The Cavaliers must’ve run into a vacationing Santa in Orlando because their stockings were overflowing against the Magic on Friday, winning 111-76. They were gifted a team returning from a 9-day, 5-game road trip which regarded the Cavaliers like the baggage carousel: Orlando stood around wearing a thousand-yard stare waiting for some energy, which never arrived.
Meanwhile the Cavaliers behaved like roughly chastised Catholic school students. They played basketball with vigor and passion, passing and defending – playing the right way all game long, as if Mother Superior were awaiting them on the sidelines with her ruler.
On defense they got into their opponents’ bodies not casually following their man around. They had 12 steals, their first game all season in double figures. On offense they moved the ball intently, passing and forsaking their own shots to help their teammates get better ones. They finished the game shooting 57%, also a season-best.
For the second straight game they matched their season-low in three-point attempts, taking 21, while hitting 11 of them. This has been an issue for the Cavaliers, who sometimes seem to willing to settle for a three too early in the shot clock when there’s still time to attack a defender’s close-out off the dribble and get a more open shot. (Especially as across league teams increasingly attack 3-point shooters very aggressively, often opening driving lanes.)
“I believe taking a lot of threes just to take threes is not a good thing. We ourselves have been guilty of that,” Blatt said before the game. “You want good shots, whatever they may be.”
The real idea – and one several players mentioned after the game – is not to settle. Keep looking to improve the shot opportunity. That’s a lesson King James has taken to heart, it would seem.
LeBron took but one three-pointer, as for the second game in a row he attacked the rim like it dissed his mother. Nine of his ten baskets came at the rim. Almost nothing but high percentage shots.
LeBron was at his best during the second quarter, when he helped lead the team to a 16-point lead. He had 16 of the team’s 31 points and other than Delly (who had six on 3 for 3 shooting), nobody scored more than 2 points. When James left the bench in the second quarter three and a half minutes were gone and the two teams had scored a collective six points.
The lead was eight, 34-26, with 4:40 left in the quarter when the Cavs went on a 17-5 run. During the four-minute run, James scored 14 points on 6-6 shooting, and had two of his four steals. Love assisted on half of James’ baskets, making his contribution without scoring in the quarter. Finally James decided not to wait until the fourth to salt away the win.
“We made the extra pass – the hockey assist – different guys were stepping up doing different things,” said Love after the game. “All around we were all working together in a very good way.”
You can see that happens as Delly gets a shot so open he could be a 24-hour convenience store.
You can also see the result in the boxscore. LeBron had 8 assists, Love and Delly 6 apiece, and Mo Williams another four. One of the most impressive things – something fans have hardly seen at all this season – is consecutive passes without a guy dribbling. The team tied a season high for secondary assists with 11 (also against Orlando).
Several times the Cavs made four passes before someone made a move or attempted a shot. The ball went inside and out. The number of passes to touches reached 74.6% their second-best ratio this season. (The overtime loss to Milwaukee was #1 at 75.9%, and their last game against Orlando, in Cleveland, it was 74.5%)
“Ideally on a good offensive possession (outside the initial play where you handle the ball), if you can pass five or six times without taking a dribble, you’re playing the right way,” James Jones said after the game. “That’s how we want to play because the ball always moves faster than the man. If we do that – we’re already tough to guard – and we’ll be extremely tough to guard.”
The game marked the return of Iman Shumpert to the lineup. Shumpert injured his right wrist dunking the ball, and has been out since before training camp. He gave the Wine and Gold a real boost, scoring 14 points on seven shots, with a couple threes, including this very nice drive from the left side.
He put up +19 in +/- in just 24 minutes, the best off the bench. The energy he brought when out there was off the charts. Blatt was particularly complementary after the game.
“I wanted to play him longer because he looked so good. He has WORKED. And trust me we see it every day,” Blatt said after the game. “Let me take a step back, he came into camp in fabulous shape because he’d done great preparation in the summer time… [after the injury] he kept working and working, kept himself in good physical shape. Worked on his left hand. He’s been chomping at the bit for a while because he wanted to come back sooner than we wanted him to.”
Cutting Off Dribble Penetration at the Knees
Where early this season the Cavaliers looked pathetic stopping dribble penetration, they’ve sealed up that issue with several lineup moves. Mo Williams was demoted in favor of Dellavedova, and with J.R. Smith still back in Cleveland “sick”, Jared Cunningham got the start.
Cunnigham’s offense is shaky but he’s a terrific on-ball defender. Team him with scrappy Aussie wunderkind Matthew Dellavedova and Shumpert off the bench and you have lockdown capability. This is quite the switch for a team that’s bled points like a hemophiliac at the hands of penetrating guards all season.
