It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. There were times of brilliance and times of slovenly indolence. The Cavaliers competed like every possession might be their last, but also slept walk like mall-bound zombies. In the second half King James and his minions awoke from their Dawn of the Dead nightmare to extinguish the Blazers, cutting off their air with smothering defense abetted by some of James’ signature offensive dominance.
It’s hard to know what the Cavaliers take away from this game other than a victory. As the team’s bi-polar play continues, it provokes a commensurately ambivalent response.
The Cavaliers played some of their best defense of the year in the second half defending one of the league’s best backcourts, a notable Cavaliers weakness. They had success playing a lineup with Kevin Love at center, which seemed unfathomable defensively before this, but against Portland was comfortably thigh-high.
On the other hand, they were down 16 points at home with two minutes left in the first half against one of the worst teams in the Western Conference. The team only succeeded when they sat their opening day backcourt of J.R. Smith and Mo Williams, going with scrappy end of the benchers Jared Cunningham and Matthew Dellavedova. The duo’s quickness finally allowed the Cavs to slow (but not stop) the Blazers’s penetration.
Meanwhile the team’s transition play continues to appall. While the turned up defense created 11 second half Blazer turnovers, and the Cavs finished +10 in turnovers (19 to 9), they still trailed in points off turnovers, 19-16. That’s because Cavaliers turnovers turn into points quicker than Browns QBs turn into pumpkins.
They’ve turned over enough new leaves to be playing a fruitless three-card monte game in the park so it’s hard to believe they’ve suddenly overcome their lackluster starts and frequent, inopportune defensive lapses. But we all knew with so many injuries that this would be a work-in-progress, so maybe the best advice is to sit back and not fret too wildly because they’re (mostly) moving in the right direction, and help is on the way.
Certainly the fact that Love was able to play long stretches at the 5 without the defense getting shredded is good news. However the Trailblazer frontline of Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, and Al-Faroque Aminu is Gary Coleman as measuring sticks go. Nonetheless, the idea that Love and James can hold down a lineup with three guards is a promising development
First Half Carnage
The first 22 minutes of the contest were pretty bleak. The Blazers opened the game by hitting seven of nine shots, then started the second quarter 9 of 10. With two minutes left in the half they had made 22 of 33 shots (67%) and led 52-36. The team initially came out with some energy, but their struggles defensively staying in front of Portland star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum seemed to sap their will.
Some of the mistakes were ugly like J.R. Smith watching the ball instead of his backcutting man.
The Cavs played them even for the first four minutes then let the Blazers go on a 12-0 run. They ran Lillard off hard Mason Plumlee picks that exposed Timofey Mozgov. He can’t get out on Lillard’s top of the key jumper.
The next time down they move the ball and CJ McCollum attacked a closing Delly off the dribble. Mozgov needed to follow his man Plumlee to the free throw to contest but is slow to react. This gives McCollum an open uncontested 17’ jumper
This was enough to get the Blazers going. McCollum hit a three from four feet past the line with Love leaping toward him, and Lillard followed with a three off the dribble in J.R. Smith’s face just after crossing midcourt, before they even started a set.
Meanwhile James and Love had at least four shots right at the rim that they couldn’t convert. They had some nice baseline picks that opened up LeBron and Love right under the basket, but they couldn’t put them down. Right after Mozgov fumbled a bounce pass from James into a turnover he sat down not to be seen again.
After the game Blatt blamed the matchups. He said that if they hadn’t gotten down so much so quickly they could have tried to stay big longer. But the Blazers forced his hand.
“This was a particular type of game,” he said. “We went down and had to do some things significantly to shake it up. Timo is getting better physically. We played the lineup we had to win that game. It might not be exactly how you want to play, but you want to win.”
One thing that was apparent in the first half as well as the second was LeBron James’ unwillingness to settle for jump shots. He drove often and with purpose finishing in ways that gave defenders no chance to contest. After starting the game 1 for 5, James made 13 of his next 19 shots and he made sure they were high percentage. Just look at his shot chart.
Toward the end of the first Blatt brought in Jared Cunningham. The former first round draft pick from Oregon State played for the Mavericks, Hawks and Clippers, but never saw much time. He’s shown a willingness to dig in and really defend, and has the quickness to guard 1s and 2s.
Blatt pared him with Mo Williams and it worked well, with Mo providing just the
offensive spark he was brought here for. He even looked to be trying harder on defense actually switching onto guys instead of following the ballhandler like a lost dog.
The Blazers came out the second hot, and it wasn’t necessarily even bad Cavs D. They’d simply given Portland so much life, they were starting to feel it. Meyers Leonard hit a fallaway jumper over Tristan Thompson, then later hit a pick and flare over LeBron. Three minutes were barely gone and they were up 37-21.
At this point Blatt gave up on Mo and went to Jared Cunningham and Dellavedova. Their ability to not only hang with Lillard and McCollum but stay in contact and physical with them would save the Cavaliers bacon, though it would take several minutes for the team to warm up offensively. This lineup also featured Kevin Love playing center, and at first it wasn’t such a good thing as Ed Davis exploited the matchup for a couple buckets.
