What did you really expect? In a season where the Cavaliers have demonstrated an extraordinary ability to underperform in games they should win, or, as was the case last night in blowing a 20-point lead to Houston, a game they had already largely won before collapsing like a crooked third world dictatorship in the fourth quarter.
Indeed over the last month, in losing to the Washington Generals farm team, the New Jersey Nets, and a Grizzlies exhibition squad missing four starters, and suffering twin annihilations at the hands of the Wizards and the Heat, we’ve seen the Cavaliers badly in need of Viagra. For some reason, they just can’t get up for some games.
Between flaccid episodes, they often look quite potent. Even last night, they were rolling over the Rockets. They held the Rockets below 30% shooting in the second quarter, the fourth quarter in the last six they’d done that.
Perhaps we’re jaded by the play of the last month, but we didn’t feel particularly secure with the 19-point halftime lead. As the third quarter progressed it was almost like the Cavs were in a prevent defense – just trying to hold on. Their pace and aggression disappeared.
By the time the fourth started you could feel how shaky the 13 point lead was. The offense looked like one of those hallowed out hulls of burnt up Chevys Springsteen likes to sing about. They were definitely going to have to push it across the finish line, and absent a resting LeBron James, they had nothing.
On defense, they put Houston into the bonus with seven minutes left in the game, which is precisely not how you beat James Harden, who single-handedly outscored the Cavs in the quarter 18-16.
It’s becoming harder to deny what’s right in front of us. The Cavaliers aren’t looking for an identity, they’ve already got one, and whether or not the coaches are happy about it, this may very well be who they are: Frontrunners that can’t stay focused when things go well, stop playing right, then can’t rediscover their mojo, soon falling back into their tried and tested bad habits: ISO ball and jump shots.
They have defensive and offensive identities, but they’re more like novelty mustache/nose/glasses, and pull them off to reveal just what David Griffin said about them when he fired Blatt in January. This is a team with a great back-against-the-wall mentality, but when things go well they lack the killer instinct to put the boot to the windpipe.
“It’s more a mindset. We still haven’t pushed through that wall yet,” explains James Jones. “Every time we walk up to that wall we look at it, think about scaling it, get a couple steps up and then say, 'You know what, I’ll try to do it again tomorrow.' So for us, now is the time. You create habits over an extended period of time and even we want to take it to the next level we have to stop flushing games like this away and start capitalizing and making the most of it.”
As we’re fond of pointing out, the Cavaliers played well for the first five minutes of the first quarter. Then they allowed a couple fastbreaks, one on an incredibly lazy pass from Love.
Down six with three left in the first, Matthew Dellavedova came in and immediately got things going. First he scored on this play where he read the trap of Kyrie Irving and cut to the middle of the floor, opening up a floater in the lane.
They trapped Kyrie quite a lot forcing him to surrender the ball and making others beat them. This would work quite well in the fourth, but in the first half, Delly effectively cut up their rotations.
Delly located Tristan Thompson under the basket, where he was defended by a guard and fouled. He was fouled on an offensive rebound. He hit all four of his free throws in the quarter and eight of nine for the game. (He’s shooting 73% from the line over the last ten games.) Then Delly read the Rockets weakside rotation and found James Jones wide open in the corner.
Both Jones and Mo Williams – who had been sidelined with a knee injury before Saturday’s game against the Knicks in which he played 13 minutes – made a big difference for the often under-powered second squad.
This has particularly been true the past two weeks as Channing Frye has regressed to the mean and beyond into trash. We know you’re still caught in the blush of his first month, but for the last six games he’s 10-33 (30%) including 5-26 (19%) from 3 with just 14 total rebounds in 15 minutes/game.
His disappearance puts more weight on guys like Richard Jefferson (not so bad) and Iman Shumpert. Shumpert in particular has been such a fright on offense, it’s hard to imagine him replacing Smith in the starting lineup to buoy the defense (and Irving in particular).
