Cavs Barely Muzzle Timberwolves, Give Lue First Win

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Smiling LeBron offed Angry LeBron in happy standoff.
  • Smiling LeBron offed Angry LeBron in happy standoff.
Watching the Cavaliers struggle to put away the Timberwolves 114-107, and get Tyronn Lue his first ever win as a head coach, called to mind the series Lost. Not just because the first half of the season now resembles a circuitous non sequitur that can probably be discarded as irrelevant, but due to the team’s tendency to answer each question with a brand new question.

Can the Cavs play more uptempo? Are they in shape? When will they be in shape? If they play uptempo will they be able to control the turnovers? If they increase the pace will they have the energy to play high intensity defense? Or will the defense succumb to the track meet mentality typical of traditional Western Conference basketball?

Wait, we’re not done! If they increase the tempo will the shot selection degrade? Can this team run and not fall into the trap of shooting threes and not going downhill enough? How will Cleveland balance Kevin Love’s need for post/elbow touches with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James’ desire to get into the open court?

Just imagine Kevin Love as the black smoke monster – seemingly powerful, but absent for long stretches leaving you puzzled as to how he fits. LeBron is the guy in the hatch pressing the button every 108 minutes to prevent the world from exploding. Which means Tyronn Lue is Jacob, the entity pulling everyone’s strings so they wind up in the same place at the right time.

Thankfully it won’t be the right time for another two-and-a-half months because this project just got out of turnaround, and the defense suggests a Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Player.

Wolves Let Out A Roar

To be sure some of the issue was the Timberwolves hitting their midrange jumpers, which the Cavaliers were sort of daring them to take.

“We took away the three point shot – they made four threes – but they made a lot of in-between twos which you know we want to live with, but they made them tonight,” said Coach Lue after the game.

It’s worth asking if it’s really appropriate to give the Wolves that many midrange shots since they’re the third-worst three-point shooting team in the league (32.5%), and shoot the least threes. Shouldn’t the Cavs be squeezing them out rather than inviting them in?

Indeed, when it comes to long-twos, they’re one of the best teams in the league – putting up the 7th best rate (38.6%) in the league in shots from 20’-24. (Admittedly they are 25th in the league in frequency, with about 18% of their shots coming from there.) They’re 23rd in the league in shooting percentage a scooch closer (15’-19’) though the percentage is only a smidge lower than 20’-24’.

That said, it was a very good shooting night for Minnesota who had twice as many contested (56) as uncontested (28) shots, but knocked down 48%. Meanwhile the Cavs knocked down a sick 57.7% of their contested shots (30-52), their best showing this year when not playing the Orlando Magic (against whom they’ve made over 57% of their contested shots twice).

Which I suppose is to say the Cavs should be thankful they shot so well, or this could’ve been a much different story.

Meanwhile the ball movement which Lue said he’d preached but was so absent from his Saturday debut, was in full effect last night as the team moved the ball pretty crisply. Not perfectly. There was still a lot of dribbling interludes like commercial breaks, but the ball moved on both sides and so did people. Their 30 assists is the most all season excluding when they crushed Orlando at home in November and had 34 on 43 baskets.

Their pass/touches (Selfishness Ratio? Narcissism Index? Sharing Indicator?) was up over 72% which is very good, and the team notched 9 secondary assists. (Wasn’t able to find the stats but as of three weeks ago, Cavs were fourth in the league, none too shabby.)
The team had 30 assists on 45 baskets or 66.7%. For the season the Cavs are 11th with 58.9% of their baskets featuring an assist, while the Warriors (68.6%) and Hawks (66.2%) lead the league. For much of the night the main distributors were LeBron (9 assists) and Kyrie (4) who also had 9 turnovers between them, resulting in 19 Timberwolves points.

Not to be outdone, somehow the Cavs turned just 11 Wolves turnovers (8 in the second half) into 21 points. So they’re picking up that running thing. This is especially true of James who had a tremendously efficient night other than the turnovers, at least two of which were simply dumb passes he probably wished he had back the minute it left his hands.

James wound up playing 38 minutes as the Cavaliers never seemed to maintain their defensive focus and intensity for long enough to completely subdue Minnesota. It seemed that every time they went on a run, the Cavs’ defense would let up a little and woosh, back came the Wolves.

Give them credit, obviously, but don’t forget this is a 14-32 team. They really shouldn't be able to do this. Blame the uptempo, perhaps, for wearing out the Cavs to the point where they only had energy to play offense.

“I think a lot of it defensively is we’re tired from the offensive end from running, so I think the guys are getting tired,” said Lue. “Once again guys asked to come out again a bunch of times. We got to continue to play fast and continue to get back in shape.”

