Don’t call it a comeback because LeBron James’ jumper was never as dead as, say John Travolta's pre-Pulp Fiction
career. Awakened from its slumber, James used the rejuvenated J to defeat the Orlando Magic 104-79 in a game that reached “garbage time” before halftime.
For several reasons none of this should surprise you. First, the Cavaliers have pummeled the Magic twice already this year with such extreme prejudice and merciless indifference, you might mistake them for lawyers. James and Co. have gotten in their heads. The Magic came out of the locker room so ready to be beaten they practically handed the Cavs their belt and bent over.
There’s also the fact that the Magic are playing the second night of a back-to-back, while the Cavs have had some time off and even had a practice together since ending their four-games-in-five-nights road trip. Also add to that a Cavs team that’s finally at full-strength with Kyrie Irving not expected to miss any more back-to-backs and his minutes restriction close to coming off.
Finally there was LeBron James who came into this game with a peculiar focus for reasons of his own.
It added up to dark storm clouds over the Magic. Almost from the jump the Cavs were tenacious defending, good at getting out in transition and moving the ball and bodies on offense.
On their second hoop, Tristan Thompson grabbed an offensive rebound and the ball reversed sides before finding Love in the post, who faced up for a 16’ jumper. There were a couple transition hoops but it was still only 8-2 with more than four minutes gone with the Cavs ran a clever play to get Kevin Love open for a three.
Though Love missed the shot, he was fouled in the act, one of five times that the Magic fouled three-point jump shooters, a basketball sin. Love only hit two of the three shots, but it seemed to both signal a let down by the Magic and spark a 15-5 run by the Cavs in just over three minutes. Suddenly it was 23-7 and it didn’t improve for the Magic.
During this sequence we saw LeBron working off the ball before receiving a pass from Delly as he came screaming through the lane. How do you stop him off-the-ball?
Here's a video of the play.
The Magic endured a five minute scoring drought shortly after the second period began, during which the Wine and Gold made another 12-0 run, featuring 7 from Mozgov That made it 41-15 with almost six minutes gone in the second. They ran some other plays for LeBron, including this one with Timofey Mozgov which he used for an open straight-away jumper
The Cavs played with good pace in the first half, something that Kyrie cited as one of the keys.
“It was a lot more freedom in terms of us getting back to playing the game with a lot better pace,” he said. “It all started with our defense. We understand that in order to be a great team in this league we have to get defensive stops that lead to our offensive execution.”
After the game Coach David Blatt cited the team’s willingness to move the ball and their bodies, something that hasn’t always been the case this season.
“It’s certainly something that’s been emphasized of late… we have been putting an emphasis on it because we had a period there where the ball stopped a little bit too much,” Blatt said. “It starts with emphasis. It starts perhaps with some of the sets we’re running, but it really comes down to our guys doing it.
“That’s what it’s about,” he continued. “We have players that are capable of passing the ball and moving their bodies; they do that we’re tough on offense”
It’s Good To Be The King
Administering rough justice much of last night was LeBron James (29 pts, 5 reb, 3 ast), whose pride was perhaps wounded last week by a piece singling out the King’s outside shooting. John Schuhmann made the case
that this year James is the worst high-volume shooter outside the paint, even worse than Kobe.
All road trip, even before the tweet, James did extra shooting. Let it be known he already does a lot of shooting, and can often be seen after practice playing Around the World type games with Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and others. Last night before the game he was out taking jump shots. We’d never seen it, and the security guard was overheard commenting to someone else that he’d not seen him do this all year.
Yes, the gauntlet has been thrown.
LeBron responded by hitting 13 of 24 in Tuesday’s victory over the Nuggets, including 6 of 9 from 16’ to 24’. Last night LeBron was 11 of 18, including 4 of 7 from three-point land. Only twice has LeBron made that many triples – in back-to-back road losses to Milwaukee and Detroit in November. Indeed he’s only made more than one three-pointer twice in the last 18 games since.
Before the game he wasn’t working on threes, but his midrange game. Assistant coach Phil Handy was running shooting drills that were like he was coming off a pick and using a jab step to preface a fallaway jumper, among other things. This is how LeBron answers criticism. He works harder.
“For me I’ve been putting in extra work of late trying to get my shot back and my legs back under me, get my balance and get my base,” James said afterwards. “The result’s been me shooting better from the perimeter.”
