"Sunshine On My Shoulder Makes Me Happy"
You don’t expect emotional stability from teenage girls, and you don’t expect consistent play from this year’s Cavaliers squad.
They’re attentive in stretches, but can’t be counted on to think of others before themselves. There’s a level of commitment they’re just unable to muster, and it’s not even necessarily a choice, they just haven’t been in situations that have asked this of them.
Of course, teenage girls turn into our wives and mothers. Their high school and college age emotional rollercoasters generally ease into less vertiginous grades and banked instead of switchback curves.
Similarly, the Cavaliers seem about ready to dispense with the melodrama and get about the business of kicking other teams’ asses in a collective fashion. That’s what it looked like as they snapped the Wizards’ staves like toothpicks, 108-83 last night.
It might just be a false flash of maturity drawing Cavs fans in like Lucy teasing Charlie Brown with a pigskin. Nonetheless it’s beginning to feel like the team’s coming around.
This squad has strayed more than once but in the second half of the Pacers game and for nearly the whole game against the Wizards, they moved the ball and played defense with purpose rather like a punishment. While this team is forever prone to backsliding, their play last night suggested a procrastinator finally accepting the reality of the deadline and getting to work.
Just as the fact that LeBron passed the ball the last two possessions of the Pacers win, despite dominating the middle parts of the game, signaled a different attitude, the ball movement, pace and defensive effort last night set a new standard under Coach Tyronn Lue.
“We didn’t let it become stagnant,” said Kyrie Irving. “We didn’t let possessions, when they were making baskets, hold us back. We got the ball out, pushed, got into our flow offensively.”
It’s a sort of strange thing to suggest just two wins away from having lost three out of four, but not only did they hold the Wizards to the lowest point total since Lue took over 19 games ago, but they looked good doing so. They continued to improve on the offensive side with their pace and ballhandling (just two first half turnovers to ten for the Wizards!), while the defense really took hold as the game wore on.
Even better, in the locker room after the game, nobody seemed satisfied.
“We’re just playing a little better basketball towards the end of the season. Trying to lock in a little bit more,” said Richard Jefferson. “We’re doing some things well but again we want to continue pushing it and even though we haven’t turned the ball over a lot our record isn’t what we want it to be.”
What everyone was talking about before and after the game was the fact that in sitting Kevin Love for rest, Coach Lue was trying out a small lineup featuring LeBron at power forward and Iman Shumpert in James’ small forward spot.
While the media behaves like this is some unexpected move, just about anyone who watches the Cavaliers for any length of time wonders what they intend to do about Irving’s defense, or lack thereof. The most obvious solution is to start either Shumpert or Matthew Dellavedova, allowing them to guard Kyrie’s guy, in this case John Wall.
Wall lit the Cavs up for 21 points and 13 assists in beating the Cavs 113-99 five days ago, when they sat LeBron James on the front-end of a back-to-back. Last night he had 17 and 7 assists, due mostly to Shumpert’s efforts.
“Only had three shots [missed them all]. You can’t get no rhythm taking three shots. His value is to go out and guard the best player every single night and that’s what he does for us,” said Lue. “He was +25 when he had 2 points; that shows you his value.”
The Cavaliers shot out to a 19-10 lead on a series of breakaways, the first on a pass from LeBron James to a streaking J.R. Smith for two foul shots. Then he stole the ball on consecutive plays for breakaway dunks for a 16-7 lead at the quarter’s midpoint.
From the six minute mark to the end of the first quarter is a frequent issue for the Cavs and indeed they were outscored 16-11 over the balance of the quarter. The Cavaliers pushed the lead to 11 behind 7 points from Dellavedova with James sitting for almost half the second quarter.
Shortly after James’ return the Wizards cut the lead to 7 and Lue called a timeout. Whatever he said, it stuck. The Cavaliers went on a 17-6 run over the next four minutes capped by a Delly trey (his tenth point of the quarter, he finished with 12) for an 18-point lead the Wizards would have little luck cutting into. They’d briefly draw as close as 13 before the Cavs pushed the lead out as far as 30.
