The measure of a person, or a team in the Cavaliers case, is not how they handle success but adversity. After losing to the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, Cleveland hung their heads and never really showed up, losing the next night in Portland.
They suffered no such hangover from Thursday’s loss to San Antonio, reducing the Houston Rockets to scrap metal 91-77 to finish their back-to-back and six-game road trip on an up note.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the win – other than the way they utterly neutralized Houston’s main weapon, James Harden (11 pts, 2-10 shooting, 5 ast, 8 TO) – is how they bounced back from a rough start.
The Rockets hit five of their first six shots and went up 11-4 before Coach David Blatt called a timeout. Harden stole the ball the next possession and took it for a layup, to give Houston a 13-4 lead.
Then the worm turned.
“Once we picked it up after about the first six minutes [the defense] was spectacular,” said LeBron James after the game. “We did a great job of cutting the head off the snake, and that was James Harden. I give a lot of credit to J.R. and Shump they took the challenge and then we just tried to build a wall behind them to help.”
While the Cavaliers offense didn’t necessarily come to life, the defense did. For the final eight minutes of the first quarter the Cavaliers held the Rockets to 2-16 from the field, as they took a 23-21 lead into the second quarter. The Cavs pushed the lead to 8 in the first six minutes of the second quarter as Kyrie scored nine during a 13-7 run.
The Cavaliers offense slowed during the second half of the quarter, but their defense remained locked in. Many times this season the Cavs’ offensive struggles have affected their defensive effort. Not last night. Cleveland held Houston without a basket for the final six minutes of the quarter, their only scoring coming on five free throws. During this stretch Houston had more turnovers (4) than shots (3).
After taking an eleven point lead into halftime, the Cavaliers maintained the same stifling defense to start the third quarter. Houston managed but 10 points during the quarter’s first 10 minutes as the Cavs pushed the lead to 21.
They held the Rockets to 4-17 shooting during the stretch and forced four more turnovers. For the game the Cavs forced 19 turnovers resulting in 19 points while allowing 14 turnovers for 19 Rockets points. (Yes, transition defense is still an issue.)
Though the Rockets didn’t quit, the game was pretty much garbage time by the beginning of the fourth. Kyrie cashed in for 11 fourth quarter points, pacing the Wine and Gold with 23 points, 1 assist. James had 19 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 turnovers. Kevin Love (11 pts, 13 reb, 3 stl), J.R. Smith (13 pts, 5 reb, 1 stl) and Tristan Thompson (10 pts, 5 reb) were the others in double figures.
“Early we had trouble but after that we kept high hands and stayed in front of things to keep [Harden] from getting off,” said Blatt after the game. “And obviously that’s a big key to beating them.”
Defense Wins Championships
Excusing those first four minutes, the Cavaliers offered arguably their most intense and consistent defensive effort since the Golden State game. The energy that they brought defensively is even more impressive given that it came on the back end of a back-to-back on the last game of the season’s longest roadtrip, six games in ten days.
Defense takes mental toughness, attentiveness and energy. It’s something a team can do whether or not their shot is falling to ensure they’ll have a chance to win. That’s why the Cavaliers want to make it their identity, though sometimes it’s more talk than action.
Not last night. The Cavaliers pressured the ball all game long and James Harden in particular, forcing him to go to his right. Why is that important? Check out Harden’s shot chart. You’ll notice that Harden prefers to finish on his left side.
It’s not necessarily that Harden can’t go right, but he’s most comfortable going left and finishing to his left. The Cavs weren’t about to let him get comfy. In the pick and roll, they made sure his left side was cut off. Here LeBron forces him and Timofey Mozgov assists.
The team gave him special attention even hedging picks that occurred far in the front court. They were not about to leave Harden in a one-on-one situation. Someone else was going to have to beat them. (Note that this is not too dissimilar to what the Hawks did toward the end of last season in blitzing picks so James and Kyrie Irving had to give the ball up.)
There weren’t many attempts to post Harden up, perhaps because the one time they did early in the game, Iman Shumpert snuck his arm around and poked the ball away, leading to a Cavaliers layup. It was one of two steals on the night for Shumpert, who also had three assists, and a blocked shot. That helped compensate for a 1-7 shooting night. He finished with two points in 27 minutes, but his presence was felt by the Rockets.
