LeBron doesn't mind being the support act, if the show's a success.
From the second half Sunday through the first half Tuesday, Cavaliers fans were treated to a horrific spectacle akin to watching Superman slowed and eventually felled by an extraordinary bad case of hayfever. Whilst he sneezed and wheezed a street gang of undersized Irishmen stinking of Jameson and sporting green boots (according to Ozzy
) kicked the Man of Steel about the head, kidney and groin until he succumbed beneath a whirlwind of foul-tempered faerie feet and flying mucous.
Fortunately for Clevelanders this whirlwind was not set to “Final Reaping” but “Hollywood Reaping” in which the same genetic traits that create evil geniuses also lead them reveal their plans without actually killing their main adversary, or create an unnecessarily complicated firing sequence where a big red button will do.
So it was the Cavaliers found their leader poisoned (by actual illness, as we’ll discuss in a moment) and their defense in the questionably trustworthy hands of “S’all Good, man.” The possibility of an even series was rising like Bill O’Reilly’s pants-tent. The Cavs looked Dazed and Confused
by their Frailty
and complete Failure to Launch
. When it was A Time to Kill
, they were killing time, only to turn it around quicker than any dancing half- (or wholly) naked man
playing bongos and driving a septagenarian’s Town Car has a right to.
That this was even possible speaks to the difference a year or two can make. Kyrie Irving may not yet be The Man – and maybe never can so long as the King reigns – but he sure as hell passed out of boyhood last June and last night demonstrated the ability earn for his family in pretty dire circumstances. LeBron James picked up his fourth foul on his second charge of the half, with just five gone in the second quarter. He sat with the Cavs down 43-33, but with James off the floor, Cleveland held the line, and still trailed ten at halftime.
James managed ten points in just 15 first half minutes with no free throws and three turnovers. If he didn’t look as lethargic and disinterested as a DMV worker (like Sunday), Cleveland still wasn’t pushing the ball and the offense had all the speed, clarity and urgency of road construction. Weak-side Cavaliers stayed planted patiently waiting for the corpulent fellow to spin his sign around while Celtics defenders seemed the only ones that failed to Yield.
Then the third quarter happened. Kyrie took the reigns from a wounded James, going full Peckinpah on the beleaguered Bostonians. You could call Irving, the Busdriver because he took them to school, where he wrote a dissertation on backboard geometry, won the science fair for his experiments in aerial physics and starred in a production of The Wiz
His bravura performance culminated in a 19-8 run the final four minutes of the quarter, during which he hit all seven of his shots, scored 17 points and single-handedly gave the Cavaliers a seven-point lead, 87-80. They didn’t look back, as the Celtics never got closer than four in the final stanza, before securing the 112-99 victory. He did this despite badly twisting his ankle midway through the run. No matter, Irving soldiered on like Old Man Logan
“Plays like that, you have two choices, either you can sit there and kind of wallow in the sorrow of you twisting your ankle or capture the moment,” Kyrie said, showing off his steel trap. “In the back of my mind, I was like, I'm saying to myself, we cannot – they cannot tie up this series. They cannot. We cannot go to Boston 2-2 and then it becomes almost an even series.”
[Sure, maybe you think 2-2 is even, but you also probably think the world is round. Kyrie still weighing the evidence. Frankly, when he plays like this, he can believe the moon’s made of cheese. How do you know, have you been there?
“He's probably one of or the best one-on-one player in the league. When you give him room and give him space, he can get to anywhere he wants to get on the floor,” said Lue after the game. “What I think is probably the best on-ball defender in the league is Avery Bradley, and to take that challenge and to score a few baskets like that against Avery just shows you how good and special Kyrie is with the basketball because not too many guys are getting around Avery.”
As Celtics Coach Brad Stevens noted, some of it came down to choices. The Celtics have decided not to offer help on James or Irving off the Cavaliers most dangerous three-point threats, which opens up the floor. This in particular is a big reason that Korver played the entire fourth quarter. (Some of it was also J.R. Smith’s continuing issues with defensive rotation - see below - which flared up with Bradley’s Game 3 gamewinner, and lately have proven unresponsive to Valtrex
“We could have done a better job of helping on the paint touch, like being over and showing ourselves a little bit. But you've got Korver standing over there for a lot of that. You’ve got Love standing out there, you’ve got the different shooters, J.R. Smith and obviously LeBron. So yeah, there’s choices. I’m not sure there’s right choices because they expose you any which way you go,” Stevens said. “The ones that we'll have to go back and look at are the ones he got at the rim because those are the ones that we got to be able to get to the threat of the rim attack quicker.”
