There may be no quick fix in life, but when it comes basketball, vintage LeBron James gets damn close. James made like Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds last night; and schooled the hapless losers of Philadelphia to the tune of 37 points, 12 of them in a crucial 14-0 fourth quarter run that blew open a close game, and lead the Cavaliers to a 95-85 victory.
On the third game of a six-game road trip, the Cavaliers woke up in a Philly basement Fight Club, needing LeBron’s expertise not to leave feet first. James stepped up, shooting 15-22 on a night when the rest of the team shot 29%. James beat them with drives and his rejuvenated jumper while also dishing out nine assists to nearly half the twenty non-James buckets.
The ever scrappy and relentless 76ers have only won four of their forty games, but three of those wins have come in their last six games, since trading for Pelicans point guard Ish Smith. Despite facing the Cavaliers on the back-end of a back-to-back, they brought energy from the jump, while the Cavaliers looked lethargic.
After three straight games scoring 120+ points, it’s as though the Cavs assumed the offense would carry the day and left their defense at the hotel. Philadelphia has the second worst team FG% in the league (42.7%) yet managed to make 45.5% of their shots against the Cavaliers. Jahlil Okafor (21 pts on 9-15 shooting, 7 reb) and Nerlens Noel (12 pts, 5-7 shooting, 9 reb) posed particular problems for the Cavs.
We’ve detailed in the past the Cavaliers first-half troubles. They boast the best second half defense and point differentials in the league, but struggle to get untracked the first 24 minutes. The Cavs entered halftime up one, 48-47, but came out strong in the second behind James and Kevin Love who played the whole quarter and combined for 20 of the team’s 27 points.
The Wine and Gold opened the second half by making five of their first six shots pushing the lead to nine, and late in the quarter to 12, before allowing Philly to close the quarter on a 9-3 run, the only Cavs points on a sick feed from LeBron to Love for a hoop “and 1.”
Their play carved out a six-point lead, but the 76ers closed it back to two after Ish Smith hit a three for his 16th point. This is when LeBron stepped forward to take over the game, demonstrating how to say, “Ah Hell No,” with a basketball.
“I was able to get enough of a break, where I came in with a lot of energy because when I go back into the game I need to make plays,” James said in his postgame interview. “And they needed for me to put the ball in the hole tonight.”
LeBron & Love’s Long Distance Relationship
Love’s unlikely to receive the same validation as his alpha dog mates James and Kyrie Irving (who had an off-night with 8 pts on 3-15 shooting, 2 ast and 2 TO), but he’s been playing very well of late.
Over his last four games Love is averaging 14 and 10. He’s shooting under 40% but he’s doing a lot of other things. He’s getting to the line (5.5 attempts/game), has 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocked shots, while only making 1.5 turnovers. His points and shooting percentages get the attention but Love contributes so much more. You also have to consider, he’s getting 14 points taking under 11 shots a game, which is pretty efficient.
His mere presence forces defenses to adapt and helps keep the lane open for LeBron and Irving because defenses must respect his perimeter game as well as his post-up play. Last night he showcased his outlet passing skills finding LeBron free on breakaways up the court.
“I wished I had looked for it more in the beginning of the season, but now I’m beginning to find guys more and looking for that,” Love said after the game. “We executed down the stretch, got our stops when we needed to and #23 hit some big shots.”
Though Love only finished 15, he had 9 during the third quarter, helping LeBron carry the team and establish a short-lived double-digit lead. He also added 15 boards, seven assists and two steals.
Thompson Keeps Up Good Impression
Tristan Thompson did a pretty good job against two tough frontcourt players in Okafor and Noel. It’s hard to keep them from getting their points, but Thompson made them work. Overall the Sixers were 15-34 at the rim, and Thompson held them to 50% (5-10) at the bucket. His introduction to the starting lineup coincides with the team’s present seven-game win streak.
During that time Thompson has allowed 60% of opponents’ shots at the rim to go through. Indeed, it’s hard to find ways in which the team’s defense is better since Tristan ascended to the starting role. They’re actually giving up one more point per 100 possessions.
But that might not matter. The team seems to be dramatically better offensively since Thompson took the starting role. The efficiency when he’s on the court has gone from 107/97 (offensive/defensive points per 100 possessions) to 120/106.
(Over this same stretch Mozgov has the best defensive rating on the team and one of the worst offensive ratings this side of (surprisingly) Mo Williams, James Jones, Anderson Varejao and Richard Jefferson, i.e. the long end of the bench.)
Obviously this is a small sample size and a lot of it has to do with getting to play with the Big Three. However it also makes a lot of sense. Having a center that can’t catch a pass is even more debilitating than having one that can’t shoot from further than 5’.
We also suspect that Tristan’s ability to get out to three point shooters and really play the high and side pick and rolls at the line is creating a few more turnovers and ultimately fastbreak opportunities.
Over the last 7 games they have 22.4 points off turnovers against 17.3 for the season, and surrendered less from 16.4 down to 13.3. That 8-point turnaround accounts for almost the entire team difference in net efficiency. For the season they’re +6.5 (105.7 off/99.1 def), but over the last 7 they’re +15 (115.2 off/100.2 def).