J.R. Smith also deserves credit for the time he spent on Harden. He did a great job of shadowing him and keeping him in front of him. In the end, Harden wound up with half his shots from three and just three shots at the rim.
“I can’t say enough about the job the two of those guys did on arguably the best one-on-one player in the NBA,” Blatt said of Shumpert and Smith. “They also got a lot of help. It wasn’t just one guy but the two of them did terrific work.”
Blatt didn’t say they took away Harden’s left, but it was inferred. “We did some different things as far as closing the space he can play in,” Blatt said.
“I thought we had great communication all night,” Shumpert said. “We always knew where he was and put him in some tough spots.”
Offense Consistently Inconsistent
Let’s be honest, the offense wasn’t very good. Kyrie finished with a strong fourth, but for the most part, offense was hard to come by. But not in the same way as the Spurs came the night before.
In that game ball movement dried up and when the pressure mounted Kyrie and LeBron fell into their bad iso-ball habits and basically failed to trust their teammates. Last night they moved the ball very well.
They managed a decent 19 assists on 34 baskets, and had three more passes that led to free throws. The team had eight secondary or hockey assists (for the pass before the assisting pass), which is pretty damn good given the relatively low number of assists.
Worth noting that Kyrie had three secondary assists and Love had two; when your best players are giving up their shots to help someone else get a hoop it creates a self-sustaining positivity, or as LeBron likes to say, the ball gets “energy.” You could even call it basketball karma.
There’s no better example of this than a play in the third quarter where Kevin Love saved a Kyrie miss with a bounce pass back to him as he fell out of bounds. He recovered his balance and ran to the corner where LeBron found him for one of his three triples.
The Cavaliers would’ve racked up a lot more assists had they not missed so many open shots. Though 53 of the team’s 87 shots were open (no defender for 4’-6’) or wide open (nearest defender at least 6’ away) – an extraordinarily high 61% – they only made 17 (32%) of these shots.
As we noted last week
, the Cavaliers have not made a great percentage of their wide open shots. After the loss to the Trailblazers they were 17th in the league with a 54.5% eFG compared to 53.5% on open shots (good enough for fourth). Since then they’ve raised their eFG on wide open shots by 1.3% to 55.8% (16th), and up 0.8% on open shots to 54.3 (4th). Which is simply to say, this is an ongoing issue: The Cavaliers should (and probably and some point will) hit more of their wide open shots. Last night was another case of that.
“We had more good shots tonight than we’ve had in a long time,” said Blatt. "We didn’t score a lot of points but I thought we moved the ball very well. We had some wide open shots.
“I was joking with JR that I don’t think he’s ever gotten so many wide open looks in a game,” he continued. “They were almost too open. Tor him he’s better off when guys are running at him and are all over him.”
Bearing that out, Smith hit all three of his contested shots, and just 2 of his 12 uncontested shots (which was the same as his number of threes, though we’re not sure if the overlap is complete). For the season, Smith is indeed shooting a little worse on wide-open shots (39.7% FG, 56.8% eFG) than simply open shots (41.5%, 56.5%). He was MUCH better last year on wide open shots (48.5%, 66%), so there’s definitely reason to expect some improvement in Smith’s shooting.
One of the subtle things the Cavs did differently against the Rockets as opposed to the Spurs, was they got the ball upcourt quickly. Many possessions in the second half in San Antonio didn’t truly begin until the 16 or 15 second mark on the shot clock.
Last night the Cavaliers played with much better pace and got into their action quickly. Ball-pounding isolation was kept to a minimum. Though it didn’t manifest great offensive output, they’re habits the Cavaliers need to be committed to.
Rotating the Bigs
The big news coming into the Houston game was that Timofey Mozgov got the start. He’d played very well against Dallas and not so well against the Spurs. It’s been up-and-down like that the last couple weeks, with perhaps a few more ups than downs. The start was dictated to some degree by the presence of a true “big man” center, Dwight Howard (14 pts, 11 reb, 2 stl, 2 blk).
Blatt confirmed after the game that the center will be on a matchup by matchup basis going forward.
