The Cavaliers gave the Sixers what they had coming. They’ve had it coming all year and have gotten it on the regular. Unlike their last visit which ended in just a six point deficit, the Wine and Gold showed up properly primed with their missing superstar back on the floor and wiped it with the shorthanded Sixers.
We say shorthanded because there are not any younger or more talent-bereft teams in the league. They have some intriguing bigs but there’s a boatload of NBA refugees as well. In the pregame presser, Sixers Coach Brett Brown explained succinctly the difficulty of his job when he noted that of the 34 players that have been on his roster (he didn’t give a timeline but we’re assuming the last year and a half), twenty are no longer player in the NBA.
So for all the good things that happened in Cleveland’s 108-86 pasting of visiting Philadelphia, they must be taken with the grain of salt that the Sixers just aren’t very good. During one sequence they traveled on consecutive possessions, followed by an offensive foul and another turnover. They’d have more success in the Laff-A-Lympics than the NBA.
It marked the return of Kyrie Irving, bringing last season's juggernaut lineup together for the first time since Kelly Olynyk made a wishbone of Kevin Love. Kyrie looked rusty missing four shots before getting a layup courtesy LeBron James.
"I was on my way to the rim, and I saw Ky," said LeBron James after the game. "He had missed his first couple shots, and it was like the best way to come back is to get a layup, an easy one and it was only right I was able to find him."
Kyrie scored twelve on the night along with four assists and two steals. By the second half he'd shaken much of the rust off and looked like his old self on these consecutive third quarter buckets, including a terrific Eurostep reverse layup.
One home team deficiency didn’t change for the better: The Cavs put up another stinker of a first quarter. We talked last week
about the team’s stout second half defense making up for first half sins. Last night was more of the same.
Dellavedova committed four of the team’s six first quarter turnovers as the Sixers ended the first with a 25-21 lead. It was all over but for the crying from that point forward. The Cavaliers allowed their third lowest quarter of the season, holding the Sixers to 13 points in the second. (They held Memphis 10 pts in the first, in game #2, and the Knicks to 12 in the fourth of their Madison Square Garden second half comeback.)
It was the most intense defense they’ve brought to bear all season, creating six steals and ten turnovers, while keeping them to 4-21 from the field. It was intriguing not just because of the how hard they played. Kevin Love only played 85 seconds because of foul trouble and Irving played less than five minutes. Shumpert only played two minutes in the quarter.
Trickle Down Effect
It was a lineup of Delly, J.R. Smith, James, Mozgov and Tristan Thompson that did most of the damage – a lineup potentially featuring just two starters. The hope is that this is a sign of a trickle down effect in the lineups brought by the return of Shumpert and Irving.
One of the reasons the team has done so poorly in the first half is simply that they’ve had to play guys who should be further down the bench. Some changes have already been made, as Mo Williams no longer starts. His lineups produced some very ugly numbers.
The addition of Jared Cunningham into the rotation seems to have made a dramatic difference in the second quarter defense. Even though Mo Williams conceivably brings more offense to the squad, his deficiencies seem to outweigh it. He will need to be spotted in the future and paired with players that allow him to hide his trouble guarding quick guards – guys like Cunningham. Hopefully the newly whole team now finally can deploy their depth to do this.
It really seems to be a matter of finding the right mesh. Looking here you can see that Richard Jefferson is a feature of all three of the four worst lineups, but also three of the top five. The fact that Delly will theoretically be able to play longer minutes in the second to bolster the second team now that Irving’s back will hopefully stabilize this facet.
If the team could play the way they do in the second half in the first half, they could finally could themselves an equal to the Spurs and the Warriors. They’re not there yet, but it’s finally possible to seem continual strides. Certainly it does the heart proud to see throw downs like this from the young Cunningham off a Kyrie feed.
This probably means an increasingly diet of “Where’s KLove?” stories and queries. Against the Sixers Mozgov saw nearly as many touches (32 to 35). It’s such a non-story inasmuch as Love’s real value will become much more apparent in the playoffs when teams actively scheme to take the ball out of James and Irving’s hands.
The third wheel always suffers, but his threat as a 3-point threat and in the post will continue to force teams to take action. Kevin Love is the most deadly scorer in the league in the post, but it’s difficult to get the ball in to him sometimes and the Cavaliers have other options than force-feeding the post.
Finally, if Love is happy just playing hard defense than who are we to complain. He’s one of several guys who seem to be spending more times with his hands up and out in the passing lanes. He made this nice play leading to a Kyrie breakaway just by keeping his hands active.
Through November 27, the Cavs were averaging 5.5 steals/game. Over the last nine games they’ve averaged 8.6. That doesn’t happen by coincidence, and it isn’t Shumpert, because he’s barely played. That’s a team-wide effort to be more active on that end.
Signs of Health
Timofey Mozgov had another solid game scoring eight points and grabbing eight rebounds in 24 minutes. LeBron was feeling so good he even threw a pass to Mozgov in the right corner 3 area. That made the King an accessory to a shot crime, but its heinousness was lost in the runaway blowout.
The return of Mozgov and Shumpert has made a tremendous difference for the team. Though Mozgov would probably protest, “Don’t call it a comeback.” While the knee is healed, there is still scar tissue and soreness to work through. His back was nagging at him and the right shoulder injury that eventually made him sit. (Blatt begrudgingly admitted it might’ve helped Mozgov to sit for a few games.)