Any Cavalier opponent is salivating at the possibility of Iman Shumpert taking 3's. Since the All-Star break Shump’s shooting 34%, and 28% from 3, while averaging less than a FT/game despite 24 minutes/game. He’s in some sense the epitome of the team’s love for 3's even when they aren’t making them.
Thanks to Williams and Jones the Cavs were hitting them (at least in quarters two and three). Williams drained two and Jones drained one and drew a foul on another. Love hit one and Irving also hit two. They held the Rockets to 26% shooting and forced seven turnovers while committing just one.
Naturally, play that good wasn’t going to last. This is the Cavs, the most attention-addled gifted kid in the class.
The Inevitable Let Down
Truth be told, the Cavaliers didn’t play that terribly in the third quarter. They had to know the Rockets would make a push but six points out of a 19-point lead is respectable. How they managed that while being outrebounded 17-9, and outshot 54% (14-26) to 36% (8-22) remains a little puzzling.
The Cavs had assists on all eight of their baskets, but five of them were threes, emblematic of the fact that this is quickly becoming the only way the Cavs score in the halfcourt offense when LeBron is not on the floor (and even often when he is).
We’re pretty convinced that living-and-dying by the three is a loser strategy. (The Warriors are not nearly so one-dimensional, sad to say.) It never got Mike D’Antoni or the Suns to the Finals. And where the heck is Paul Westhead these days? (Lue should be that lucky. Westhead led the Lakers to their 1980 NBA Championship as a rookie pro coach, and it was a steep decline from there.)
Anyway, after shooting 11-22 in the middle to quarters, the Cavaliers 3-point shooting started regressing to the mean, and like a shitty gambler who keeps feeling “due” they kept taking them. They finished the fourth quarter 2-10 from three and 5-19 overall.
You can argue all you like about them being more “worthy” shots, but basketball is also a game of rhythm. Sometimes making a couple shots – in the lane or midrange – helps a shooter get their rhythm and probably increases the likelihood of subsequent 3's. But working inside out often eludes the Cavaliers, particularly if LeBron’s not around to make entry passes.
Delly got things going to start the fourth, finding a rolling Tristan Thompson while Cavs shooters kept the Rockets honest.
When the Rockets overreacted to Thompson rolling to the basket out of the pick-and-roll by overloading the lane, Delly found RJ in the corner for a three. With that shot the lead was 9 with 8:45 remaining.
Over the next five minutes the Rockets would go on a 14-2 run. It didn’t help that the Cavs put them in the bonus with over seven minutes left. Cleveland retied it at 94, but faltered down the stretch losing 106-100.
What You’ve Come to Expect
The issues were just about all the things you would have come to expect. As we mentioned there were lots of jump shots. At the end Kyrie took over and no one else really had much opportunity. Shumpert missed a couple wide-open threes.
In large part the Rockets were just more physical in the second half than the Cavaliers, who didn’t step up to the challenge.
“They came out [in the second half] and took it to us,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “They picked up the defensive pressure. They got into us physically. They were in our airspace on the offensive end and we shied away from it, we shied away from the physicality.”
We feel the real issue was on defense. Not only did the Cavs give up 66 second half points, but also allowed the Rockets to shoot 57% from the field. For the game the Rockets beat the Cavs 52 to 26 in the paint, a sign of their greater physicality.
The Rockets also beat the Cavs 22-9 on fastbreak points, converting a perfect eight of eight opportunities. The Cavaliers also had eight fastbreak opportunities in the game, but only converted four into nine points.
As is the Cavaliers way under Lue, he laid some of the blame for their lack of transition defense on their inability to make shots on offense.
“They got stops, we couldn’t make a shot and they got out in transition and got James Harden going and feeling good about himself,” Lue said. “Against their team if you don’t convert on the offensive end they do a good job of attacking early in transition.”
This sounds like enabling to us. They got beaten in transition, both up the court, and for open threes, when guys didn’t find their men when back on D. In both these cases guys “get back” but don’t actually guard or stop anybody.
Obviously Harden is a load at any time, but it didn’t help that the Cavaliers did a pretty poor job of defending him on the high pick-and-roll, and it wasn’t even an issue of Kevin Love.