Mozgov continues to be a strong defender, and made several nice plays last night deterring shots while maintaining verticality so as not to draw the foul. His troubles have been more on the offensive side, where he makes more turnovers than Dolly Madison.
Not only did Mozgov finish the night without any turnovers (including offensive fouls), but in one, hold-your-breath moment, was left wide open and with a single rhythm dribble stepped into a 20’ jumper. Not sure how many really expected it to go in, but it’s a reminder what a threat a confident Mozgov can be.
The other big (man) news was the disinterring of Anderson Varejao. The amiable Brazilian big has made it into only three games over the last 25 days, playing a grand total of 29 minutes in that time. Given Mozgov’s struggles some have wondered why Varejao hasn’t been given any opportunities.
Last night he was and performed admirably, bringing a spark to the second squad while he was on the floor. During his 7:39 on the floor the team was +15 in plus/minus, an almost incomprehensible number. The next closest player on the Cavs was LeBron at +10 in 36 minutes.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Even in early season games, Varejao’s appearances energized the team. He was simply caught, like others on the team, in a numbers game.
Some have complained about Blatt’s rotations, but we find that short-sighted. The team’s atop the Eastern Conference with the third-best record in basketball while reintegrating at least four injured players at some point (back) into the rotation. In recent weeks, he’s shortened the rotation in order to build chemistry between the core players and Kyrie Irving in particular.
Along the way he’s been trying out different combinations. We saw a bit of Matthew Dellavedova at the point with Irving playing off the ball, which was very effective in leveraging both Kyrie’s great court vision and strong catch-and-shoot ability. Blatt’s starting to define roles and positions, and Varejao appears to have gone a long way in carving something out for himself last night.
“I was really happy what Andy did for us,” Blatt said. “He came in and in 7 minutes really kind of turned the game around for us. Great energy, good smart play.”
Blatt credited Varejao’s professionalism in staying ready and not complaining.
“I try to stay ready as much as I can. It’s not easy. I think in 12 games I got a DNP in 10,” Varejao said. “I get a lot of love from everybody, even not playing, and I’m just trying to help team as much as I can doing other stuff, being a vet and staying ready.”
Such patience pays off. Richard Jefferson is another player that Blatt’s trying to find a place for. Jefferson has been playing the power forward position in small lineups of late. While he didn’t do that well matched up against the Spurs’ David West on Thursday, he’s been surprisingly good individually the last few weeks. If you follow this column, you probably know that Jefferson is a member of several of the Cavs’ worst defensive lineups.
However his individual numbers have been pretty good, and over the last 15 games they’ve been great. Jefferson seems understand what he needs to do to get on the floor, and it has nothing to do with his already solid offensive game. We suspect this willingness to dig deep on the defensive end is responsible for his increased minutes the last few weeks.
It’d take a Scrooge-size curmudgeon not to be happy about the Cavaliers 5-1 record on the road trip. After the loss to the Blazers the day after Christmas, the Cavs were 6-8 on the road, raising some serious questions about their ability to contend. Since then they’ve won seven of eight on the road and turned that record around to 13-9.
Only Golden State and Toronto have as many road wins. (Obviously in some cases this is a function of a heavily home-tilted early season schedule.)
“For the majority of the road trip we played great basketball,” said James afterwards. “Obviously we’d love to have gone 6-0 but we learned a lot from yesterday’s game in San Antonio that can help us get better.”
Even more important was how they won these games. Ever since the Trailblazers loss they’ve won, and done so in generally convincing fashion. Sure, the Mavericks pushed the Cavaliers to overtime, but the showed the resilience to pull it out. There’s a sense that more gears are engaged and the entire enterprise seems to be moving in the right direction at a reasonable speed.
They’re not without issues, but they seem more capable and willing of addressing them than at any time this season. With a full complement of players on hand, that’s a wonderful place to be.
“We weathered the storm in terms of our physical problems and lack of preparation,” said Blatt. “Now we can go about business of building things up and becoming more solid with our full team.”
Everyone’s charged for the rematch on Monday night with the Golden State Warriors. We’ll be at the Q for the game, posting analysis and video from the game. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can hear us on Monday on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James at 11am on WRUW-91.1 talking Cavaliers, and you can read our postgame analysis Tuesday morning in the Scene and Heard blog.