We’ve always imagined Saint Peter less as a doorman than a barkeep. He stands behind a long varnished bone-white bar that extends for as long as the eye can see.
Though you arrived with others, when he comes over, it’s like you’re alone in the bar. Over his shoulder a row of taps line the wall with stem icons corresponding to the world religions. He leans in and says, “Pick your poison.”
That was the Washington Wizards dilemma right down to the fact that they were probably already dead. The Wizards administered the Cavaliers only home loss of the season, a painful 97-85 blistering on December 1st, and the Cavs remembered.
It didn’t matter whether Kyrie Irving (32pts, 3 ast, 2 stl), LeBron James (34 pts, 10 reb, 4 ast) or a suddenly rejuvenated J.R. Smith (25pts, 3 stl) delivered last rites. They weren’t Lazarus, and they weren’t able to stop the Cavaliers second straight offensive fireworks display, falling 121-115 to the Wine and Gold in a game like a raging Dubai hotel fire.
The Cavaliers haven’t cracked 120 points all year, now they’ve done it in consecutive games. That’s a fine way to kick off a road trip, especially against a team that seemed to have their number just a month ago. Of course that was before Shumpert and Irving’s return. Their play made all the difference last night, sprinkled in with a fair bit of the King and J.R. Swish.
Smith, James and Irving combined for 91 of the team’s 121 points on 60% shooting (36-60) as the team shot 54% and made 12 of 29 threes (41%). It wasn’t a ball movement game, but one dictated by the unguardable individual excellence of James and Irving.
This is the part about picking your poison. As has been the case much of the year, the Wizards went small, using something similar to the switch-happy defense the Warriors have popularized. This led to more isolation play as Cleveland spread the floor and employed their left and right bowers to trump.
“What happened was Washington went small and they were switching every pick and roll and every screen, and it’s difficult to move the ball in a normal fashion and play the same type of offense maybe we were playing earlier and we had to depend on some of the one-one-one skills our players have,” Coach David Blatt explained after the game. “[We] got good shots but it didn’t come after a lot of ball movement. And at some point we were controlling the clock and playing to shorten the game.”
It’s crazy to think the Cavaliers burned extra clock and still scored 121 points, but that’s how it’s been of late for the Cavaliers. After losing to the Warriors and the Blazers on Christmas and the day after, the Wine and Gold’s put together a five-game win streak highlighted by the contributions of Kyrie-diculous.
During the win streak, the Cavaliers are averaging 116 ppp (points per 100 possessions), a great improvement on their seasonal 105.2 ppp, which is still good enough for fifth. Golden State’s season offensive efficiency rate is 112 ppp.
(We look at points per 100 possessions to remove the variable of pace. The Cavs, for example, have the third-fewest possessions/game, playing at a slow pace and betting on their ability to get high-efficiency shots late in the game versus their opponents. The success of that strategy is born out by the fact that in the fourth quarter the Cavs have the best defensive efficiency – 93.6 ppp vs. 99.4 for the game – and best net differential in the NBA.)
However, last night wasn’t characterized by particularly great defense. It was the second game in a row that the team’s offensive prowess won the day, as Blatt noted after the game.
“Look I’d love to give our defense credit for what we did, but I don’t think it was that,” he said. “I think we scored the heck out of the ball.”
The Wizards took advantage early on of the Cavaliers sometimes lackadaisical transition defense. Last year the Cavaliers allowed the 8th fewest fastbreak points and allowed 17th fewest points off turnovers. (That should also be considered in light of the team’s slow pace.) They’ve improved to 4th in fastbreak points and are still 17th in opponents' points of turnovers.
So there has been improvement, but the Wizards still took advantage of the team’s ability to get back on defense, quickly converting off made baskets. Twelve of the Wizards’ 26 first quarter points came off fastbreaks. They finished with 22 for the game.
Though Washington shot 55% from the field, the Cavs were able to stand toe-to-toe with their own 54% shooting.
There’s nothing but joy for the incredible shooting of the Smith, James and Irving, which won the day. Our niggling concern has only to do with their self-professed desire to work their habits. Making a habit of winning with offense is not the identity they profess to embrace.
Instead it’s like A-Team accidentally broke their no-onscreen-fatality rule, said ‘frack it’ and went full-Tarantino. The Cavs clearly love the electricity of their offensive dominance, which frequently comes accompanied by excessive threes and limited ball movement, the Turtle and Johnny Drama of bad offensive habits.
Words can only be coerced into describing Irving and James, they don’t do it easily or willingly. The reference seeks less to invoke cocaine’s answer to the mimosa than the criminal decadence of the duo’s offensive talents. While LeBron and company have been explosive, Kyrie Irving is plutonium.
It’s not surprising that five of the Cavalier’s nine highest scoring two-man lineups feature Irving (Smith and Love ahead of LeBron). As an aside, the best net differentials in ppp belong to Love/Shumpert, Cunningham/James and Irving/Shumpert in that order.
Irving’s addition’s had a catalytic effect on the team’s offense. His ability to get anywhere on the court with his dribble continually forces the defense to bend, opening up three-point shooters. Add to that his uncanny ability to finish in traffic and a terrific pull-up jumper and you have the most unstoppable offensive point guard this side of Lillard and Westbrook.
J.R. Smith’s been a big beneficiary, like a scene-stealing supporting actor crushing his on-screen opportunities. (The signature example is Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive; Philip Seymour Hoffman built his career on it.) As soon as the defense starts over-reacting to the marquee names, J.R. Smith emails his resume from international waters.
