Cavaliers Coaster Ride Finishes Ahead of Magic

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Cleveland’s Broadway road version of The King & I – “we laughed, we cried, it became a part of us”– brought its non-stop hijinks to Orlando last night.

The Cavaliers played their part to perfection, falling behind by 11 after a solid start, roaring back, slacking off and surrendering the lead in the third quarter before bearing down in the fourth and winning going away, 109-103 over the Orlando Magic.

When you’re a child, drama real and imaginary lurks behind every newfound corner. From the muddy creek behind an apartment complex where Jedi battles raged to the scruffy bum who emerges now-sober from the bushes as playing kids yell, laugh and point.

Life with the Cavaliers is similar, whether it’s the blend of real and imaginary drama, would-be Jedi locker room standoffs or simply the critical outrage and finger-pointing.

You could put the season on at 1:30 in the afternoon, call it As the Cavs Turn, and you’d have enough ups and downs to sustain a soap opera for years. From backsliding players to feuding stars, fired coaches and an underachieving team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, it’d be perfect for television. The entire year’s been a tempest in a snow globe, its beauty traumatized by the perpetual close-up.

We’re unsure if LeBron James is truly pissed at Kyrie Irving for the one assist he got against the Grizzlies when LeBron sat out, but we’re positive the media criticism is excessive. Though the article was expressed as “players” were upset with Irving’s play, we’ve been told the story came from LeBron’s camp.

Which is sort of funny since Irving passes more off his drives than James (more on that later) and his defense has picked up steadily since Lue’s ascension. Between Buddhist-Aggressive tweets and handing the pot stirrer to the media, it’s like LeBron’s gone Great Santini of late. 

But honestly, as we said a couple weeks ago the Kobe/Shaq power struggle made for great newspaper copy but didn’t stop them from winning. Nor did the animosity Jordan's teammates may have felt for him (after punching and berating them) stop them from pulling together.

Meanwhile, Timofey Mozgov has taken so much heat for disappearing you’d think he was D.B. Cooper. While some of that is too overwrought there’s little escaping that since the all-star break the starting lineup with Mozgov makes dog shit into CK-One by comparison.
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Kevin Love played another first-half of a game, and J.R. Smith was abused so badly by Victor Oladipo, they’re recommending MDMA to address his PTSD. Oladipo didn’t just have Smith’s number, he had his shoes, socks, jersey and jock on the way to 45 points on 16-22 shooting.

To be fair, it wasn’t all Smith’s fault. The Cavs tried just about everyone on him, including Shump, who caused us to throw our cup at the screen when he passed under a pick for like the third time and allowed Oladipo to drain another jumper.

But like any good television show, for all the sound and fury, fireworks and smoky haze, the same result ensued, the Cavaliers won. We don’t know if they were having enough fun in the locker room or whether Irving’s five assists were enough to satisfy his “teammates”. We do know that the Cavaliers have won 8 of 10 and 14 of their last 19.

That’s good enough for a two-game lead on the Toronto Raptors. However because Toronto owns the tie-breaker by virtue of winning two out of three from the Cavs, it’s really only a one-game lead with fourteen to play. (Toronto has six home games, the Cavaliers seven.)

Thompson steps Up

Tristan has taken advantage of Mozgov’s milk carton audition (and Love’s second half power outages) by turning up his game the past week.

He was quiet last night until he found another gear in the fourth. Going into that final twelve minutes, he had 5 boards (none offensive) two points and a steal. He literally took over, grabbing 10 boards (four offensive), scoring ten points, securing three steals and two blocks.

Thompson has conspired with Channing Frye to make Mozgov and Kevin Love look extraneous. Every one has a role to play in the playoffs, but its hard to argue Love and Timo’s roles will be a lot smaller than foreseen in the off-season.

Hard to complain given how much Thompson has improved while Mozgov’s regressed, though not so much as many think. Thompson’s improvement just makes him look worse.

Since the all-star break we've seen rudiments of a postgame, better court awareness and some decent passing. We saw Thompson do a nice job feeding Love for a three after sort of faking a drive.
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We also saw Thompson act as a conduit feeding Frye to hit the cutting Irving from the better side angle. It’s great to see Thompson used in this way.
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You’ll note that the Magic trapped Kyrie. We’ll probably see more of that, and the ability of Thompson to handle the ball and find an open guy like Love is huge. In the fourth, he showed his ability to finish two similar plays off the bounce

The Game

As is the Cavs way, they played well for six minutes before flagging. It was tied 13 apiece, when the Magic went on a three-minute 9-3 run, the only Cavs points coming from Mozgov. A trio of triples (Frye twice, Shumpert) got the Wine and Gold even, but the Magic’s hot play carried into the second.