Here’s where anyone might question whether the Cavaliers have the time – and physical stamina – to play this kind of a game. Kyrie Irving in particular. While he certainly has the skills, wasn’t this something Byron Scott tried once before to ill-effect?

One solution to the wind problem might be to lengthen the bench, something Lue’s been loathe to do his first two games. He’s playing Mozzy, Delly and Shump off the bench with brief cameos by Mo Williams.

Jason Lloyd and Dave McMenamin are among those who have suggested the amount of time Mo Williams and possibly Richard Jefferson played in the Christmas Day loss to Golden State figured in Blatt’s chasm with the players. Presumably Lue will be given more leeway from the veterans because he’s closer to them in age and played in the NBA. Through two games just 15 minutes have trickled down past the 8th man.

On Saturday the bench was a disaster from a scoring perspective, getting beat 22-8, pretty much the margin of the Bulls 96-83 victory. On Monday, the bench had 31, led by Dellavedova’s 15. Shump's 9 and Mozzy's 4, while collectively they were 11-21 from the field. Shump had a slam “and 1” off a James feed on a cut down the lane, in addition to a couple threes.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Where does Love fit? What if it’s only in space? Is that enough? Or do his limitations on the other end necessitate that he be made more of a weapon to compensate? How do you do that? Is more offense even necessary with James, Irving & J.R. Smith?

In the playoffs when things slow down and defenses stiffen, having post players comes in awful handy (along with sterling midrange jump shooters like Mo Williams). But getting the ball to Love is not as easy as ordering from Amazon. Post entries have been difficult as dieting, and exhaust the clock. Playing faster means more shots in transition and less of the offense where Love gets his points inside the arc.

While Lue promised Love more elbow actions, maybe 12-13 touches there a game, that never really materialized. Lue suggested he’d like to use Love in slower sets with the second team, but because the game’s pace is tiring his guys, he can’t get his rotation going like he wants.

“[We want to] Run our elbow actions and slow the game down for Kevin,” said Lue. “I know at time playing fast like this he can get lost in the offense, so I got to do a better job of that.”

Love took eleven shots all but four from beyond the boundary. He hit all his twos but only one three, finishing with 11, tied with J.R. Smith for fifth-leading scorer, with the fifth most shots on the team (11). He got this nice pocket pass from LeBron, probably the first time we've seen that, since Love so rarely rolls to the basket. It's interesting.
We’re interested in seeing what Lue intends but it’s hard at this point to feel that Love is anything but extraneous offensively and a huge, living, breathing question mark on defense. He can actually seem capable of defending players his own size one-on-one, but his slow feet and short arms make help defense a bridge too far.

It’s honestly hard to imagine the Cavaliers beating the Warriors or Spurs without Love being more of a threat offensively. While he’s improved some since coming here, it’s hard to expect too much from Love defensively.

Unsung Saviors

The most curious thing about the game last night was that Lue used Delly down the stretch as the lead guard, moving Kyrie to the off-guard and J.R. Smith to the “3” with LeBron and Thompson. Love later replaced Smith.

He might look scruffy, and was recently voted the dirtiest player in the NBA in an informal poll, but his basketball stats make him one of the most valuable backcourt reserves in the league. He’s 7th in the league in 3pt% (43.4%), his 3.24 assists to turnover rate puts him only behind four starting point guards (Conley, Rubio, Calderon, Paul) and he’s put up a -1.0% defensive FG%, top 30 among NBA guards.

There’s no stat for it, but if you watch the games, Dellavedova is the guy you can count on to run the offense and get people involved. It’s no surprise he led the team with four secondary assists to go with 7 assists and just two turnovers. So while it’s a little shocking to see Dellavedova out there, it’s a point in Lue’s ledger for showing no fear, and in doing so bouncing James and Irving from handling the ball quite so much. Delly's defense undoubtedly played a role since he's the team's best perimeter defender other than Shump and really helps defend opposing point guards.

It’s worth noting that Delly led the team in +/- with +16 last night, while LeBron was a mere +1 and Kyrie was -9. That’s not entirely surprising though still a little unexplainable. We didn’t think the reserve groups did that well, but when LeBron and Kyrie were in, there was again a lot of dribble drive and penetrations that don’t always involve others. Delly naturally found his favorite pass recipient, Tristan Thompson

Somehow when James and Irving scored, Minnesota was able to come back and match. Surprisingly enough Love had the second-best +/- on the team. Meanwhile, James still seemed prone to bouts of inattention, perhaps influenced by his level of physical exhaustion. Whatever his energy level, it seems hard for James to do much less to guard Muhammad. We’re not sure, but we’re going to assume Muhammad likes to go right, justifying the overplay, which really isn’t any-play.
While we picked out the LeBron play because the level of effort is so laughable, we must also note that James was awesome offensively. For only the fourth time all year, he took but one three pointer. Coming into last night, James was 26-40 in the previous three games he completed this feat. Last night he was 11-15 on his way to 25 points. Seven of his baskets were at the rim, with a mix of transition and halfcourt drives.