Interviewed after the game, James and Irving invoked wrestling tag teams to describe their alternating dominance in the third and fourth quarters respectively. In the third quarter, James (whose 28.5% three-point shooting percentage is the lowest of his career) suddenly got white hot from the left side of the arc. He made three in a row from there and four out of five, the last three unassisted pull-ups.
A 15’ Kyrie fadeaway pushed the Cavaliers' 12-point halftime lead to 17 points with eight minutes left in the third.
It took nine-minutes for the Cavaliers to fritter that entire lead away. Washington outscored the Cavaliers 34-17 during that stretch. Half the Cavs shots (and makes) were threes. The Wizards were a perfect 8-8 inside the arc and 5-8 outside it (14-24, 58% for the game).
The Wizards used penetration to open up guys at the arc. “They were playing a two-man game successfully, two man with the pitch out to the three,” Blatt explained afterwards.
The Wizards forced switches then took advantage of the help switches to open up shooters. On this first one Jared Dudley gets Delly in the post and Love comes to help. He leaves the guy he switched onto, John Wall, opening him up for an open 3. (He made all 4 of his 3-pointers but was otherwise 4-15 from the field, helping make Kyrie’s case for the allstar squad.)
On this other one, dribble penetration causes defenders to sag into the lane, opening up the 3-ball for Garrett Temple on the weakside.
After the Wizards tied the score at 95, Blatt made a crucial change.
Flip the Switch
While the Cavaliers tried to exploit the Wizards switches by putting them into one-on-one situations with Kyrie and LeBron, they forced the Wizards to do much the same with the opposite tactic.
The Wizards used the Cavaliers help rotations to open up perimeter shooters, much like the HAMMER ACTION play we looked at a few days ago. So the Cavaliers took that away by as much as possible not switching picks or screens, essentially daring the Wizards to beat them one-on-one off the dribble and not allow them to exploit moving help defenders.
They couldn’t take advantage the way the Cavaliers could, thanks to inferior personnel, quite honestly. Below the same Dudley play that produced an open 3 in the shot above, now requires Dudley to score on his own in the post, which he can’t do.
Here the same effect is in play. As much as Tristan Thompson loves to switch onto guards, he “ices” and sort of shadows the ballhandler’s drive, but never leaves Nene. This gives Shump time to recover and forces the Wizards to finish, which they couldn’t.
This defensive change allowed the Cavs to go on a 15-2 run and extend the lead to 110-97 with 5:30 left. Though the Wizards got closer, they could never really bridge the gap.
“That’s where we did get stops,” Blatt said. “That was probably the difference in the game.”
Kyrie scored 12 of the 15 points in that run, and was frankly unstoppable. He was 5-8 in that stretch, and finished with 19 in the quarter. He was 14-22 for the game with 32 points. That makes Irving 24-38 (63%) over the last two games. He did make four turnovers, the most he’s had since returning and but three assists. But those are minor quibbles when Irving continually shredded the Wizards defense and got to the rim.
Here’s his nicely balanced shot chart:
While Iman Shumpert didn’t put on the kind of offensive show Irving did, he was still impressive. His play keyed the small lineup Blatt used featuring Thompson, James, Shumpert, Smith and Irving. In this game of back and forth runs, Shumpert was the one constant in the positive direction. He finished an absurd +19.
It’s the clearest indication what his defense means to this team. It’s worth mentioning because he only had five points. He added three assists and six rebounds, but only one assist. It doesn’t necessarily scream dominance, but when you consider he played 30 minutes of the game, the Cavs were -13 the 18 minutes he was off the floor.
Before you turn this into a referendum on giving Shumpert the starting job, remember that Shumpert played as a “3” in that killer lineup. Also remember that J.R. Smith has been playing pretty damn good defense himself. He had three steals last night including a beautiful knockaway that that Wine and Gold turned into a slam the other way. That’s without mentioning the three threat he offers, which is somewhat irregardless of whether he’s covered well or not. Smith was +8 during his time on the floor, second-best on the team.
That said, it’s clear that Shumpert needs to be out there a lot, and particularly in those moments when the second team is. This, it would seem, is part of Blatt’s strategy in not staggering the Big 3s minute more to buoy the second team’s offense.
Instead he appears satisfied to depress the opponent’s second team scoring with Delly and Shump, figuring that will compensate for their offensive shortcomings, and that the margin the starters have over the opponents can more than make up for that if the juggernaut remains intact rather than spreading their minutes among the scrubs.
It’s an interesting tactic that nobody has commented on too much from that perspective. How well it works remains to be seen.
The Cavaliers still show a startling lack of defensive intensity at times, proving too willing to lean on their superior firepower despite their plan to hang their hat on their defense. Strong backcourts give them problems and indeed, while they did a good job on the Wizards allstar point guard John Wall, Temple got loose for 21 and Gary Neal added 13 off the bench. Those two were a collective 12-18 with four threes.
But let’s not be persnickety. Irving is living up to James’ claim that he’s MVP material, and the former MVP is putting up some spectacular numbers himself. Simply not enough is being said about James -10.5% defensive field goal rate, the best among NBA starters by several percentage points.
Though the Wizards are only 15-18 in the evenly-matched Eastern Conference, they’re a talented team, and it was a good victory. The Cavaliers are definitely moving in the right direction, and it’s a positive start to this challenging six-game road trip.
The next stop is in Minnesota on Friday. We’ll be watching along with you, posting video, analysis and commentary. You can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and you can read our column in the Scene blog on Saturday morning.