The King is Sick, Not Dead
One of the bits of information that scooted down the chute and directly – inappropriately – into the ephemera pile was news that Deron Williams missed shootaround with illness. While nobody else made the connection, Ginsu cut-up and all-around blade Richard Jefferson noted how Williams’ sickness put it all together for him, helping to explain the King’s kryptonic malady since returning home, up 2-0. Jefferson fingered the virus as the culprit in James’ listlessness during Game 3 and his continual struggle to get himself together.
James made no excuses, and tried to explain it as a simple loss of rhythm, without offering much explanation how one goes from Stevie Wonder to Elaine Bennis
“I don’t think I’ve ever had four fouls in a game before in the first half, so my rhythm is kind of broken and you've got to figure out ways you can still help the team,” James explained afterwards. “My teammates said be aggressive, be you. You got us to this point and continue to do that, so I just tried to find ways to get into the lane, get into transition, when they backed off shoot the jumper and felt very comfortable with it, so I was able to get back into a rhythm very fast.”
He’s not kidding, James’s silent running and bottomless acceleration screams Elon Musk, but even the first Tesla couldn’t fathom power like this. After 71 pedestrian minutes over seven quarters (12-29 FG, 0-8 3pt, 6-10 FT, 10 Rb, 10 Ast, 11 TO), James hit the ignition and it was like cooking with gas. James went 7-11 for 15 points with two assists and no turnovers, while the defense held Boston to 19 points, to close out the game.
The Cavaliers helped James out for most of the game finding him for fastbreak and transition opportunities as well as cuts to the basket to get him some easier buckets to get him untracked. While James was 8-16 through three quarters, just one of those baskets wasn’t at the rim, (an elbow jumper with perfect form). Then after three dunks or layups to open the fourth, James hit a very difficult turnaround over Marcus Smart.
James would only make three of his next seven shots, but they were all jumpers, including his only three of the night, sucking the wind from the Celtics sails, and leaving them moribund in the middle of the bay. They needed James because Irving only scored one more basket after his quarter-closing domination. Indeed a Love three, Deron Williams jumper and Irving’s layup with 30 seconds left to close out the scoring were the only other baskets by the Cavaliers not scored by James.
James’ cherry-picking and late jump-shooting prowess keyed a second half attack that could make Scarlett Johansen suggest Susan Boyle. They were that hot, going 27-39 in the second half, but that’s not the real story. After Jonas Jerebko hit two free throws to give Boston a 66-58 lead with seven minutes left in the third, the Cavaliers outscored the Celtics 40-24 by hitting SIXTEEN OF THEIR NEXT SEVENTEEN shots, or 94%.
We’ll end this section by posing this question: What kind of team makes 16 of 17 over an 11-minute stretch? Don’t know the answer, but we’ll bet the Warriors would be afraid to face them.
Celtics Harder To Defend Now That They’re Easier To Defend
Let’s be clear, the Cavaliers had much better defensive energy and execution in the second half, and much of that was effort and intensity. But some of it was gameplan as well.
When the Cavaliers had to scheme for Isaiah Thomas, they had to aggressively attack him to make up for their lack of rim protection and perimeter quickness. They compensate for their general lack of lateral quickness by knowing the scheme and making all the necessary rotations.
This is called ‘being-on-a-string’ because the defense acts like an organism, with each covering rotation, covered by another until the offense winds up not with a clear lane to the basket but stuck at the arc behind the old lady digging out exact change.
In the first half they played more of their vanilla, regular season defense, dropping into the lane and giving the Celtics midrange jumpers and backdoor cuts off over-pursuing closeouts. Below you’ll see LeBron get beaten following too far behind when Kelly Olynynk slips a screen, Jefferson get beat off the dribble get beat off the dribble (Jefferson), Irving beaten backdoor, Crowder slipping free baseline when Rozier collapses the D, and Bradley get a three when Olynyk collapses the D.
Just as the Cavs tend to perform better when they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they also tend to play better defense when they have to fly around with their back pants-flap open. The energy and intensity needed seems to translate into better play on both sides of the floor. In the second half the switches were more demonstrative, and guys really tried to stay with their man, rather than switching anytime it seemed convenient, leading inevitably to miscommunication.
Looking at a few possession in the second half, you can see how hands are up, guys are getting challenged all the way to the arc, and ballhandlers have a man on them, and aren’t given free entry passes to anyone on the floor. There’s just a general greater level of attentiveness. The awareness produces a couple turnovers with hands in the air or the breadbox of driving ballhandlers.
