Toward the end of the first quarter as the Cavaliers fell behind the Celtics 35-17, we suffered a brief auditory hallucination. Blame it on a bad sandwich, poor circulation or several unsanctioned college-age experiments passing through the looking glass.
We were about to tweet something withering about the Cavaliers first quarter effort when it sounded like Lebron over my shoulder, saying “Please.” We’re pretty sure we don’t possess anything a King would want, so we paused our screed.
“You know we’re just messing with them, right?” figural LeBron asked. “Getting inside their head like a shitty Mark Ronson song.” We hit the mental mute before he could utter anything related to faith or observation. Yet in a veritable blink of an eye the game reversed course.
A fourteen-point Celtic lead with just less than nine left in the second quarter disappeared quicker than Arthur Andersen. (Nothing knocks’em dead like accounting humor.)
Over the next 150 seconds the Cavs put together a 10-0 run capped by a Kyrie Irving rebound and baseball pass to a streaking Iman Shumpert who’d shot had lately lacked even the precision of Dick Cheney.
That dunk cut the lead to four, and just as they say, the easy bucket served to kickstart Shump’s jump shot. He was 0-9 in his previous two games and 0-3 to start this one. But the breakaway sure enough got him going.
Shump hit three of his next four shots, including two threes and a pair of free throws for 12 points. He also added four assists, two steals, and 16 rebounds, six of them offensive, while putting up +26 plus/minus, same as Matthew Dellavedova. Trailing 53-50 with over two minutes left, Shumpert scored the Cavs last five points of the quarter giving them a 55-54 halftime lead.
“He was scrappy tonight. He made his 3 point shots and he got a chance to drive on closeouts. That’s the Shump we need,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “Shump defensively was awesome. He rebounded the basketball and he made shots. If he continues to play like that we’re going to be tough to beat.”
Twenty of the team’s 45 first half shots were threes and they hit but six of them, while making 13-25 inside the arc. But they turned that around coming out with a great 36-point third quarter that featured more free throws (15) than the Cavaliers shot in the entire first half (13).
After but one free throw by either team in the first quarter, there were 21 in the second quarter (13 Cavs, 8 Celts) as the game grew a lot more physical.
That was a must from the Cavaliers standpoint. They let the Celtics shoot 60% in the first and only shot 40% themselves, but the defense tightened holding the Celtics to 40% the rest of the way, while the offense shot 55%.
“We had a heck of a second quarter spearheaded by Kyrie and our defense,” said LeBron James afterwards. “Once we settled in we got a little more physical on defense and also offensively we turned the game around.”
It was tied at 59 early in the third period after a Mozgov dunk. The next possession down Amir Johnson took the ball near the three-point line against Mozzy and gave him a forearm shiver to his Adam’s apple. (A fine self-defense move but not likely to endear you to the victim. Mozgov was rendered speechless in the locker room afterwards.)
Johnson drew a Flagrant I, which meant two free throws and possession of the ball. (It turned into a four-point play after James drew and made two free throws.) The play signaled how quickly the physicality between the two teams can get out of hand.
Mozgov sank the free throws and left the game not long after and didn’t return. An 8-2 run featuring three Love free throws, a Delly floater and a Shumpert three gave the Cavs an 8 point lead to end the third and they never looked back, building the lead until the very end of their 120-103 victory.
“I just told them we needed to be more physical on both ends. I think to start the game we didn’t come out aggressive on the defensive end. We didn’t come out aggressive offensively,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “The second half we came out and we were able to attack downhill and get to the free throw line and get to the basket.”
We were very excited to see the Cavaliers shoot more free throws than threes for only the second time since beating the Thunder. They get a lot of open threes, but draw less fouls when they kick it out rather than finishing in the lane. The tendency to settle for threes also limits how much they attack closing defenders and force rotations.
This was a very nice win and there were several encouraging takeaways, the foremost being that the bench of Iman Shumpert-Matthew Dellavedova-Tristan Thompson have a great energy together. While they excelled as starters in the playoffs last year, it appears their best situation is right where they are.
We won’t be surprised to see Delly or Shumpert spend some time with the starters in small ball lineups, but it feels to us like the energy those three bring together in various combinations with the Big 3 and other reserves make them a weapon against opponents’ second teams. Few teams even among contenders can bring one player let alone three that play with such defensive intensity and no-surrender guts.
Look what happened against the Celtics. The Cavs starters were a little lackadaisical. They didn’t physically get into the Celtics at the start of the game, allowing them to get where they wanted on the court and to do what they wanted. But when the Cavs reserves came in, they helped change the tenor of the game.
None of the three can really be relied on to score much, but their ability to shut teams down defensively – especially the more offensively challenged second squads – opens up opportunities to run, especially when teamed, as they have been of late, with Kyrie Irving.
Last night Shumpert, Delly (both +26), and Tristan (+15) helped key the comeback with their effort while the Celtics bench were the waterline breach. Tyler Zeller (-18), Evan Turner (-17), Marcus Smart & Jonas Jerebko (-14) played starring roles in the Celtics collapse.
