The NBA regular season is nearly, mercifully over like a one-note Saturday Night Live skit. Whatever build-up or fanfare might’ve accompanied taking the Eastern Conference’s top seed was overshadowed by months of drama and the Golden State Warriors potential record-breaking run. The best thing is that none of that shit matters after Wednesday.
The Cavaliers took the East’s top seed as expected, and everything else – from the firing of David Blatt to Kyrie’s return from injury to Love’s stints imitating D.B. Cooper to LBJ’s overanalyzed Social Media charades to Mozgov’s tragic descent from core starter to Sasha Kaun’s constant companion – finally serves its karmic purpose, lining the birdcage (of our mind).
In winning last night over the Atlanta Hawks 109-94 they ended a two-game losing streak, and secured the top seed they’d been kind of dancing around for the last few weeks. They did it – just as they promised – even after taking a few unplanned “mental health” days off along the way. Though the Raptors circled overhead, the Cavs never gave them enough of an opening.
“We teetered on that fence,” Head Coach Tyronn Lue admitted. “It’s a credit to this team when we needed to win, we won. It’s at tribute and credit to this team.”
They certainly made it look tougher than they needed to, but in the end it’s the results that count, and they brought home the flag, then said they weren’t satisfied. That’s all you can ask for.
“We’re just not satisfied going into the playoffs. Whoever we have in the first round we just have to lock in as much as possible,” said Kyrie Irving. “It’s crazy to think the season began however many months ago, and now we’re here. Now we’re in a good place and we’re happy to be here, with the guys and the way we’re fitting in with one another.”
We found that comment instructive in an atmosphere that sort of values discord. We’re not going to say that they never got frustrated with each other, but we’re fairly certain 85% of the negativity around the team’s trumped up, overstated and inflated to give sports commentators something juicy to talk about.
Like in politics, sports are evolving into a sideshow of hot takes supported by little more than bluster and cantankerousness. It’s such a relief when the playoffs arrive and sports commentary starts sounding less like the squeaky balloon-sound of “adults” in a Peanuts
Atlanta’s a good team that’s played especially well since the break. They have the third-best net differential (per 100 possessions) since the All-Star Break, behind the Spurs (+7.9) and the Warriors (+6.9), in a virtual tie with the Cavaliers (+6.4). They pose a challenge, though the Cavaliers seem to match-up well with them.
The Hawks came out white-hot jumping out to a 10-0 lead as the Cavs missed two layups and made two turnovers in the first three minutes of the game. They battled to within four, then went back down ten, 20-10 with four minutes left. Cleveland was down 24-16 when Kyrie Irving dropped consecutive threes to end the quarter down 26-22. Irving had 12, James 8 in the quarter.
To start the second, Lue threw his typical rotation out the window, returning with LeBron James instead of Kyrie Irving to lead the second team. This was Blatt’s long preference, and it paid off when the Cavs pulled even at 30. James wound up playing the entire second period.
When Love and Irving returned with 6:30 left until halftime, they led a 17-7 run fueled by good ball movement and great defense. The Cavs held the Hawks to 2-11 shooting during this stretch and forced 4 turnovers, while shooting 7-10 themselves, assisting on six of those baskets (Irving and James three assists each). The quarter concluded with this nice alley-oop to Tristan Thompson.
For once the Cavaliers didn’t emerge for the third like Yogi Bear awakened during Jellystone’s off-season, threatening bodily harm on Boo-boo. Like the first quarter, it was the James and Irving show, the two combining for 27 points of the Cavs 39 point outburst.
James in particular was a highlight reel, making 7 of 8 and four free throws on his way to 19 points in the quarter. Over his last four games, James has as many turnovers as missed shots, while averaging 29 points/game and shooting 73% from the field and from 3.
Kyrie took over in the fourth, scoring 13 points as he held the line with the reserves and let James sit the rest of the game.
“Kyrie’s a competitor. He wants to win and tonight, I think he started the game 1-6, I just told him to stay with it, stay aggressive,” said Lue. “After that he was 13-22. So LeBron went out the last 2 minutes of the third quarter, and I told Kyrie he had to be aggressive and carry us offensively and that’s what he did.”
It was a nice bounce-back game for Kyrie who has endured more than his share of criticism the last couple weeks while he suffered through a slump. After biffing the fourth quarter in Chicago he took the blame and promised LeBron he would do a better job henceforth.
“[The text to James] was just about being better and being a better leader of that second unit, when he’s on the bench,” Irving said. “I know we expect a lot from one another. We have to hold each other accountable. I know going into that fourth quarter, he gets us that 3-point lead and I come out with that second unit. I just have to think the game better, especially going into the playoffs, where teams are zeroing in.”