While golfers, tennis players and baseball players often use video to maintain the integrity of their playing motions (be that driving, serving, pitching or swinging), paying attention to checkpoints that they can use to maintain proper form, James suggested for him it’s more about doing. Over and over again.
“I don’t golf and I never played baseball but for me it’s all about repetition and putting in the work,” he said. “That’s always been my motto. If there is something I’m not good at or at that point in time, just put in extra work. You go out and live with the results because you know you’ve put the work in.”
The reason we asked is because of James’ tendency to lose the verticality of his shot. We pulled these from a post by I’mWithDan on the Real Cavs Fans forum (realcavsfans.com) which took a look at James jumper. We’re not sure how representative it is, but it’s possible to see how he tends to drift a bit. We've heard Austin Carr or Campy Russell mention that When James jumper is off, he imitates Oliver Stone’s JFK
(i.e., drifting "back and to the left").
In watching LeBron shooting before the game his backward lean looked less exaggerated than in the above photo, but we’re no shot doctor. Not like LeBron needs one judging from his last couple games. It doesn't hurt that his teammates and Coach Blatt have his back.
Get LeBron Going
Now that the whole gang is back and it’s a three-headed monster instead of two, there are some adjustments to be made. Interestingly, one of those changes seems to be making sure that LeBron gets a jump-start.
This probably sounds as odd to you as it does to us. Can’t LeBron jumpstart himself? Did someone need to facilitate Michael Jordan to get going? Of course, the facts are that Jordan was more of a pure scorer than James is, and it’s a lot easier and more productive for the offense to set James up than to have him create his own shot. But that means you have to set him up.
We’ll reprise J.R. Smith’s comment to Allie Clifton after the Suns game: “The more we let LeBron play one-on-one the easier it is to guard him. We need to keep moving ball and get it to him when he’s got full head of steam.”
This tracks with the team’s increasing tendency to play LeBron off the ball, and even sometimes in the weakside corner, while action occurs away from him. (This opens up plenty of backside cuts and potential alley oops for him.)
This change is part necessity with Kyrie coming back, but also part of an apparently budding plan to use James as a swooping cutter to the basket.
It makes sense if you are making James less ball-dominant that you compensate by getting him some buckets to get him started. Blatt actually mentioned this after the Nuggets game noting that LeBron “got into a good rhythm early and it was something that we wanted. I felt maybe the last couple games we maybe didn’t help him get into an early rhythm.”
Then last night, the figurehead focal point of the offense, Kevin Love, again reiterated the new mantra of feeding the King early.
“In the first quarter in some games you look at the stat sheet and he doesn’t – we were’nt necessarily making it a point to get him going and we do need to do that,” Love said. “We feel he’s the best player in the world and that’s what we need to do. We feed off of him. When he sucks in the defense and it brings so much attention allows other guys to step up and hit big shots.”
We’re not saying the Love sold us on his to-the-grave belief in this strategy, but it’s apparent that’s this is just short of a meme within the Cavaliers locker room. Be prepared to hear more about it.
Talk is Cheap and Plentiful
Winning basketball’s much easier in conception than practice. While there are tweaks and trends, for the most part little changes, and there’s hardly a debate. This isn’t the relative merits of a laissez-faire economic system. Everybody agrees to win basketball games you play hard, defend, move the ball, and move away from the ball. Along the way you hope to make some shots. It’s as straightforward as a microwave-ready potato.
But saying there’s no mystery isn’t the same as saying it’s easy. Introducing the losing coach, Scott Skiles, who despite winning 13 of their last 18 games got smoked like gouda. Skiles has been preaching defense and energy of which he saw little.
“It’s not a question of not believing that,” said Orlando Coach Scott Skiles, explaining how “buying-in” isn’t about simple acceptance. “If you went and interviewed 25 people and asked them if hard work pays off, everybody would say, ‘Of course.’ ‘Do you work hard?’ ‘Yes, I work hard.’ But it doesn’t mean all 25 do. So, I don’t think guys have any trouble understanding the message. We can’t just talk about it, we have to go out and do it.”
The guys in the home locker rooms have the same issue, in general, though the scale’s different. That’s how it should be if you have championship hopes. But the issue is essentially the same. The Cavaliers know that to play winning basketball they need to get everyone involved, play hardnosed defense, compete on every play and do so at a high level for the entire game.