Playing Love allows the Cavaliers to contest pick and roll plays out to the perimeter. They aren’t going to worry about stiff white seven foot jump shooter Meyers Leonard hurting them in the post, but Davis did roll to the basket and beat the rotations here. You can see how far Love is from the basket, yet he is quick enough to recover and gets a hand on the ball, almost disrupting Davis from receiving the pass and scoring.
Down 16 with two minutes left, the team went on a mini 8-2 run that cut the lead to single digits and gave the team a good feeling going into the locker room. Though they only made headway during that last bit, you could see the different intensity off everyone on the floor, they were leaping at guys, running out, helping without hesitation and earning floor burns with their energy.
“What I felt what gave us a chance to win was that minor run at the end of the first half,” said Blatt. “We showed a little bit of grit at the end of the first half to get back into the game, and I thought we defended extremely well in the second half.”
Then the Worm Turned
The team that came out in the second half was a different team. It didn’t wait to get punched in the mouth, but came out ready to do the punching with an 18-5 run over the first 7 ½ minutes fueled by Jefferson, Smith and Dellavedova threes. That gave the Cavs a two-point lead and snapped back Portland’s focus.
They didn’t necessarily stop the Portland backcourt which including swingman Allen Crabbe was 7-14 for 17 points in the quarter. But the Cavs first a ridiculous 9 turnovers in the quarter, including 5 steals by Smith and Love. The Blazers closed the quarter making five of their last six shots, and held Cleveland’s fast at two. But the entire tenor of the game had changed, in large part do to the harassing defense of Cunningham and Dellavedova.
The comeback third, interestingly enough was a pretty balanced affair. Seven different guys got buckets and three guys had two buckets. LeBron had only four points, while Love had ten by virtue of 8 free throw attempts in the quarter.
While teams continue to front him, they were able to find him both in post-ups, off screens, LeBron post passes and rim-running in transition. Seven of the ten hoops were assisted (none by LeBron) and three guys had two assists.
They suddenly remembered how good moving the ball was like that amnesiac from Memento. Do we need to write it on their foreheads? (No LeBron jokes.)
It almost seems a byproduct of their higher defensive energy as though giving themselves up and throwing themselves at guys on defense makes them want to share the ball on offense. Now if Blatt could just get them to always play hard on defense. (Patience, we’re still a little early in the calendar for miracles.)
Into the Fourth
Blatt got creative in the fourth quarter. Up six with two minutes gone, he subbed Cunningham for Jefferson and played a three-guard lineup with Williams and Delly alongside Thompson and James in the frontcourt. They used that lineup for six minutes before bringing Love back the final three minutes.
No one commented that Love sat out most of the fourth, by now that’s old hat, but even more due for comment was the performance of Williams. After being essentially demoted for his defensive shortcomings (even if it was coming soon with Kyrie’s return), Williams came up big against the Blazers.
He smoothed out some of the rough offensive patches for the second team, and though he is still a bad defensive player, he gave great effort and in the fourth quarter proved he can be a competent defender provided he doesn’t have to match up with opposing point guards. (Williams finished the game with 13 points and a mere -2 in +/-.)
This was made possible by the terrific defensive play of Cunningham who played a career high 34 minutes, garnering 7 points and putting up a +7 in +/-.
For a guy that wasn’t even supposed to make it out of training camp, he’s proven a valuable piece, and will almost undoubtedly receive a guaranteed contract for the rest of the year when that date comes due early in January. (At that point all those on non-guaranteed contracts must be signed for the year or cut.)
Even more essential is Matthew Dellavedova who made huge strides this off-season offensively. Whatever tentativeness he had last year around the basket has disappeared. His ability to throw the alley-oop is giving other teams conniptions. Here you can see they don’t even challenge his shot, so worried are they about the oop.
His assurance running the offense and feeding the post may make him the Wine and Gold’s best pure point guard, and he looks ready to challenge Iman Shumpert as its best perimeter defender. (Especially playing alongside Cunningham where Delly’s average foot speed can’t so easily be exploited.)
The success of this particular three-guard crew could come in handy as a second-team change of pace when Shumpert and Irving return.
We would be remiss if we didn’t say something about the 14 points LeBron scored in the fourth. Unlike previous fourth quarter “takeovers,” the presence of Williams on the floor allowed him to defer some of the offensive responsibilities and not be the subject of every play. He scored four points in the first third of the quarter, seven in the middle third and three down the stretch.
It’s a small and very particular sample, given the unusual lineup, but it’s some indication that James has taken to heart the manner in which the team stands around when he goes into his ISO mode. Whether that’s Blatt or James, the idea that he let others lead fourth quarter charges while seeming straightforward has not really been that way. It looked good last night, and will obviously be even better when Kyrie comes back.
Of course, nobody is really that worried about this team offensively, for all their inconsistency. The issue has been defense. As the second quarter last night and against the Hornets and Nets early this month indicated (both held to 38 second half points), this team is more than capable of getting tough, and Blatt’s willing to experiment to find the right mix out there.
The only real question is the one that’s hung over the team most of the season – will they be able to bring the same defensive effort night after night, or is this just another Coming Attractions? And when they start playing the cream of the league will their attention deficits land them in a hole deep enough even LeBron can’t pull them out?
We’ll be in Orlando for Friday’s game. Check in the afternoon for an update. There’s a reasonable chance that Kyrie Irving and/or Iman Shumpert will be back for the game. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. Look for a postgame analysis Saturday on the Scene Blog.