How will Kyrie’s return affect this? We can only hope he plays defense like he did immediately after LeBron’s return. Though he fell off toward the last month of the season, Irving played the best defense of his LIFE in February. Getting him back there needs to be a high priority for Blatt and Cavaliers.
But Irving’s offense will presumably help the D as well by forcing the opponents to take the ball out of the net even more, limiting transition opportunities. (On the other hand, Irving often lands out-of-bounds on his drives, opening up fast break opportunities if he doesn’t finish or draw the foul.)
While it’s simply conjecture, we would not be surprised if Kyrie came back for the Boston game on Tuesday. With three days between games there’s lots of time to plan how to do it, and he’s already out there looking good. He worked up quite a sweat working out pregame with coach Phil Handy, taking threes and driving from the wings and the top of the key.
His ability to create his own shot will help, and he should have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the team keeps passing like this.
Timo Takes a Step Forward
There’s yet another return to talk about – that of Timofey Mozgov. He had his best game of the season in Orlando, scoring 17 points in under 20 minutes on 8 of 9 shooting. That made him the team’s second-leading scorer while playing the seventh-most minutes.
He was moving so smoothly you’ll be forgiven for wondering if Mozgov has been kidnapped and replaced with a near exact duplicate, except this one can catch a pass and finish fluidly.
After the game Blatt complemented Mozgov for playing through his injury and his inconsistency (implying the two were related). Some thought this was a sign that Mozgov is better, but that’s sadly a misplaced hope. The seven-foot Russian is simply showing off his toughness and better focus.
“I am getting closer [to full health],” he says. “But my knee is still crazy. It should be okay right now but it still bothers me. It’s better than it was two or three weeks ago, but it’s still not right…. There’s only two ways to go step back or step forward, but taking a step forward is much harder.”
Mozgov and James accounted for 34 of the team’s 50 points in the paint, together topping the Magic’s 28. These were finishes in people’s faces, and the pair accounted for 17 of the teams 28 contested baskets and 21 of their 44 contested shots. The Cavs also held the Magic to 40% shooting at the rim, and the Magic only made 14 of their 42 uncontested shots. (They made 53% of their uncontested shots against the Cavs at home.)
Down by 16 at halftime, the Magic made the first two buckets of the third quarter to cut the lead to 13. At that point the Cavaliers went on a 19-0 run over a 5-minute stretch to put the game out of reach. Mozgov was big in it, scoring nine points to go with threes by Love, Delly and Shumpert. Six of the seven hoops were assisted (3 by LeBron).
When it was over the Cavaliers were up 73-41. The Magic scored more points in the final two minutes of the third than they did the other 10, barely scraping out 15 points, setting another Cavs season-record for fewest points allowed in the third quarter.
The ball movement stands in stark relief against a Cavaliers team that just a couple weeks ago kept slipping into ISO and hero ball. Too many guys were trying to do it themselves leaving everyone else in the cold. (Though Love really didn’t get many good post opportunities and finished with eight points, his six assists attest to his involvement.
Indeed, everyone on the squad seemed involved as the offensive ball movement seemed to generate greater focus and intensity. Nothing like watching LeBron play one-on-one for a several minutes at a time to take a team out of its flow. James Jones nearly said as much after the game.
“We moved the ball exceptionally well tonight. Whenever we do that – for the guys who aren’t touching the ball, who aren’t handling it in transition or initiating the offense – when you just touch it and feel you can make a play that results in your team scoring, even if you don’t get the assist because it’s two passes before, you start building momentum,” Jones said. “You start building a feel of productivity and that’s what you want. Everyone in these units gets to feel that they’re productive.”
Jones probably wasn’t feeling too productive going into the fourth as the only guy who’d been in the game but hadn’t scored. He’d missed 3 shots and missed another two before he got white hot. While Jones has his issues (rebounding, defense) it’s extraordinary to have a player who can sit for several games without getting much burn, then come on and hit five straight shots, including four threes.
“Sometimes it’s tough coming off the bench and trying to find a rhythm the more you settle in the more you get a feel for the rim. Once you get a rhythm you can make shots,” he said.
This was the kind of game the Cavaliers have been looking to play for a while, and especially on the road. They controlled every facet of the game and played hard from start to finish.
The level of defense commitment suggested both the probably harping of the coaching staff and the difference it makes having several defensive minded players on court at same time. If you play them mostly with LeBron, you also don’t have to worry so much about their inability to score, and, thankfully, that’s no longer a problem for Delly, who hit another of his crazy floaters and finished with 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting, with a couple threes.
Now it’s just a question of replicating it.
“We know that we’re capable we just have to sustain it for 48 minutes,” said Love after the game. “We’ve been saying that but we’ve had lulls or progressions where we haven’t necessarily played like we’re capable of. It’s one of those things where we did need a game like this but we really need to string a number of these in a row.”
You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our column the day after most games.