will diminish their capacity. That’s followed by Charlotte on Friday and then back home for a back-to-back against a wretched Brooklyn Nets team.
We expect the Cavs to bring it against last year’s Eastern Division winners, but are concerned they might overlook the Hornets who have the third-best record over the last 10 games, just one game off the pace of the Cavaliers (and Pacers). It’s just the type of game – the day after thanksgiving – that could turn into a Black Friday for Cleveland.
So far the Cavaliers have been everything you could’ve asked for. No they aren’t undefeated like the Warriors, but maybe that’s for the best. This team sometimes struggles with tremendous success as their swagger tends to distract from the blue collar (read: gritty defense) aspects of their approach.
In that way the Warriors undefeated start has been a blessing of sorts, attracting all the media attention. That puts the Cavaliers in the underdog role LeBron so enjoys. Indeed, one wonders how huge the story of LeBron walking off the floor would’ve been if it had occurred last year. But this year the league and press’ attitude toward Blatt has mellowed, and the circus that surrounded the team last year has moved on to another story. Good riddance!
We won’t be at the games on Wednesday or Friday, but will be tweeting and posting live video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our deep analysis the day after the game, though because of the back-to-back over the weekend we may only do a Sunday column, which you can always find here on the Scene blog.