It’s possible that last night’s 106-101 victory over the Detroit Pistons could’ve turned out differently. On the other hand there’s a certain inevitability to the victory when the opponent shoots over 60% from the field and from 3 for the first half and only has a five point lead.
Eventually Rick Grimes was going to awake from his first half coma, figure out what was going on and put the bullet in the back of Shane’s head where it belongs. Simple. The Cavaliers starters hadn’t seen court time in almost a week, and the rust contributed to the fact they were a step slow almost the entire first half.
Part of it was by design, to be sure. The Cavaliers were intent on shutting the Pistons out of the paint in the first half, which opened up guys around the arc. However part of it was just the Pistons coming out like an acetylene torch and melting the Cavs faces with their shooting.
The Pistons made 10 of 17 first quarter shots, 3 of 7 from 3, and then found another gear to shoot 11-17 from the field and an illegal 7-9 from 3, including 3-3 from their bench as the Pistons pumped out 33 in the second.
Yet despite outshooting the Cavs by nearly 20 points (62% to 43%) in the first half, the Pistons lead was only five. The Cavs had outscored them on second chance points (13-2), points off turnovers (10-2), and points in the paint (24-12).
It’s simply hard to rely on jump shots to beat teams, and Drummond isn’t to the point in his career where he can make things happen in the paint consistently. However, he did make the Cavs pay some in the third with nine points on 8 shots and 7 boards (while Thompson had 2 points and 2 boards).
One of the puzzling things about the game was Lue’s decision not to get Thompson with Frye at some point in the third. Mozgov’s unit in the second quarter was terrible, though so were Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson, who posted even worse +/- in their time. Instead Lue played Thompson through the entire quarter, just as the Pistons played Drummond the whole quarter.
Winning the Fourth
Lue brought Thompson back to begin the fourth in a lineup with Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson and Iman Shumpert. In sixty seconds the Pistons scored two baskets to take a seven point lead, and Lue took the timely timeout to bring back LeBron for Thompson, with Love at center.
Over the next six minutes the Wine and Gold would outscore the Pistons 15-7, holding them to 3-11 shooting, while making 5-8 from the field and 3-4 from the line. They also outrebounded the Pistons 7-3 despite the fact Drummond was on the floor most of that time.
Irving was sitting until the last minute of that run, and four different guys scored including Richard Jefferson on a couple of nice bits of ball movement.
The ability of the Cavaliers to surround LeBron and Kyrie with three-point shooters in the small ball manner definitely hurt the Pistons down the stretch. If you look at the second of Jefferson’s jumpers you can see Drummond failing to pick up his man. Moments later a late contest by Drummond would yield the first of Love’s back-to-back fourth quarter threes.
Love’s first three reestablished the Cavs lead at 91-88, then the second one created a four-point cushion with over 4 minutes left that the Pistons would never puncture. On the second three, Love attacks the closing Drummond, almost loses the ball, saves it to LeBron who gets it back to Love for the three. The other thing we love about this is how Shumpert screens the closing Piston for Love.
"He spreads floor out and it makes it tough in pick-and-rolls for your 5s to get out there," Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We didn't cover him well, even when we do cover, then we've got our center away from basket. We've got the best rebounder in the game and we're playing him 25 feet away [from the rim]."
The other thing interesting about this is LeBron James passing up the shot off the drive. He’s been doing that a lot lately, and in particular during this game. He found Delly on this play for a three, showcasing how LeBron’s ability to draw attention really opens up the floor. The ball movement is beautiful to watch and was much more rule than the exception.
James finished with 22 points, 11 assists, 6 boards, 2 steals and 2 blocks with just 1 turnover. Cleveland only had 5 turnovers all game which the Pistons turned into 2 points. The Cavs forced 12 turnovers which they turned into 19, a huge difference in the game. They also controlled the paint (38-24), second chance points (20-6), and rebounds (40-37) while holding Detroit to 41% second half shooting.