“That Chicago game I don’t want to say it was close to a playoff atmosphere but it meant something to us,” Irving said. “I had to take that responsibility. I couldn’t go home without feeling like that fourth quarter could’ve gone differently if I’d played better. Just learn from it. Got into the gym and continued to work on my handle and work on my game.”
As the real (see, post-) season begins we pondered our five biggest issues for the Cavaliers.
1) Interior Defense.
Tristan Thompson replaced Timofey Mozgov in the starting lineup last night, and Lue said this was going to be the situation going forward. Timo never made it off the bench, spending all night glued next to Sash Kahn. Mozgov said his knee has only recently begun to feel better, and similarly had just begun to look better of late.
While Timo’s offense has been at best inconsistent all year and his hands less reliable than the quality of Bill Cosby’s mixed drinks, his defense has been consistently pretty good. His length alters a lot of shots (-3.4% lower FG% shooting against him) and is the team’s best rim protector (48.8% FG allowed, vs. 52.8% for Thompson, 54.1% for Love, 59.2% for Frye).
This is not an idle concern because the team’s interior defense has gotten worse. In the eleven games leading up to the All-Star break the Cavaliers allowed 26.5 FGA within 5’, the third-lowest in the league. Over the next 14 games, they allowed 28.3 FGA at the rim, sixth-lowest. Over the last 15 games the Cavaliers have been allowing 29.2 FGA, 11th-lowest during that stretch.
That the Cavaliers are allowing more and more attempts at the rim even as their defense of the rim recedes. Over the last 15 games their 55.3% FG allowed is 22nd in the league, between the Bucks and the Timberwolves. The poor rim defense and increasing attempts are a major concern.
2) Pick & Roll Defense.
The Cavaliers face a pick-and-roll more than a quarter of the time allowing the ballhandler (17.7%, 0.81 ppp) or the roll man (7.7%, 1.08 ppp) to attack them. They’re 17th against the ballhandler putting them in the 48th percentile, and they’re 27th defending the roll man, 10th percentile.
This is obviously the team’s defensive Achilles heel, and one they’ve had very little success solving so far this year. It would be interesting to run these stats by time of year, but the Synergy stats on NBA.com can not be date-filtered.
The fact that the team’s coverage of the roll man is even worse than the situation with the ballhandler validates what we see. Between the slow help rotations, poor corralling of the ballhandler, and lousy job cutting off his passing lanes, the Cavaliers have left themselves particularly prone.
It’s a concern, but not the end of the world. The Warriors, for example, are nearly as bad defending roll men (1.06 ppp) though they do it (6.2%) less often. Then again, the only playoff teams that are worse defending PnR ballhandlers are the Mavericks, Pistons, Trailblazers and Grizzlies – not a homecourt among them.
3) Turnovers & Transition Defense.
This wasn’t a problem for much of the year, but over the last two months it’s taken a sharp turn for the worse, not unlike post-Tobey Maguire Spiderman. When Lue took over the Turnover Ratio (TOs per 100 possessions) was 14.7.
From the moment Lue took over until the All-star break it dropped to 11.8, third best in the league during that stretch. Over the next 15 games it jumped to 13.6, and over the last 14 games it’s jumped to 15.0, 21st best during that time.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if the team weren’t terrible in transition. They allow 1.11 points per transition possession (ppp), 17th in the league. (Interestingly, the Warriors are worse, 20th at 1.13 ppp.)
It may not be a big deal in the playoffs, where there are significantly less opportunities to get out and run, though it might just those failures only that much more glaring. Whatever the case, this is a bad time of year to be getting worse at handling the ball.
4) Second Squad Scoring.
The Cavaliers second squad has the best point differential of any team since the all-star break. They’re doing this while scoring the sixth-least points of any bench – that’s some hellacious defense. The loss of Thompson to the starting squad could impact that.
Frye is a better shooter, but takes away Delly’s pet alley-oop play. Evidently Frye does have a little of a post game.
Timo could potentially slide in there, but given the playoffs’ shorter bench and the fact that Lue’s rotations are even tighter than Blatt’s, Mozgov may not make it off the bench unless the matchup dictates. Shumpert’s shot has been always been wonky and we are concerned that time away from the court resting his knee won’t help.
Richard Jefferson has seen time in Shumpert’s absence and is a versatile player though he’s a part of some of the team’s worst defensive lineups. The problem is that there needs to be enough scoring outside Kyrie (or LeBron in those cases where he helms the second squad).
We saw the Bulls trap Irving, forcing him to feed his offensively challenged second team mates. Other teams will try that and the Cavs must make them pay. To this end, it’s possible that Shump moves to the starting lineup.
