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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Cavs Survive More Last Stanza Thrill-Seeking to Dispatch Pacers

Posted By on Tue, Apr 18, 2017 at 5:27 AM

click to enlarge He Feels Like Mike.
  • He Feels Like Mike.
If the Cavaliers were the proverbial gift horse, they would have some kind of intestinal distress that killed all grass and low-flying insects in a five-foot radius. Yet they’d be as smart as Affirmed and as fast as Seattle Slew – at least until the last quarter mile where they lollygag by the rail, ramping up excitement before beating their opponent in a near photo-finish.

You know, for the lulz. Whatchu gonna do? Adrenaline junkies, amirite? But what’s the big deal? Find out where your swimmer buddy gets his noseclips and we’re off to the races. Just grab a good hold of the monkey grip and try to relax your ass cheeks. Oh and enjoy the ride! Don’t worry if there’s parts where you just want to close your eyes and pray, that’s perfectly natural.

The Cavaliers’ playoff launch hasn’t been as smooth as New Coke, but at least they’re not the Celtics or a North Korean missile. While the naysayers are right to grumble about the team’s defensive focus, faltering attention to detail and the ease with which they lose the “ball movement” thread of the basketball conversation.

But let’s also recap what the team’s biggest season-long issues have been. For one thing, they lost 10 road games on the back-end of back-to-back games. That’s a third of their losses. No such thing in the playoffs. Two, they have an issue with transition defense, finishing last in the NBA.

But because playoff basketball tends to be much more of a halfcourt game, that deficiency is somewhat minimized. (Shooting over 60% as Cleveland has for the first three quarters of both games certainly limits the transition opportunities as well.)

The last half of the season the team started to struggle with their focus. Every one of the teams’ first 12 losses was to a team that made the playoffs. Then eight of their next 19 losses were to teams that weren’t going to the playoffs – all of them on the road but for a home loss to Miami in early March. So there were regular season issues of being tired and maybe blowing off second half matchups like a graduating high school senior. No big.

This is what you should say to yourself to ward off worry about the way the Cavs have folded like an origami thoroughbred in the fourth quarter against the Pacers before staggering to the finish line. They’ll get better. Don’t worry.

“We’re right there. We’re right there where we know what we can become and we’ll figure it out,” James assured fans in the postgame presser. “We’re right there on turning the switch into what we really want to become.”

And you wonder if this switch stuff is just a media creation?

Chrysalis Deferred

So according to LeBron, now that the playoffs are started, they’re pretty close to really trying hard all game. (Deep sigh.)

“We’re playing some really good basketball. Even in the first two quarters we built a lead. We didn’t close out the second quarter as well as we would like to but we have a chance to do something we all have been wanting to do all season,” James told the media.

We thought he might say “TP Drake’s house” but it wasn’t that apparently. It was something most of us might consider quite humble and reserved. Sort of the desire of a craftsman.

“That is to put together a four quarter game and I think we’re right there on the cusp of doing that,” he said. WAIT. All season you’ve been waiting? You couldn’t do it against Sacramento and then focus on the playoffs?

That said, the Cavaliers did play better defensively much of the game and made the second and third efforts necessary to win games more often. Just as it can take four or even five passes sometimes to find the open guy, the defense has to keep racing to force the offense to make one more pass as the clock runs down.

That takes effort and focus, and like that stuff in the outbox on Monday, the Cavs weren’t really feeling it so much at the start, going down early and somehow losing Paul George (Thanks J.R.!) in the first 90 seconds of the game. Buehler? Buehler?
Yet much like Game 1, the Cavaliers didn’t make that many mistakes on George in the halfcourt offense, but gave him a passel of points off turnovers and in transition. In Game 1, 13 of George’s 29 points came off turnovers. In Game 2, only eight of his 32 came off turnovers, but he got eight at the line. By and large, while George scored 32 (18 in the first half), the shots were farther away and tougher than in Game 1.
click to enlarge george_shot_charts.png
This was true even before Iman Shumpert took over for J.R. Smith (who admittedly was probably responsible for two of George’s second quarter buckets). Just as in game One, the team has been trapping George hard and forcing him to give up the ball. The Pacers are having trouble adapting, as the Cavs are doubling off the Pacers’ big (typically Myles Turner) which forces him to make a play. Turner was 0-5 in the first half and finished 3-10.
“They’re trapping off our bigs anytime Paul [George] catches the ball or a pick and roll occurs. They’re trapping and leaving those guys open,” said Pacers Coach Nate McMillan. “We have to get the ball out of those traps and then our bigs have to make the read. Sometimes you have shots, sometimes you have to get the ball to the weak side.”