“Our game plan was to pack the paint so (Andre) Drummond couldn’t get any lobs, and when they spread out for three, we have to be able to get back and contest,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “We closed out with our hands down, giving up dare shots…We’re right there, just contest the shot.”
Here are the nine second quarter threes, so you can judge for yourself. A lot of it was created by the pick-and-roll; as Lue says guys tended to stop the rolling big which opened up the corner 3.
Marcus Morris got three triples in the first half, when he scored 19 to lead the Pistons, but the Cavs locked that down thereafter.
“I thought we got into (Marcus) Morris’ space and made him put the ball on the floor,” said Lue. “We got into him, made him drive the basketball and he only had one point in the second half. In the second half, our defense really picked up.”
If you watch the second half the close-outs are much better, and the energy definitely picks up. They probably came out a little flat from the week off, and being the favorites, while the Pistons came out hungry. The Cavs alleviated the intensity deficit in the second half, and did a better job with its rotational help defense.
“We emphasized at halftime that we have to be more physical. We have to be more aggressive. I thought a lot of it started in transition. We missed a couple of layups and we didn’t get back. That kind of gave them some easy shots early in the game,” said Lue. “I thought in the second half, we did a way better job of getting back in transition and we did a better job of getting after shooters, contesting and trying to run them off.”
What’s Not To Love?
As we mentioned, LeBron was playing more facilitator than offensive instigator. James came out aggressive making 5 of 7 in the first quarter, all of his attempts within 5’ for the basket. (James only took six shots in the entire second half, and shot four free throws.) Love didn’t receive a lot of first quarter run, taking only 4 shots, while J.R. Smith had 3 and Irving had 7.
Love only played the last 8 minutes of the second quarter, but the Cavaliers went to him a lot when he was in, as he took 10 shots (making 4) and five free throws. Irving added nine points on six shots including a couple threes. In the fourth period, Love took five shots, as many as Irving and James combined. (To be fair, James and Irving combined for 11 free throws in the quarter.)
It was interesting to see the Cavs go to Love in the second quarter rather than the first, and he got a lot of opportunities, as the ball slowed down. The game was played at a pretty slow pace for the most part (88.6 possessions/game, well below the Cavs 28th ranked regular season pace, 95.48), which is part of why you can use a fellow like Love.
As we noted during the year, it's in the playoffs that Love's value will come into focus when he can really focus on those post-up opportunities and force changes in coverage, or just continue to exploit the matchup. Love seemed up to such a task going forward.
He was able to get into the post and get high-percentage shots from there. The Cavaliers had some fine sets including once called “Elbow Wedge Short” which they used right out of the time out after the Pistons went up 7 early in the fourth quarter, resulting in the aforementioned three by Jefferson and the Delly three off nine passes.
It’s a double pick set at the elbow, and when it didn’t work for a three, Delly was able to use it as a variant to get a hoop for James despite some terrific defense by Stanley Johnson. (In the end it was called a foul on the floor and the hoop taken back, but still a nice feed.)
Then at the end of the game they used a kind of shoulder-to-shoulder flying wedge style pick to clear Kyrie’s path for the basket. Both Love and Kyrie were hungry for their moment, and the two paired for 59 on 20-46 shooting, but managed to shoot 50% from 3 (9-18 overall).
“Between Kyrie and myself, we've had many conversations about our playoff run being cut short,” Love said. “My mentality was just to be aggressive all night. I credit these guys, I credit the guys on the bench and coaching staff for keeping me locked in throughout and we have to do that this entire series.”
Love took 22 shots, the most he’s taken since he joined the Cavaliers, and he didn’t get lost during the game. The Big 3 were the only Cavs in double figure shot attempts. LeBron (17) had as many as the next two combined (Smith, 9 & Delly, 8).
This was a night where the ball was going to the weapons and no place else, by and large. They took 63 shots, the rest of the team 25. We’re actually fine with that, and see it as another example of Lue’s understanding of playoff basketball, where if you can, you want your best players taking the shots.