It’s a little unexpected but very interesting. Also worth noting, since going 2-8 and being subjected to the indignity of the Hack-a-Shaq, Thompson has turned around his foul-shooting. Over the last four games he’s 18-22. He’s made more than two free throws in a game three times this season before doing it three times in the last four games.
We don't think Thompson will start at center for the rest of the season, but we aren't as down on the idea as we were before the season began.
Mozgov Mental Mistake
Timofey Mozgov is looking to build an extension on his current domicile in the Coach David Blatt’s doghouse. He should have time on his hands after shooting a corner three with seven seconds left on the game clock at the end of the first half. His airball three resulted in a basket the other way, a big no-no when you have a chance to take the last shot.
Blatt wasn’t happy with this, and Mozgov didn’t leave the pine for the rest of the game. It’s just the latest mishap in the amiable Russian’s nightmare second season in Cleveland. His hands have turned to stone, he can’t finish so much as a sentence, and apparently doesn’t know a good shot from HELL NO!
He’s still playing fine defense, but his mental mistakes and faltering confidence have made him an anchor on offense. Players don’t even look to him half as much in the lane for fear he’ll turn their potential assist into a turnover.
It didn’t bode too well when Blatt touched his face when asked about the shot. (Psychology tells us that touching one’s face when asked a question is a signal of anxiety, and sign of a possible lie or half-truth.)
“It’s not only that,” he said. “They were playing small we wanted to get the game back in out control and we did by playing a fair amount of minutes small as well.”
Other teams have begun to inquire as to Mozgov’s availability. However his unique package of skills (when operational) is hard to replace and we don’t think the Cavaliers are ready to cut bait yet.
Unless they got another big back it wouldn’t make a lot of sense, and nobody but a contender will probably be interested in a seven-footer in his walk year. So it doesn’t seem as likely that he’ll be traded as that he be allowed to walk after the season. Thankfully there is time to turn it around and the second team is a less stressful/visible place to do it.
Delly’s Gone Down In a Hole
It hasn’t been as noticeable or so self-defenestrating as Mozgov’s fall, but Matthew Dellavedova has been struggling since Blatt moved his sidekick Thompson to the starting squad. Not that Thompson’s action likely accounts for all the regression. We suspect that Delly’s high intensity may engender a little mid-season funk, which he’s suffering through now.
As you can see, his shooting percentage has gone down in the last seven games, though only on shots inside the arc. His assists have dropped (that could be TT’s absence) and his turnovers have gone up. Of course, he’s not getting as much time with the starters now that Kyrie is back. Also, he seems to be getting less shots in the flow of the offense – maybe just less shots period – and has been taking more shots off the bounce, which is not his best.
But the most discouraging thing is the bottom falling out on Delly’s defensive stats. While his offensive and defensive efficiency stats haven’t changed (due to the fact those are more dependent on the squad), his defensive field goal percentage is much worse.
That’s part of why we attribute it to fatigue. It doesn’t seem reasonable that Delly’s simply lost his ability to defend or that his opponents are better. It could be small sample size, or, we think, just the seasonal grind getting to him.
“We need to just come out and play better defensively,” said Dellavedova after the game. “We weren’t sharp with the ball or running our stuff and need to move the ball to get better looks. We didn’t do a good job of that in the first half. We picked it up in the second half.”
We’re getting bored with reporting that the team didn’t really get going until the second half. The offense which was on skates the past three games reverted to concrete overshoes for all but LeBron. During the first half we heard tell of Blatt’s pleas for the team to execute the offense.
That’s this team in a nutshell. When their shots are falling, the ball moves, confidence abounds and defensive effort seems to follow. However face a physical team with athletic bigs and the team shrinks a bit. When their shots don’t fall, sometimes ball and player movement stop. It wasn’t as bad last night as it can be, but it’s apparent the team still has miles to go before their defense intensity is a given, regardless of their offensive circumstances.
Also we’d love to see the team come out with as much intensity as their opponents. They don’t come out with enough energy and when their foes hit some shots they build confidence, and suddenly they’re underfoot the entire game.
“We need to be smarter,” said J.R. Smith at halftime. “We’re a better team than we’ve been and we’re playing down to their level.”
That’s the biggest complaint against the Cavs, alongside their proclivity for 3s which often correlates with an ineffective offense. They hit them enough that they may not see it as an issue but last night they were 9-32 from beyond the boundary and 26-58 from inside the arc.
Alas, it’s still pretty early in the season and 26-9 is a pretty damn good record, not to mention the Cavaliers seat atop the Eastern Conference. We’ve seen some of the best LeBron James play in more than a year, which allows us to nourish hope his jumper’s back to stay and not for a winter fling.
The road gets decidedly tougher going forward. The next three games are in Texas including back-to-back games Thursday and Friday. On Tuesday they face a tough Mavericks team that despite losing out on DeAndre Jordan are a playoff team in the West.
We’ll be watching along with you, offering commentary, video and analysis. You can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame column on Wednesday morning in the Scene Blog.