It’s really forcing other guys to beat the Cavaliers, and it’s somewhat disconcerting that they are. While Lue can lament the 12 first half turnovers (6 by LeBron) that led to 14 Pacers points. Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young stepped up for them going 9-12 in the first half for 22 points, with another 16 of their 58 first half point off the bench (CJ Miles 4, Lance Stephenson 6, Glenn Robinson 4, Kevin Seraphin 2).

The Cavaliers second squad really put it to the Pacers, start the second quarter with an 11-2 run to take a 43-31 lead. It catalyzed a long run by the Cavaliers highlighted by two Deron Williams threes sandwiched around a Channing Frye triple. The first came out of a timeout and reprised a terrific play the Cavaliers ran in Game 1, but with one more pass, as you’ll see.
The Cavaliers led 62-51 on a Kyrie Irving layup with 2:59 in the second quarter, before the Pacers closed the quarter on a 7-1 run featuring two turnovers and a missed free throw. (So much for the huge media puff piece about Kyle Korver helping LeBron’s free throw shooting form: He was 3-6.)

So while the Cavaliers shot 60% and had 13 assists on 24 buckets, they allowed the Pacers to shoot 53%, score 28 points in the paint and 14 points off turnovers. It was hardly a sterling effort. But they came out with a different attitude in the third.

Third Quarter Dominance: The Love Shump

J.R. Smith hurt his left hammy (same leg as his knee injury earlier this year) in the second quarter and couldn’t go in the second half, putting Iman Shumpert into the game.

After starting the year shooting well, people started to notice that his defense had fallen off, and then when he was sent to the bench after Smith’s injury (in favor of DeAndre Liggins) his shooting bottomed out. When he got the starting job back his shooting took off again, only to tailspin two weeks later into the atrocity that has become Iman “Please Bench” Shumpert for many fans.

However, some have suggested that Shumpert defensive demise is related to the fact that he had to play point guard earlier this year. They note (wish I could take credit) that Shumpert has never been able to guard PGs – it’s simply not his skill set, but he’s still a fine wing defender. And once the Cavaliers stopped putting Shump on quicker players his defensive stats started to improve.

(We’re no defensive experts but we suspect that Shumpert’s quick hands compensate for less deft feet, allowing him to befuddle and crowd slower/bigger players. Where he runs into issues is chasing quick guards over picks and screens where he catches like a sweater in a briar patch, and then exaggerates contact fishing for a call rather than fighting through to the best of his ability expecting nothing.)

Not only was George much more up Shumpert’s defensive alley, but the fact that the Cavaliers were trapping the screen meant that he doesn’t have to make it over the screen, just make an effective fence with Tristan. After being exiled completely from the rotation in Game 1 (to the exuberant schadenfreuden of some fans), Shumpert returned humbled, chastened and appropriately energized.

It’s probably fair to argue nobody has seen Shumpert play this hard for so long without a handful of mistakes. Like Smith, Shumpert can be lulled to sleep off-the-ball, but last night he hung tough and got inside Paul George like Catholic guilt. There was simply no escaping.

Why Shumpert even hit a couple shots, and played 19 of 24 second half minutes without committing a turnover. While Shumpert’s intensity helped, the team had already had success trapping George in the first half, but just seemed more alert and intent coming out of the locker room.

“In the third quarter we were able to turn our defense up and trap [George], get the ball out of his hands, scramble and rotating,” Lue said. “It was a good defensive performance in the third quarter.”

Irving came out of the locker room hot and with Shumpert combined for 14 of the team’s first 16 third quarter points, staking Cleveland to a 79-66 lead with 6:30 to go in the third. The Pacers came right back with a couple quick baskets to cut it to nine, bringing in Stephenson to change things up on Irving and hopefully slow him down.

“We put Paul [George] on Kyrie and Lance went to Love and they did a good job of recognizing that which they do – they go at matchups and did a good job of taking advantage,” said Pacers Coach McMillan. “I thought that was huge.”