“Our third quarters haven’t been the best this season, but coming into the playoffs, we know that possessions really matter. Guys just did a great job setting screens coming out in the second half. Picking up the tempo a little bit,” said Irving. “For me as a point guard, sometimes I need to take it upon myself or come into a one-three pick and roll with LeBron. Anything to get our guys going coming out of halftime, so they get open looks and we feel good going into the fourth.”
Requiem for Mozgov
We sort of wonder if Mozgov is dead and buried after another poor outing. He was in for five minutes and racked up -5 in +/-. We doubt people will look deeper and see that Shumpert was -13 in the quarter and Jefferson was -8. Nor will people recall that Mozgov blocked a shot or opened up a 3 for Kyrie as well.
The truth of the matter is two-fold. One, there are a lot of people with confirmation bias, who will only recall the bad things that Mozgov does. Two, plus/minus is an odd tool to measure a player by since it’s very dependent on the other players on the court. (We’ll be talking about this some in a forthcoming between-games post on RAPM and RPM.)
In the case of Mozgov, he often seems to end up on the floor with the two “4”s that he absolutely sucks with, Tristan Thompson and Richard Jefferson. God forbid Lue ever put him out there with Channing Frye. Below you’ll find the best combos for Mozgov.
We say this sort of as a post-mortem since we suspect we may not be seeing much of him again. Mozgov just hasn't been able to build a lot of momentum in his small stints, and his failures seem pretty glaring. Though we think there still might be hope for him, we understand the window's only a sliver because his consistency hasn't been there all year, bad knee or not. (And supposedly at this point, it's not.)
Meanwhile Channing Frye remained glued to the bench all night despite playing well since coming over and having playoff experience. However when you’re playing Love at the 5 and James at the 4, there just aren’t many minutes for non-wings.
Here you can see the five main lineups Lue used. Interestingly the lineup with Love at the 5 and J.R. Smith on the floor didn’t fare that well. (Smith’s D has been on the downslide after starting the season well.) However, replace Smith and Irving with Jefferson and Delly and suddenly you’ve got a killer squad, which helped take the lead in the fourth quarter.
It will be interesting to watch going forward.
We loved a lot of things about today’s game, including good ball movement, steady involvement of Love, great offensive rebounding (12-5 over Pistons), very few turnovers, converting opponents' turnovers into points at a high rate, a strong focus on offensive opportunities primarily for the Big Three, and strong downhill orientation in the fourth quarter. (The Cavs had 6 free throws through three quarters, but 15 in the fourth.)
While the Pistons got off to a quick start, part of it seemed to be the team’s rust (something James Jones also cited after the game) and the team’s slowly clicking into playoff intensity. However, once they got there, they stayed there pretty steadily the entire second half.
The Drummond/Jackson pick-and-roll poses problems but despite hedging/trapping the ballhandler much of the night, they didn’t get hurt that badly. (You’ll note that a couple of the threes in the second came off transition, as did Drummond’s only alley-oop.) It will be a challenge but so far, the Cavaliers look equal to it.
Kyrie hit half his ten three-pointers, which bodes as well as Love’s outburst. Kyrie’s threat with the three-ball really opens up his drives and it will be nice if he can also be effective on the catch and shoot variety as well, opening up more possibilities off the ball.
Speaking of which, we also had a number of great plays by James off the ball as the team seems to be getting better at taking advantage of those situations. They had another at the end of the first quarter, when Delly opened up LeBron on an inbounds play with a great screen, giving James an easy layup.
There were several of these crafty plays during the game, providing evidence that Lue may have some tricks up his sleeve. Make no mistake; his ability to respond to the game’s flow will be crucial as the playoffs roll on.
In the meantime between Love’s aggression, LeBron low-key attitude (Playoff Chill Mode, with the finger on the turbo switch) suggesting there are several gears in reserve, Irving's relatively solid defensive play (his slow rotations enabled several 2nd quarter threes) and shooting off the dribble, all suggest a team that is finding its best form at the right time.
We’ll be at the Q for Wednesday’s second game against the Pistons, posting analysis, video and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and read our analysis here on the Scene and Heard blog on Thursday morning.