If Lue does nothing more than get LeBron to stop shooting 3s with all but the most minimal frequency, he’ll be a success, because in those games when he refuses to settle for threes, James is still an incredibly efficient offensive beast.

Aside from Delly, Tristan Thompson bears mention as well. Thompson got the starting nod over Mozgov and stepped up mightily. He scored 19 points on 8-10 shooting, with 12 boards, 7 of them offensive. His nine fourth quarter points led the team (while Irving and James chipped in six apiece).

The Cavs held the lead on the Wolves for most of the game, but could never really put them away. After going up 16-8, the Cavs surrendered a 15-6 run to give them the lead. They fell behind in the second but used an 8-2 run to take a 4 point halftime lead. That grew to 11 by the end of the third, but the Wolves fought to within 94-91 with six minutes left.

A 10-0 Cleveland run pushed the lead to 13 with 3:30 left, but again flagging attention opened the door. Then the Wolves had an 11-2 run pulling back within four with 60 seconds left. The Cavaliers hit their free throws and time ran out for the Timberwolves but it was another worrying effort.

In explaining how the 14-win Wolves were able to stay with the high-powered Cavaliers, Lue explained “they made shots.” On Saturday, when the Cavaliers lost, he just blamed them missing shots. We know it’s a make/miss league, but we’d like to think it’s less inscrutable than that.

Final Analysis

It’s our goal to take a bit lighter hand in evaluating the Cavaliers over the next couple weeks. There’s really no choice. Under Blatt they were up-and-down enough team to need a prescription for Paxil, and the first two games have shown the same characteristics.

This wasn’t a tough Timberwolves team, but the Cavaliers made them look that way. We did see LeBron looking jollier. Perhaps Lue has convinced him to give up the whole “we need to get angry” thing from earlier this season. It’s got to be better for his Chi, right?

There’s things that go right, but they’re accompanied, in this case by things going wrong on defense. At times effort has been missing on that end in both games. But maybe they’re worn out. Maybe this just won’t work. Who knows? Nobody yet.

It’s obviously unfair to expect this team’s personality to change in the way it needs to in any reasonable period of time. We’re suspending sentence until at least after the all-star break just to give them time to get their wits about them, and get the focus and, apparently, the enjoyment they need to get from it. (Guess they ran out of mustache sharpener.)

Watching the Spurs get eviscerated last night by the Warriors, losing by 37 at Oracle Arena, it was apparent that if anyone is to beat the Warriors this year, it’s going to take great effort and (perhaps more likely) a helping hand from providence. It’s also a reminder that a good team on its night can beat anyone like they’re peg-legged and eye-patched.

(With no offense intended toward those with peg legs or eye patches, just saying.)
So might as well sink back into the comfy chair and relax. The Cavs have some cushion atop the standings, and are going to need some time overhaul the production, and tighten up the details.

Until then we’ll try to point out things we see, but try to withhold judgment. The team and its roles are in flux. The Coach is still figuring out how to express his vision given how frequently guys ask off the floor, upsetting his rotation.

We’ll probably do a little less fault finding in our pictures and videos since this will clearly be a transition period, and let’s be honest, nothing really matters until playoff time, by and large. (Obviously the Cavs would like to protect their top record but even that’s not as essential as learning to play right together.)

There’s really nothing else to do but wait. The guy in the film booth confused the reels and we’re back in the second act again. Or maybe we should consider this as a separate time line, which no longer includes Blatt, but interacts with that inevitability. We’re all going to end up in a church, hopefully that looks a lot like the Q, and we’re going to discover what we came for was something that was in us all along.

Either that or the Cavs won’t win the championship and it will be like the huge buildup to the crappy ending of Lost.

The Cavaliers host the Phoenix Suns at the Q on Wednesday. The Suns are a mess of injuries and not-quite-meshing pieces. Indeed, new Cavaliers assistant coach/defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi was working for Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek earlier this season, before he and another coach were made sacrificial scapegoats for the season’s rough start.

We’ll be there posting video, snark and analysis. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis (arguably the most in-depth in all “The Land”) on Thursday morning in the Scene Blog.


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