What’s Not To Love
Kevin Love will undoubtedly catch some heat for coming up small in the fourth. He only had one shot and it wasn’t so much his fault. He was being fronted and the Cavaliers either couldn’t get him the ball or weren’t really all that interested. The team’s problems with entry passes are pretty well known at this point. Here’s a peak at a couple of possessions as Love went pretty much unfelt in the fourth.
Meanwhile J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova went 0-10 in the quarter as the Cavaliers were outscored 35-16. Love had 10 first half points, which was pretty good considering he was in early foul trouble and played less than 12 minutes in the half. He was 1-5 in the second half with three points.
We suspect the issue with Love is that for all his life he’s seen plenty of touches, and he’s not so much a pure scorer as a rhythm scorer. But without a good volume of shots he’s not getting a good rhythm and he’s just not used to making do with less, hence the high level of inconsistency.
This is not a unique problem. Yesterday Serge Ibaka complained about his role this year and his lack of shots. (We’ve commented before how the Cavs are the Thunder of the East.)
“I’m gonna tell you the truth, it’s hard sometimes when you play hard, you play you’re ass off,” Ibaka said. “You play so hard on defense, then you come to offense and you’re going to be out there in the corner for 4, 5, 6, sometimes 8 minutes and you don’t touch the ball. We human, man. It’s hard.”
While we’re not as frustrated as some are with Tyronn Lue, we were with several other beats in questioning the second half lineup rotations. Lue had a lot of success in the first half with Mo Williams and James Jones.
As surprising as that is on one level – both have been inconsistent and can be exploited on defense – on another level these are pros that have made a career of scoring. As difficult as it is for the second squad to get on the board, Jones and Williams instant offensive ability could be useful. Of course, that doesn’t fit so easily with Lue’s rather tight 8.5 person rotation.
Yet with the terrible fourth quarter where Lue was trying to get to Kyrie, it seemed to make a lot of sense to get MoGotti and/or James Jones into the game. Jones had 10 first half points but didn’t see a second half minute, while the team floundered in the fourth.
We were told by the Cavaliers press people that Mo Williams was on a minutes restriction, with the suggestion this may have played a role in his mere six minutes of first half playing time. However he played 13 minutes in New York, so if true, his minute restriction tightened. We don’t know, that’s what we were told.
Though we didn’t get to ask Lue during the presser, we did sort of shout a query about it much as you would the President as he enters the helicopter in the Rose Garden. The very gracious Lue obliged. We asked if, given their strong first halves, he thought about putting Mo and JJ into the game in the second half.
“I thought about it,” Lue said.
There you go.
It’s pretty easy to dismiss this game. LeBron didn’t play. It’s the end of the season. Everybody’s tired. We turn back to James Jones.
“Even thought it’s the end of the season, once the ball goes up, at the beginning of the game, if you’re a competitor you have to go out there and compete,” Jones said. “You have to forget it’s game 74, and think the guy across from you is trying to take something from you – trying to take a victory on your homecourt… but it still comes down to competing in every facet of the game, and we still haven’t done that.”
We don’t presume to know what will happen in the playoffs, and it’s damn hard to feel very confident given how the Cavs change character more often then Mystique. We know that LeBron looks great, and almost won it with a beaten-up team, surely he could reprise that feat as far as the Conference Finals?
But until they do it consistently for more than a couple games in a row, it’s difficult to determine whether it’s just the weight of a long season or something deficient in their character. After Thursday’s game with the Nets, the six of the next seven will be against teams fighting for playoff positioning.
That might offer a little better measuring stick.
“We’ll see what we’re made of,” Jones agrees. “From a mental standpoint I think it will be challenging. Physically everyone’s tired at this point. So you get out there, and the guy across from you is just as tired and fatigued. It’s just a matter of who’s going to push through. And that’s what we have to do if we really want to make some strides.”
The Cavaliers next game is Thursday, hosting the Brooklyn Nets. We’ll be there at Quicken posting video, analysis and snark. Follow along with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Friday morning here in the Scene and Heard blog.