Whereas the Wizards pushed the ball incessantly their last meeting, the Cavaliers played much better transition defense, which was a big part of the gameplan and how they stopped them.
“We did great. Obviously we know John Wall is a head of the snake,” said James. “I think he only had one or two of them in transition where he got out in front and got layups. I think for the most part we were in tune with the gameplan the coaching staff gave us and we executed it.”
James played the four (or power forward) most of the night and was great. He didn’t shoot well (7-18) but it wasn’t because he was taking bad jump shots (he did take four threes, making one). He just wasn’t able to finish as his shot chart indicates. But he did grab 13 boards, make three steals and dish out seven assists. Being the “4” put him in position to clean glass and start breaks.
“Being able to rebound and push it from that position, that helps a lot too, even if I’m not scoring for myself, just getting the ball up the court and getting it to our guards and just creating some different actions for the defense they haven’t seen,” James said.
As James alluded to after the game, he’s played the “4” before, including three years in Miami. He knows the position, though he doesn’t like to play it as much because he doesn’t want to be worn down by the physicality of the post. But as Lue points out, power forwards just aren’t that physically tough anymore. They’re not even that big.
“Marvin Williams is starting at the 4 for Charlotte. Tobias Harris is starting at the 4 for Detroit. You have the Morris twin starting at the four for Washington,” said Lue. “There’s going to be times in the game when we can go small and match those guys and it will be good for us.”
An unspoken key to playing this way last night seemed to be the play of Timofey Mozgov who got the start at center for the second night in a row. We presume that’s due to both Tristan Thompson’s regression as a starter and his poor rim protection. Mozgov definitely helped in that respect, but it was actually his offense that made the first impression, scoring three of the team’s first five buckets. He finished with 14 points and no turnovers.
Thompson seemed to wear down a little as a starter, and seems better suited to the bench. Not only does he bring an intensity many opposite numbers can’t match, particularly on the offensive boards, but he’s reteamed with his primary alley-oop buddy, Delly. Thompson finished with 10 points, including a nice alley-oop from Kyrie, and seven rebounds, as well as two blocked shots.
Unfortunately while Mozgov has looked good lately, showing flashes of his high level of play during last year’s playoffs, it’s not because he’s suddenly healthy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
“It feels worse than before the surgery,” Mozgov reported of his troublesome right knee. All he can do is keep working. “It’s simple. I try to do better when I go on the court. Off the court you just got to do the same thing every time and keep working hard. That’s it. Things will change, you know? If you work hard work things will change.”
New Offensive Wrinkles
The Cavaliers demonstrated a number of new, very effective offensive wrinkles last night. We saw Kyrie Irving run a baseline screen like Ray Allen used to run to free him for a three. On another occasion, Irving got a double screen far in the frontcourt freeing Kyrie for a straight-away three. Later we saw another double screen on the wing to free J.R. Smith for a three.
J.R. handled the ball more with LeBron playing the four. James set more picks and wound up as the roll man on more than one occasion. (More on this in a moment.) The play below was actually the second-side action, and featured a down screen by Mozgov on Smith, who receives a pass from LeBron and then another screen. As Smith bisects the lane, Gortat comes over to help leaving a rolling Mozgov for a dunk.
The other thing we saw a lot of were James/Irving pick-and-rolls, again with James as the roll man. His speed, size, finishing and passing ability make that a scary consideration for opponents. Here you can see as Irving slips the pick and James rolls, Kyrie hits him with the pocket pass and he finds Mozgov. (One of the few non-high passes thrown to him, hence why he didn’t have any turnovers.)
“With his passing ability, his ability to set screens and get off them and roll to the basket, make plays and make passes, it puts you in a tough position,” Lue said. “The 1-4 screen – the way we run our offense, setting drags and flow and just open the floor up, it gives him more room to operate and run around the floor, him setting picks and rolling to the basket and know guys are committing and then he’s able to make the pass.”
“When you have LeBron playing the 4 it makes a lot of pick and rolls easier and possessions are not so empty for us,” said Irving.