However, we still feel Smith’s shooting and cooking-with-gas tendency to suddenly get hot make him a key member of the starting squad. However there’s been significant backslide in his defense since the all star break. It may be due to a schedule heavy in back-to-backs, where Smith has struggled all year.
5) Limited Free Throws.
Since the all-star break the Cavaliers have the sixth-fewest free throws taken, 21.4. Now this may not be a big deal. The Spurs (20.3) and Warriors (20.0) have taken even less. The conventional logic is that free throws help paper over those moments when the offense isn’t running smoothly or shots aren’t falling. Given the team’s predilection toward high-risk/high-reward shots, you’d like to see them get to the line more, providing a hedge against the long rebounds and dry stretches of shooting lots of threes. (Only Golden State has shot more since the Break.)
Five positive signs
We couldn’t talk about the fears without offering up some positives.
1) LeBron James, locked in.
As we noted earlier, James is in total takeover mode, shooting well over 70% from the field and from 3. This, like the three-point shooting, is sort of a positive. It’s great that James is looking so insane already, but it’s more than a little disconcerting that even playing at this level the team lost to Chicago. That’s just a sign of their puzzling tendency to drift.
2) Offense Clicking.
Since the All-Star Break the Cavaliers have the second most efficient offense in the league, averaging 110.5 points per 100 possessions, just behind the Warriors (110.9). Their 53.7 eFG% is also second to the Warriors (55.8%). They’re fourth in the league since the break in secondary assists. Nobody has a better first half point differential (+11) since the break. Now they just need to learn to play all 48 minutes. The Cavaliers are also league’s second best team in PnR roll man, spot-up shooting and transition.
3) Defense Finally Trending Right Direction.
Almost from the time Lue took over the reigns the teams stats were going in the wrong direction. But despite losing four of their last ten games, the Cavaliers have finally begun to get better intensity and outcomes on defense. Over that stretch they’ve allowed 102.1 points/100 poss., their season average, and their best mark under Lue, good enough for fourth best in the league over that stretch. Overall they’re 10th on the year, well behind the Spurs (96.5).
4) Kyrie’s Passing.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, many people’s evaluation of players are colored by whomever is the press’ current whipping boy, and may or may not be related to actual performance. While it’s hard to argue that Kyrie doesn’t occasionally overdribble, as we pointed out, it was Lue that told him to attack all the time.
We saw a big difference in the pre- and post-break stats, with Irving being the origin of more passes than anyone, a big change. He’s also leading the players among field goal percentage, though he benefits greatly from being able to pass to LeBron. This is rather unwieldy and noisy stat, but it does confirm that Kyrie’s been passing it more, it only doesn’t seem like it.
5) Three-point shooters finding range.
The Cavaliers are shooting 37% from long distance since the break, seventh best in the NBA, and making the second-most threes/game (11.9) behind only the Warriors (40%, 13.3). Lately The Cavs have had a number of guys really hitting their stride – Kevin Love (43%), J.R. Smith (43%) and LeBron James (57%) – over the last ten games.
At the same time, it’s something of a mixed bag. Iman Shumpert (21%) Channing Frye (28%), Richard Jefferson (26%), Delly (30%) and Irving (34%) have struggled. Finding consistency throughout the lineup while relying on the shot as much as they have will be an interesting balance.
We really liked that after the Hawks came out hot against the Cavaliers, they didn't blink, they didn't waver. The Wine and Gold stepped up, and stayed in the game. Admittedly it was just LeBron and Irving doing the damage most of the night but that's enough most nights.
"If two of our three guys are going, I think we’re in great shape," said Lue.
Despite everything that’s gone on in the media over the last year, from the firing of Blatt to the scapegoating of Love and Irving to the ridiculous microscopic study of LeBron’s tweeting persona, we still have a good feeling about this team. They aren’t fun to watch sometimes and they’ve been exasperating too, but those are more a product of the high expectations than their alleged lacks.
We think the East is pretty good and will provide a stiff challenge that should hone the team for the NBA Finals. Make no mistake, while we expect a tough fight, we believe that the Cavaliers are destined for the Finals and LeBron won’t accept anything less. The way he’s played of late, can you imagine anyone from the East stopping him?
We’re not drinking the Heat Kool-Aid, though they do match up well. We’re more fearful of the Celtics, though the Hornets are a dark horse who could surprise. The Raptors seem to match up very well with the Cavs which is one reason we were very excited to get the home court advantage through the Eastern Conference Finals.
The fun begins this weekend, after Wednesday’s preliminary match against the Detroit Pistons. We’ll be at the Q for the game, offering analysis, video and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and you can read a possibly abbreviated postgame on Thursday morning.