Orlando hit six straight shots over the end of the first and the beginning of the second to go up 38-27 before the Cavs awoke and played some of their most inspired basketball of the last three weeks.

From just under the ten minute mark until the end of the quarter, the Cavaliers outscored the Magic 36-19, making 12-15 shots, 8 of them assisted, six different players with assists. Love was the focal point with 11 points including a trio of threes, one from J.R. Smith who passed up an open 3 to give Love an even more open shot.

We hear complaints about Kyrie not being a great passer and then we see him thread this perfect pass to a cutting Kevin Love.
A few plays later Irving found LeBron for this basket out of the pick and roll, as he made a perfect pocket pass to LeBron James.
When you compare both Irving and James’ passing rates off drives you find them very similar. This bespeaks the difficulty hitting players off drives and the fact that James best passing is from out of the low, side or high post, not off the dribble. We think the scrutiny is completely unfair and a case of a pot-stirring that’s become like a repeated refrain of Hail to the Chief around these Cavs.
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Meanwhile the defense stiffened like Stifler, holding the Magic to a paltry 6-17. The Magic came out with more energy while the Cavs looked like they freshened up with a turkey dinner, and tryptophan was winning the battle. The first eight minutes of the quarter the Magic outscored them 25-10, 11 of them by Oladipo.

Meanwhile the Cavs were 4-12 with one assist and four turnovers. Mozgov was the only starter without one, he left, only -10, while those who remained were -15, when Frye finally came in to save the day. Frye scored five and James had four (playing the whole third) helping the Cavs to tread water the rest of the quarter.

The lineup of Delly/Shumpert, Kyrie Irving, Richard Jefferson, Tristan Thompson and Channing Frye held the Magic to 2-8, while Irving scored 10 and Thompson had 5, outscoring the Magic 15-6 over the first six minutes of the fourth. That gave the Cavs a six-point lead when James returned, and Orlando never got much closer.

Love’s Labours Lost

In other ongoing dramas, Kevin Love disappeared in the second half again after scoring 13 in the first. He’s averaging 3/4ths of a shot less in the second half in March than he has since Kyrie came back (3.75 to 4.5) which is probably thanks to Channing Frye’s emergence.

For the most part, Love’s been pretty consistent. He’s only hitting a quarter of his threes since the break, but compare his numbers for the year to last year and they’re eerily close.
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Love will never be what he was in Minnesota unless he’s made the first option again, but by and large, he’s pretty much the same guy. (Well his defense is actually significantly worse.)
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But offensively, he’s very much the same guy. We looked at his stats for the last three years and the shooting stats are very similar but he’s making a lower percentage of open 3s than last year. Over the past three years Love has hit 44/39/37 on wide-open threes, and 35/38/30 of his open shots accounting for almost 90% of his 3s.

Admittedly his 54% conversion rate at the rim is his worst outside of his injury season when he played just 18 games and made less than half his shots within 3’ of the rim. Last year Love converted 61% of these and his final year in Minnesota, 67%. But he’s compensated by hitting a career high 46% from 3’-10’. Indeed he’s taking more shots from that slightly farther range than at the rim for the first time in his careeer, 21%-18%. (Last year it was reversed.)

Part of this is Love’s new smaller size. Unable to work on his upper body last year thanks to his shoulder injury, Love sculpted his body, presumably helping to become quicker. As we noted it hasn’t helped him on defense. But we thought the idea might be to attack close-outs more off the dribble, scoring on floaters and plays at the rim.

The problem is that Love has been terrible finishing at the rim and we wonder if that’s because he’s always scored more with his back to the basket or shooting fall aways than attacking the rim off the bounce. This might take some practice to become better at.

The mere fact that his 3’-10’ game’s improved is a sign of this transition. While the stats with dribbles yielded nothing useful, driving stats did. We can see he’s driving 50% more than last year and scoring twice as much. He’s not much of a passer off the dribble – he’s about on Shumpert’s level passing off the drive – he’s definitely drawing fouls. 
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That’s been Love’s big saving grace, while he hasn’t shot as well (smidge below 40% from the field since the break) he’s been getting to the line 60% more, with 5.6 FTAs/game since the all-star game, 3.7/game before that. Given the team’s inconsistent ability to get to the line for easy ones, this shouldn’t be overlooked.

Nonetheless, we wouldn’t be surprised if his fourth quarter disappearance becomes a more frequent occurrence due to Channing Frye’s (14 pts, 4 threes, 2 assists, block) terrific play and the fact that he works well with Tristan Thompson.