Here’s Love affirming the defensive effort while subtly indicting the second half offense: “We got off on the right foot tonight. The ball was moving. Guys were getting great looks. Then concerning the defensive end, we felt like we did a great job throughout the entire game.”
For the first half the Cavaliers did all those things on both ends and were rewarded with a 23-point lead. They had assists on 15 of their 19 field goals. They only committed two turnovers. Though they took maybe a few too many three-pointers (14) they also got to the line 19 times in the half.
Defensively they put the screws to the Magic, holding them to 35% shooting and just five free throws while forcing eight turnovers. While the team’s defense stayed on point for pretty much the entire game the offense abandoned them in the second half thanks to a familiar script: too many three-balls.
Three-Balls Require Big Sack
Regular readers know that we’ve raged against the team’s tendency to hoist 3s, particularly in the middle reaches of the clock. Many times the extra pass will find an even better shot or more open three. Even 14 (first half threes) is kind of a lot, but in the second half they shot 23, more than the 20 shots they took inside the arc. They shot 30% (making 7), and 8-20 (40%) inside the arc.
They still got assists on 9 of those 15 hoops, but it was apparent that in the minds of the Cavaliers’s offensive players garbage time had already begun. It didn’t impact the defensive intensity so much, though the second team has Shumpert and Dellavedova to ratchet up the intensity, so the Cavaliers are one of the more rare teams that doesn’t lose anything defensively when the second team hits the floor.
That’s even more true now that the squad’s the new home of Timofey Mozgov. The Russian seven-footer was demoted during the road trip for failing to oil his mechanical hands. Or whatever it is that has caused the high-spirited goliath to fumble passes like an awkward teenage geek.
This on-again/off-again malady was deactivated last night as Mozgov went hard to the hole on several plays during the first half, when he scored all of his seven points. Many may have forgotten that when Mozgov first arrived here, he had a reputation for not playing his size. When he first came over to the Cavs, he was still struggling to always finish strong, and found himself being rejected at a surprising clip. (Not so surprising to Nuggets fans.)
However, Timo did eventually put it together, and there have been flashes of him doing so for the last month. Like the team’s offensive efforts they’re inconsistent, but that’s sort of the difference between offense and defense. Even when there’s no offensive rhythm, its not hard to play good defense, it just takes effort and commitment.
“Like any other job, it’s so energy-related and how you come out,” Skiles explained.
The earlier subhead should clue the reader in to our feelings about team meetings. If they’re even a little bit like corporate meetings, than they’re about as relevant to success as the catering. Yadda Yadda Yadda Play Harder. Yadda Yadda Yadds Be Accountable. Yadda Yadda Yadda Look Out For Your Teammates.
If you played competitive sports for more than two weeks of your life you’ve probably heard these things more times than you can count. As Skiles noted earlier, they’re just empty posturing without the action to back them up.
Of course, the Cavaliers did back them up for at least the first twenty minutes or so last night before switching into Cruise Control. (Located next to “Chill Mode” on your steering console.)
The fact that the Cavs played so well last night lends a quanta of intrigue to the fact that the team apparently huddled before the New Year to recommit to their goals.
“Before the New Year we had a great team meeting. Basically the entire team including our staff and talked about getting back in the swing of things and really locking in on what we have to do in order to be a better team,” said Irving after the game. “The veteran leadership we have on this team makes sure everyone is accountable and I think we’re starting to show steps. We understand this is a process you have to take it one day in time.”
We’ll be back with Twelve-Stepping to the Larry O’Brien, after this brief message from Kevin Love.
“We just came back from four games in five nights on the West Coast and had a couple days off so I think we got a chance to kind of refocus and start setting our standards a little higher,” Love said.
This idea of high standards and tightened focus is also something that Kyrie mentioned, saying, “Our attention to detail is getting better. We’re preaching it every day at practice.”
It's promising to hear that with the gang now all in tow, the team's made it their motto to execute and perform better. Minding the details is what separates the good teams from the great ones, so they're on the right track. With a big road trip just one more game away, they have to know this resolve's about to be tested.
The Cavaliers play the Toronto Raptors on Monday at the Q. Toronto is tied with the Atlanta Hawks for the second-best record in the East (21-13). They beat the Cavaliers 103-99 in Toronto the day before Thanksgiving. We'll be at the game, commenting and posting video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis in the Scene blog on Tuesday.