It’s a matter of not letting your maladies distract you from the task at hand. They can’t let him stop pressing and working hard. In his inimitable, wise beyond his language manner, Mozgov dropped science on Fred McLeod after his breakout performance in Orlando, an icebag still icing his shoulder.
“If you want to be good ten days from now, you have to work today,” explained Mozzy. Alluding to his maladies and the struggle not so much for “mental toughness” so much as “focus,” he explained, “All those things separate your attention from the basketball.”
We were waiting for Mozzy to warn Fred not to step on the grasshopper at his feet.
But it’s true, that since taking his four game, eight-day siesta, Mozgov has been a different player. SportVu information on speed and distance is pretty new and it’s hard to know how much credence to put in the numbers but there is something there.
While Mozgov’s offensive speed has been pretty constant all season, his defensive speed has moved around. Over the first 11 games, until the game before the injury, Mozgov moved 3.89 mph on defense.
He sits out, and the first five games he’s like he’s shot out of a cannon. He moves 4.22 mph but it’s maybe a little overzealous and his timing might’ve been off from the sit. The team goes 2-3. Then over the last five games it mediates. He’s moving at 3.98 mph and the team’s undefeated.
We have no idea if that really is indicative of anything or just weird signal noise, but it’s interesting like a trade rumor. But just from the eye test, it looked like Mozgov was moving pretty damn well on these consecutive baskets.
It seems years ago since Dellavedova looked like a slow-footed tweener that wasn’t able to really run an offense, guard a quicker man, or hit anything but catch and shoot threes. That was maybe how he looked coming out of training camp last year. Even after a couple months he looked exposed by quick counterparts like Lou Williams or even Ramon Sessions. What wasn’t as apparent to us in the media or among the fandom, was how much fight this guy has in him.
There’s a great line in Eliot’s Wasteland
about how out expectations imprison us. “We think of the key, each in his prison/Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.” Many limitations are imaginary, and it’s only our willingness to give them power that limits us.
Delly believes he belongs here, and last year in the playoffs confirmed it. You don’t have to know that Sixers Coach Brett Brown cut him from the Australian National Team in 2010 only to have Delly bully his way onto the team and into the starting point guard role two years later. Or that this offseason was spent honing his game with the Olympic team.
You can see a bit of swagger about him, about the grit. Brown once called him more Jack Dempsey than Muhammad Ali, a nod to the ‘not pretty’ aspects of his game. The best description of his combination of heart and smarts came from Brown’s after Delly held Curry to 5-23 shooting in the Finals. Now it's hard to argue he's more slugger than boxer.
“There's a technical side and a studied side that all collide under the roof of toughness to produce a gifted and elite defender,” he told the San Jose Mercury News at the time. “Look at him move his feet and contest Steph Curry at the end of the game. He shows his hands to refs and uses his chest better than any player I've seen.”
While Matty’s improved his many parts of his game from assists/turnovers (from 3.3 to 3.9) to free throw shooting (76% to 91%), the most striking is his play in and around the lane. It’s what’s given rise to the fourth-most frequent alley-oop connection in the league with Tristan Thompson (a gem of a stat they pulled out for the broadcast).
For a while it would appear the book on Dellavedova was that he couldn’t/wouldn’t finish or didn’t want to shoot around the basket. He shot 39% at the rim last year and 24% from 3’-10’. He took about a quarter of his shots there and more than 54% from beyond the arc.
This year he’s not only improved on his 3-point shooting (from 41% to 44%) but diversified. He’s getting 35% of his shots from within 10’, making 50% of those at the rim and 42% of those from 3’ to 10’. He’s even hitting 10 percentage points better from 10’-16’ (46% vs. 35% last year). His average shot distance has moved almost 3’ closer as a result.
His defensive field goal percentage has gone down each of his five years in the league going from adding 1.4% to opponents’ shots to just about break even last year to lowering opponents shooting by 1.6% and 7.1% on 3s. Delly’s a big part of how the Cavs have allowed the 6th lowest 3-point shooting percentage in the league. (Spurs and Warriors are 2 and 3 behind… the Knicks??)
He finished last night with 20 points, just one short of a career high (vs. Det. 3/26/14), on 7 of 10 shooting and 4 of 6 from 3. We’ve noted before how hard it is to play him as great as he’s become at feeding alley-oops. Teams hang back willing to concede the floater, which Delly’s been making them pay for.
It’s extraordinary that now, with Kyrie back, the thought isn’t “thank God,” so much as, “how’re the Cavs going to continue to use this guy effectively, because he’s a fireplug that really keys the team’s defense.” But that’s the truth.
Cleared for Takeoff
The NBA season is a lot like airplane travel. There always seems to be a lot of taxiing and more waiting to take off than actually taking off. Now that that Cavs have everyone back that process can begin in earnest.
After the game both Blatt and James pointed to the ferocity with which they attacked the third quarter, and they aren’t wrong. But that hasn’t been the issue this year. Seeing them put the screws to a team defensively in the second quarter – that was something new.
Hopefully Kyrie’s return (apportioned for the time being in 5 minute stretches at the beginning of each quarter) will have a positive domino effect and enable the team to pick up the first quarter intensity. They’ve trailed at the end of one in seven of their last nine games.
There’s one more home game, Wednesday against the Knicks before the Cavs leave town for three weeks. We’ll be at the Q, tweeting and posting live video. You can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our game analysis the next day after every game on the Scene Blog.