Not only was their defense exemplary (they produced 5 of the team’s 8 steals) but they facilitated (9 of the team’s 27 assists), rebounded (10 offensive boards between Shump and Tristan) and scored. All three finished in double figures as Lue’s entire eight man rotation reached double figures, even Mozgov who because of the throat injury played under 11 minutes but still had 10 points.
The Cavs are now 27-1 when they get at least 23 assists. Half of last night’s 82 shots were uncontested, and they shot the same 51% whether or not they were contested. While they finished with 30 threes (made 10), they also got into the paint with high frequency and converted, taking advantage of the Celtics lack of a shotblocker in the middle. The Cavs shot 68%, while the Celtics made just 49%.
Ball Movement & Off Ball LeBron
Though still prone to outages, the Cavaliers ball movement has been very good of late. They’re moving the ball, cutting off the ball, finding the open man, and sharing. We loved that Kyrie could’ve easily finished but instead fed Tristan for a dunk on the play below, keyed by a great give-and-go pass from Kevin Love.
Love reached 10 points while shooting 1-6 and only managed four rebounds, but still had three assists and two secondary assists. Even when he doesn’t score his presence helps space the floor and his passing makes other guys better. He is a bit overqualified for the role of third option, and his defense will forever be limited by his body, but his value to the team seems constantly underrated by those who only see Love through his stats.
(That said, we’re still skeptical of his ability to play the 5 defensively, and wonder if he can bring enough offense/threat to offset it. Also worth tipping the cap to those complaining Love-haters to acknowledge he did indeed put up 39/30/89 FG/3P/FT% for February, which was actually a little better than his December. His shooting’s definitely been up and down like an elevator.)
Not only did eight players reach double figures in scoring, but six guys had at least three assists and four had at least four. The ball movement was pretty good most of the night, and the number of passes to touches was above 73%, a strong indicator of offensive fellowship. Several of the first few games under Lue were below 67%, so it’s very encouraging to see them rounding back into form.
We’d actually hoped to highlight more plays with LeBron off the ball, but even though the Cavs played small ball lineups, there were precious few 1 / 4 pick-and-rolls of the type we saw on a number of occasions the night before against the Wizards. Sadly, LeBron didn’t run them much, though he did run a couple with Delly.
After Kyrie came back, Lue began working in more plays with LeBron off the ball, and it’s such a good look it’s hard to express. Even more than the post-up, we like LeBron moving without the ball.
If he can catch while in motion, not only can he react to defenders with cat-like reflexes, but he provides very little ability for defenders to stay with or in front of him. Further his passes on the move with defenders rotating toward him can be sick opening up easy hoops. When he gets a head of steam, he’s just a handful.
“It’s always been like that,” James told us with a Cheshire grin.
We’re spoiled by broadband and the internet. Try dial-up or looking things up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Better hope you bought beyond “B.” Everything’s so instant it’s sometimes hard to remember how slow and difficult change is.
While this team may have been Finals runners-up last year, that doesn’t mean shit this year. Different year, different team. Sure, there’s some continuity, but it isn’t like this is the San Antonio Spurs of Parker, Duncan & Ginobili.
It’s easy to forget that Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert missed not only training camp but a third of the season. Tristan Thompson missed training camp with a holdout. Indeed hardly any regulars played together during training camp. Mozgov has struggled all season to bring himself back from knee surgery that hasn’t made his knee feel any better.
Add to that the changing roles and expectations, which finally seemed to be coming into focus before Coach Blatt was fired in what we feel was probably a massive over-reaction by GM David Griffin. We find it difficult to believe that Blatt wouldn’t have been able to get the team to this point from where they were given another 20 games, but that wasn’t our call needless to say. It's spilled milk.
Lue brought in different expectations and a new defensive coach from the Phoenix Suns, not to mention greater focus on pace. (Blatt too had focused on this, but without the same single-mindedness.)
This isn’t to make excuses but to point out what a great deal of flux this team’s been under. Without the full complement of players it was hard to work on everything Blatt wanted to install, he admitted a few days before his dismissal. Lue's had even less time.
Suffice to say that progress under such circumstances is almost certainly going to suffer from discontinuities and failures. In some sense it’s not the worst thing to happen to the Cavaliers. Sure, they could be chasing a record, but the simple fact that they’ve been working out kinks all along may not be the worst thing: No time for complacency.
And we shouldn’t fool ourselves. As we’ve noted before, the Cavaliers know the month, and until the playoffs are near, it’s hard to expect rapt attention. Now that they can smell postseason, the lights are coming on and the effort’s coming into better focus.
It’s Cleveland. You expected this to be easy? The Toronto Raptors are presently 2.5 games back and the Cavaliers are just hitting their stride. They just beat one of the Eastern Conference’s two best teams. Full steam ahead!
We’ll be at the Q on Monday for the matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies. We’ll be posting video, analysis and commentary throughout the game. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Tuesday morning here in the Heard and Scene blog. Also, listen to us on Monday at 11a.m. on WRUW, 91.1’s Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James.