Lue mentioned before the game his intent to play more lineups featuring Love at the 5 and LeBron at the 4. That will pose real offensive problems for defenders with all that shooting on the floor and penetrators like James and Irving. On the other hand against many centers that could be an issue.
When Coach Tyronn Lue first brought in his “fast-paced” offense we noted that it hadn’t been too fast-paced at all. We also noted that the intention wasn’t necessarily to run so much as not to walk.
We mean that too often the Cavaliers were walking the ball up the court and not getting quickly into their sets. The slow pace seemed to almost infect their execution, making them take forever to call for picks and use them or to make decisions with the ball. That few extra seconds in the frontcourt can mean a second or third option might be reached.
It also opens the possibility of attacking a mismatch in transition and attacking before the defense gets set and dug in. That’s a lot of what we see looking at the team’s stats under the two coaches.
As you can see, the Cavaliers offense under Blatt was almost 30% Catch & Shoot. When Lue first came in, the team started taking too many midrange jumpers, and not enough shots from within 10’. But over the last six games we can see that changing. Pull-ups are down to where they were under Blatt, with almost 3% less Catch & Shoot, all of that going into shots within 10’.
By looking at the shot clock you can also see that the Cavs are taking significantly more shots early in the clock than later. (It is worth noting that 9 shots a game are unaccounted or with the shot clock off under Blatt.) The Cavs also seem to be getting a few more open and less tightly covered shots. Even more importantly, they’re hitting a much better percentage of their wide open shots than under Blatt.
Finally we want to note that the team’s pace is indeed, finally picking up. Through the first few games it actually dropped. It currently sits at 95.7 possessions/game under Lue and 95.05 under Blatt (where they were next-to-last in pace). However over the last 11 games that’s increased to 96.5, and over the last three it’s even higher (97.6).
It should be noted that the increased pace has been accompanied by a very modest upturn in Fastbreak Points (12.1 to 12.4) which is actually less than the increase in Fastbreak Points allowed (10.3 to 10.7).
The Cavaliers had their home vengeance on the Wizards even without Kevin Love, whose absence was far less notable than James’ against Washington five days earlier. Kyrie finished with eight assists and on several occasions made nice passes to LeBron, who then set someone else up. That’s how six Cavs ended in double figures. They had 24 assists on 42 baskets, not great, but not bad.
By and large the ball movement was good in the halfcourt, and even off the ball there were screens and movement. Decisions with the ball were mostly made quickly and on several occasions, most notably one of Delly’s two second quarter threes which was preceded by three passes around the horn from the other side of the court.
The Wizards didn’t just lie down, but Cleveland met each rally with more points and eventually shut them down. In no quarter did Washington score more than 23 points. If they can maintain that level… well getting this team to maintain or sustain their effort and execution levels has been the issue. But as they’re unlikely to change in one fell swoop, it’s expected they would do it by degrees, like Icarus circling closer and closer to the sun.
We think they may finally be getting there, fully aware that they’ve been doing this now you see me/now you don’t act all year. But part of the reason is most players understanding that the real season doesn’t start until playoff time, all the rest is foreplay.
Between the finish of the Pacers game and the effort against the Wizards, we see signs of a corner. We wouldn’t tell anyone to expect a straight line, but they seem to understand the task ahead.
“Its not only me putting more work in the gym, it’s everybody and everybody knows we have to be better,” said Mozgov.
Speaking about the better ball movement, Jefferson said, “We have to keep increasing it. I think as guys get more and more comfortable and we start to settle into our roles, I think that we’ll continue improving.”
We’ll be at the Q tonight for the game against the Boston Celtics. Love, who sat last night, will play. Indeed, no one is expected to sit, and the Cavs will start their regular starting lineup, though the Celtics are an undersized team (former Buckeye Jared Sullinger's their center) that's a perfect opponent to test Love at the 5. We'll see how much run that gets.
We’ll be posting video, commentary and analysis on Twitter during the game. Follow us @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Sunday morning in the Scene and Heard blog.