Rim Protection

Defensive metrics are hard to suss, but we prefer SportVU/player tracking stats to lineup and plus/minus. This is not to disparage those, which help provide a fuller picture. We snapped a picture of the best two-man lineups since the all-star break, and no surprise, they’re Channing Frye-heavy. The fact that Kevin Love does very well with Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert suggests that he’s best when he’s not getting caught in Pick-and-Rolls with Kyrie Irving.
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The success of Frye/Thompson is no surprise and we expect to see a lot of that going forward, but we were also struck by the success of Richard Jefferson with Love. What this is suggesting is that Love really should be getting more run with the second team, which already plays at a slower pace, and which would feature Shumpert and Delly.

Frye and Thompson will undoubtedly see a lot of time together in the fourth quarter, perhaps with Irving and Delly in the backcourt and LeBron at the “3.” Saying his arrival has meant a lot to the team’s flexibility is an understatement.

What goes unspoken is that opponents’ EFG% is a very middle-of-the-road 13th since Lue took over, and the Cavs are allowing the 9th highest percentage within 5’ of the basket. The rim protection since the all-star break is ugly.
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On the positive side, the Cavaliers are allowing the second-least shots within 5’ since the all-star break. Their ability to maintain that will key their playoff success, especially since Mozgov’s job appears to be on the fence. Frye is so good, it’s like you don’t need Mozgov.

We understand that sentiment, and were this NBA2K we’d be with the move, however, it’s not and there could be a situation where we need the big Russian lug. He’s still the team’s best rim protector, even if his offensive skills seem to have regressed faster than Benjamin Button.

Our feeling is that he needs the time to build his confidence, and without consistent minutes that will never happen and he’s even less likely to be able to ready himself for playoff caliber ball.

We know it’s a minority opinion and we won’t generate a lot of positive praise taking it, but if you look at the numbers, he’s not that much worse than last year, it’s partly the funhouse variety of Cleveland sports coverage making everything larger and misshapen.

He’s actually – hard to believe – making turnovers at a lower rate than last year. Even less than Love makes out of the post (though Love passes it more). Mozzy’s actually shooting over 50% from 16”+ this year.

We are glad to see Lue continue to start him, if only so it keeps Tristan’s minutes closer to 26-28. When he was starting and playing 30-32 his rebounding numbers were down sharply in the fourth quarter. When Tristan doesn’t start his minutes are a tad lower and his energy in the fourth is greater.

Speaking of disappearances, Mo Williams is ghosting the Cavs. He allegedly went to Dr. James Andrews to look at his troublesome knee, though, we wonder if it isn’t his attitude that’s in need of repair. Williams is presumed to be one of the veterans that allegedly threw one of the last Duraflames beneath Ex Coach David Blatt’s feet. His playing time hasn’t changed and the scuttlebutt is it’s less about his knee than his head. We think Shawn Marion has more chance of getting into a playoff game.

Final Analysis

If you’ve watched the Cavs at all you know blowing leads and coming back in the fourth is how they like to live. It’s exasperating, especially when you witness eight minutes of perfect ball at the end of the second only to watch them deliver a hometown steamer in the third.

Yet if you get caught up in the repeated storylines you might miss a couple of salient facts. The offense is getting much better, even approaching Golden State levels when the passing is strong. Chemistry is beginning to develop between certain squads, almost in spite of Coach Lue’s frequently morphing rotations.

The ball movement is getting more consistent, and we’re seeing more effective cutting and PnR plays.
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We even saw the Cavs abandon the three and get downhill in the second half after going 0-5 from distance in the third. They did make 19 turnovers as ballhandling has slipped of late. Still they improved to 29-2 when they have at least 23 assists.

We just hope they can tighten up their handle and bear down to play some defense. They held the Magic to 7-21 in the fourth quarter, with Delly and Shump taking turns shadowing Oladipo. (James even took a turn or two at the game’s end.) We’d like to see effort like that more consistently. But seeing this team do anything consistently at this point is A Bridge Too Far.

We still have faith they can clean up their issues in the 14 games remaining. The spotlight’s glare hasn’t been kind to them, but they’re still the team to beat in the East, and they’re progressing, even if their ascent’s somewhat circular, like a spiraling staircase. Let’s hope they don’t get Vertigo.

We’ll be watching the broadcast with you, posting commentary, video and analysis. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis Sunday morning here in the Scene and Heard blog and you can hear us on the Defend Cleveland Show on Monday morning at 11 a.m. with Michael James on WRUW, 91.1.


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