However, Jefferson offered another, somewhat corollary explanation after the game explaining how it was easier to plan for Isaiah Thomas because you know who’s going to try to beat you. Once he was out, not only did the Celtics start using schemes the Cavaliers hadn’t game-planned for, but the lack of a go-to player messed with Cleveland’s defensive principals.
“It's a difficult challenge because our preparation going into the series was going against a team with Isaiah,” James concurred in the postgame. “They’re playing a lot differently now, so we’re trying to figure out exactly what they're running and things of that nature. So it’s been very difficult on us without IT on the floor, but now this is two games that we’ve been able to see them and we’re going to get a better understanding. We should be a lot better in Game 5.”
The Cavaliers defense in the playoffs under Lue has excelled at ‘picking their poison.’ They know who they want to shoot, and have been very successful at goading bad shooters into poor shot selection. But with Thomas out, as Jefferson explained, it wasn’t clear who the team should be keying on or attempting to take away (seeing as how they’re all equally ‘meh’).
To be sure, Crowder, Horford and Bradley can all score, but they’re really ideally third bananas who score on open opportunities created for them. Though Horford and Bradley have clearly improved creating for themselves, by and large Boston needs lots of ball and people movement, to get shots, they can’t hand it to someone and ask them to go one-on-one.
(While this can be a big advantage in the middle quarters, confusing the defenses attempts to stop them like Whack-A-Mole, the issues are more apparent down the stretch when the Celtics' lower tier guys have trouble breathing through the pressure and the shit in their throat.)
“The way they had their way with us offensively in that first half, Coach Stevens, man, he put them in great situations. They were playing our defense. They got any shot they wanted. They attacked us. Offensively they were just so fast. They were just moving so fast without the basketball and put us in some tough situations. The plays they were running, what Coach Stevens had them running was just unbelievable,” Lue said.
But clearly in the second half the Cavs were able to get a better handle on things. As is the way with the Cavaliers, there’s greater synergy between offense and defense when the offense is clicking. When the offense isn’t, the defense seems to struggle, but since a good defense leads to good offense, there’s a self-reinforcing effect not unlike a nuclear chain-reaction (where bad offense operates as the carbon control rod).
We’d also like to note that the Cavs got great second half play out of Tristan Thompson who was +24 in 18 minutes, the highest second half +/- on the team, ahead of Irving’s +21. He only grabbed three boards and scored three points, but his presence was felt as he made passes and rolled to the basket a couple times to keep Boston honest, while his activity occupied two and even three Celtics, allowing Love to grab 10 of his 17 rebounds in the second half including a couple key offensive boards that turned into points.
Jefferson made a number of bad plays, continuing to exhibit no chemistry with the players on the court. If Frye is still alive on the Cavaliers bench, it might merit a look because Jefferson is doing nothing. Hell, longtime expatriot Derrick Williams would be preferable, though we know it’ll be a cold day in Hell when Lue does that. Shumpert followed a strong first half with eight minutes and five points with at least two blown assignments in a scoreless, abbreviated second half stint of less than three minutes. Yup, Shump giveth and Shump taketh away.
Despite intermittent second half scoring disappearances (which typically aren’t his fault), Kevin Love is finally acquitted himself as the third option this team wants and needs. His defensive rebounding and post-up game have always filled big holes for this team and now that he’s flowing freely offensively without hesitation, there’s a lot to be excited about. Lue’s felt good enough about his improved defense to play relatively long stretches of Love at center. It still makes us uneasy, but it’s worked so far.
Meanwhile James and Irving have developed into a true Butch & Sundance-quality duo. If the Celtics have at times been a saddle burr or hemorrhoid, let’s not miss the high level Thompson, Love and Irving have maintained all series long. The doubts that surrounded James’ supporting cast should be extinguished by now.
While the talent might not quite match up with the Golden State Warriors on paper, that’s complicated by the fact that James continues to redefine the scale. Sure the Warriors waltzed into the Finals 12-0 while the Cavaliers are 11-1. Still seems pretty emblematic of the minimal difference between the teams.
We once worried about their regular season performance. For 48 hours many worried about the Celtics. But while Boston’s got a scrappy bunch, let there be no mistake: The “real” season begins on June 1st in California with the NBA Finals. It’s all this season has ever really been about, so after 11 months of foreplay, anyone will be excused if they’re anxious for the fucking to begin.
We expect a performance from the Cavaliers in Game Five much similar to the blowout of Toronto in Game Five last year. Then onto the main event.
If you enjoy the writing you should consider buying our book on last year’s championship run, King James Brings the Land a Crown
, available at cavschampions.com
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