Cavaliers Second Half D Ignites Offense to Outshine the Suns

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Episode three of Cavaliers: The Reboot, was a pretty good time in many ways, though there were still some plot holes. It was a little slow going early on – as just about every Cavaliers episode has been this year – but true to form, the defense locked down in the second half, limiting the visiting Phoenix Suns to 43 points en route (or rout) to a 115-93 victory.

The ball movement that fired Coach David Blatt could only coax intermittently out of the Cavaliers regulars has appeared in spades during the last two wins.

Cleveland tied their season-high with 34 assists after getting 30 assists in Monday’s victory over the Timberwolves. It had been more than a month since they had even 25 assists in consecutive games – going back to the victories over the Thunder and Sixers in mid-December.

It was a night when seven Cavs had at least 3 assists and at least one secondary assist. While six made it into double figures, then players had at least two buckets. It was very much a spread the wealth night. For the evening the Cavaliers shot 56% (45-81) and 39% (11-28) from 3.

Most importantly they forced 13 second half turnovers, yielding 23 points, giving them 33 points off turnovers for the game. The Cavs tied a season-high with 12 steals, 7 by J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving. The Cavs have had 12 steals in three games this season, strangely all on the road (Denver, Orlando, Dallas).

Irving and Smith had five steals between them in the third quarter, when the Cavs forced nine turnovers and turned them into 20 points. A 32-point third by the Cavaliers allowed them to open a 16-point lead going into the fourth, and the Cavaliers won going away.

After the game, Tyronn Lue shed some indirect light on one of the reasons he wants the team to have fun. The whole idea on a certain level seems a little frivolous, no? “Who cares if they’re having fun so long as they’re playing hard,” you might think. But perhaps there is something more subtle at work which he’s trying to get at.

Certainly anyone who’s watched the Warriors and Cavaliers have no trouble discerning who’s having more fun. At one point LeBron suggested the Cavs, to match the Warriors, needed to play angrier, like the Heat did the year James won his first championship. Yet perhaps that was part of the problem.

Lue mentioned something we’ve talked about with regard to this team this season – how the ball flows and everything’s great when things are going well, but the ball movement and defensive effort flags when they struggle offensively. We suggested this is a front-runner characteristic in our last column, something Lue cited last night.

“In the first half guys got down on themselves,” said Lue after the game. “I preach to them, we don’t want to be a front-running team. When things are not going well we have to pull together. We got to stay together. When things are great then we can enjoy it, but don’t fragment when things go bad. I’m trying to instill that in guys right now. We’ll see how it is going forward.”

Where the Wild Thing Roams

The Cavaliers came out with one of their typical first quarters, showing up in spurts during the first six minutes then settling into a torpor for the rest of the quarter. The Cavaliers committed five turnovers in the first quarter which the Suns turned into 7 points.

The Suns were moving the ball well through the first 15 minutes of the game, earning assists on 8 of their first 9 buckets. While the Cavaliers offense was humming, with 7 assists of their own on 10 buckets and 56% shooting (10-18), the defensive help rotations were slow. The Suns had a lot of success driving and kicking the ball out, as on the below play.
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LeBron was tempted to help on the first penetrator who dumped the ball to the rolling Chandler. LeBron seems blissfully unaware that he is nowhere near his man, P.J. Tucker who has slid into the corner for the open three. It is the third three Tucker hit in the quarter.
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On other occasions they made seemingly ill-considered moves as on this play where Mozgov left his man to help James double Tucker in the corner. Maybe this was an adjustment after Tucker hit his third three, but he beat the double with a pass to Len as Thompson left Chandler to take Mozgov’s man. No one rotates (J.R.?) leaving Chandler a slam.

“We were very sluggish in the first half particularly to start the game,” said Kevin Love. “We traded buckets; we’ve been doing that that last couple games. That’s not us.”

With the Cavs down by five, Anderson Varejao saw his first action of the Lue administration, and brought the same spark we’ve been heralding all year. We haven’t been as vocal as some in calling for Wild Thing to get some time, but there’s no denying his contribution when he’s out there. His activity is contagious and lifts the whole team.

While Andy was on the floor, the Cavaliers took the lead, 42-41, thanks to a 17-11 run. Though Varejao has only played 4 times for 43 minutes in the last 15 games, he’s put up the team’s best net efficiency rating at +19.7 (117 offense, 97.3 defense). To get an idea of his impact, check out this nice steal to set up a J.R. Smith 3 and then his cut for a layup of a LeBron James feed after breaking off an off-ball pick.
After the game, Lue suggested Andy might have won himself a rotation spot, which is reason for everyone to rejoice.

“Andy came in and gave us a great lift in the first half. He was phenomenal,” said Lue. “Kevin got in foul trouble early so we had to play more bigs and Andy came in and did a great job.”

Richard Jefferson also came on to do a very good job off the bench. RJ hit all four of his shots, including two threes, for 14 points, as well as 3 assists. The team was +15 with him on the floor. It was enough to earn Jefferson more consistent time. (Lue noted the size of the Phoenix guards in explaining his decision to give Jefferson extended time instead of maybe Mo Williams.)

Le-fficiency

The last two Cavs wins have found James acting as the model of efficiency. For one thing, he only took one three all game – right after Tucker stuck that three in his mug. He missed it, and apparently vowed not to miss another shot all day. This is the second game in a row where LeBron has forsaken the boundary line. He’s not done taken one or less threes in consecutive games since returning to Cleveland.

So if Tyronn Lue gets nothing else out of LeBron but to stay his 3-hand, his tenure could be a triumph for that reason alone. When James doesn’t shoot the three he tends to become much much more efficient. Against the Wolves he was 11-15. Last night he was 7-8.

What’s even more amazing about LeBron’s performance is that he had more assists (9) than shots. He only done that 5 times in his career, and three of those times have occurred on January 27th. The last time he did it was February 2, 2010, and he did it a few days before that on January 27, 2010. He also did it in 2009 on January 2nd and January 27. (Guess the planets need to align.)

James finished with 21 points and 9 assists. Delly added 7 more assists. In his postgame Lue mentioned that he put Cavs their shooting percentages depending on the number of passes that preceded the shot on the chalkboard so they could see the impact of poor ball movement.

“With no passes we shot 27%. One pass we shot 32%. Two passes it was like 40% and 3 or more passes we’re shooting 52% from 3,” Lue related. “So I put that in guy’s minds before the game and we did a good job of moving the ball.”

That’s certainly how we imagine Paul DePodesta would do it.

Second Half Team

The Cavaliers have been a second half team all year long. They have the second-best defensive efficiency (98.8 to the league-leading Bulls’ 98.6) in the NBA during the second half, and last night was no exception.

They came out with the intensity that was AWOL in the first half, kept their hands up, and created deflections. Suddenly, they were getting to the loose balls they weren't in the first half and using them create fastbreak opportunities.

“That was a big thing after halftime,” said Lue. “We got stops so we can get out and run.”

Love concurred. “We got stops and pushed the ball. You could see in the open floor we’re pretty devastating. Between J.R., Kyrie and LeBron, when we play downhill we’re a better team. We can be pretty good in the halfcourt and we’ll continue to get better but the fastbreak will be very tough to stop.”

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For his own part, Love was a pretty integral part of the offense. He had 21 points, 11 boards (3 offensive) four assists, two steals and two blocks. He had five shots in every quarter but the first, when he only played 5:30 minutes because of foul trouble. He got a nice mix of postups, cuts, and of course threes. It was still probably a bit too outside (8 threes, 9 inside the arc), but he missed several wide-open ones you have to take.

Overall, it's progress. He got some extra run with the reserves during garbage time, which Lue said was so Love could get more accustomed to running stuff with the second squad.

In the end, Love finished with 60 touches, one more than LeBron in three-and-a-half less minutes of playing time. That’s the only time all year Love’s led the team in touches. It will be interesting to see if they can maintain this sense of continuity on offense.

Final Analysis
The ball & body movement certainly made a difference in the kind of shots they got all night. The Cavaliers wound up with 51 uncontested shots versus only 30 contested ones, and made a somewhat unfathomable 19 of 21 shots within 3’ of the rim. They even hit two-thirds of their contested shots (and almost half their uncontested ones).

However, the Phoenix Suns aren’t a great team. (They’re 14-33.) They were also playing the second night of a back-to-back, and they've lost their starting backcourt to injury. Even so, they gave the Cavs all they could handle for the first 22 minutes of the game. (A 7-2 run at the end of the first half gave the Cavs a lead they’d never relinquish.)

This has been a team of inconsistent effort all year. So while we’re enthused to see them score 114 and 115 on consecutive nights, it’s not even been three weeks since they posted three consecutive 120+ nights. The question is can they repeat the same effort and focus each game.

Lue’s admonishment to enjoy the game seems to be equally about not letting their frustrations turn them on each other. Clearly Blatt was having no success with that given the glares unleashed when things were going awry. It’s only three games, but whether it’s Lue, Blatt’s departure, or the attention generated by it, the Cavs are undoubtedly doing more of the little things, particularly on offense.

It’s promising, but it’s only a couple games against inferior competition, and in both the Cavaliers looked mediocre for significant stretches. But as we said when Lue came on, this is almost like preseason given the changing roles and expectations. The changes can’t be judged for a while, but at least the early returns seem positive.

The Cavaliers will get a real test this weekend with back-to-back games against a challenging Pistons team that beat them in Detroit in November, then on Saturday against the Spurs, who have three days off to rest and plan for this game. It will be a yardstick of progress without doubt, but regardless of the results, probably won’t mean that much.

Nothing about this team really matters before the playoffs start. Until then it’s more like tech rehearsal. It looks a lot like the real thing, but everyone’s still polishing their role for opening night.

We’ll be traveling to Detroit for the game, and will be posting video, analysis and snark. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne. Because of the travel and the game against San Antonio the next night, we may not post a very long postgame, but look for a substantive analysis after the Spurs game, on Sunday morning in the Scene Blog.


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