Indeed, while Kevin Love usually struggles to find second half touches, the move by McMillan gave Love an obvious mismatch and the Cavs exploited it like familial child labor (aka “chores”).

Over the course of two minutes Love inaugurated a personal 10-0 run by taking Stephenson into the post and scoring or drawing fouls. Some might’ve been a little cheap (at least one featured Love grabbing Stephenson’s arm and miming a foul) – but he was due after losing three out of four blocking calls. (It’s impressive how willing he was to give up his body for the cause.) Suddenly the Cavs were up by 19, 89-70.

In McMillan’s eyes that’s a moment where his team cracked a little under the pressure.

“We started to get frantic out there they made a run and we offensively tried to get it back by ourselves and lost our poise and weren’t calm during that third quarter. That was big,” McMillan said. “We started to separate there and started to play more one-on-one basketball as opposed to staying together, knowing they’re going to make a run and you need to get a couple stops and [SPOILER ALERT] you’ll find yourselves right back in the game as we did in the fourth quarter.”

Drama Queens

Of course, the Cavaliers get bored too easily to put the game away early in the fourth. And Lue still hasn’t figured that out yet, so inevitably James plays while the second squad or the newly returned starters blow the lead and then he gets no rest at all, like last night. James played 23 of 24 second half minutes. Is it a wonder he was 2-6 from the field and 0-2 from the line in the fourth? You could just look at him and know he was gassed. Still he sucked it up and came up big defensively with two steals and a demonstrative block at the rim of Paul George as well as two rebounds.

This last bit is important because throughout the fourth quarter they had Tristan Thompson helping on pick-and-rolls while Love and LeBron manned the backline. They did an extraordinary job of cleaning the class after collecting just 10 boards between them Saturday.
click to enlarge love_lebron_backline.jpg
Both grabbed that many defensive boards alone, and Thompson added another ten boards split evenly between defensive and offensive as the Cavaliers hoarded boards winning the battle 37-33. Thompson, LeBron and Love had 56 rebound opportunities (within a certain distance of rebound) – same as the entire Pacers team. That’s taking care of business.

The Cavs went up 15, 109-94, after Irving hit a three with just over six minutes left. The Pacers then held the Cavaliers scoreless for four minutes, spearheading a 10-0 to cut the lead to 5 with just under two-and-a-half minutes left. James and Irving both got buckets and Love and Kyrie both cashed pairs of free throws to hold on for the 117-111 victory.

It certainly wasn’t as almost catastrophic as Saturday’s near-miss so by that standard it was an improvement, and that third quarter was great to see. But the Cavaliers have been teasing at greatness all year long. It’s going to take more than some fancy talk to make the conversion. After the Cavaliers periscoping in-and-out focus, we’ll have to actually see an actual 48-minute game before we start believing any of this stuff.

They simply seem a bit too eager to be pleased with themselves.

Final Analysis

Like Detroit last year, the Pacers are posing a greater challenge than their seeding suggests. However the mote is most certainly in the Cavaliers’ eye, and it’s been enjoying room service and fouling the couch cushions for months with little sign of relief. Will they mercifully remove it and get to the business of defending their crown?

Check back on Thursday. History says James gives them the dagger by coming out aggressively looking to score to put the Pacers on their heels and crack their will early in Game 3. LeBron knows winning Game 3 is tantamount to elimination, and the Cavaliers are obviously eyeing that sweep knowing that they really came together last year during their week off after sweeping Detroit.

With Milwaukee winning the road opener convincingly, that series is shaping up to go the limit, and the Cavaliers could be in position to rest and really hone their defensive rotations and offensive game plans should they dispatch Indiana in four. They’re quite capable, and that would go a long way in quieting the murmuring their late season swoon engendered.

Then again, the Pacers aren’t the least bit intimidated and the Cavaliers have only won twice in the last 16 regular season matchups at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse. On the other hand LeBron has won 19 straight first round playoff games….

We remain worried about the ease with which the Cavaliers fall into bad habits. While we understand the value of going ISO with Kyrie and LeBron, last year they’d wait until the final six minutes of the game. Now it’s most of the second half. Irving and James took 25 of 36 second half shots and had two assists between them.

As we noted early, they had 13 first half assists (with 12 TOs) and only six assists (against 7 TOs) in the second half. There’s way too much hero-ball way too early in the game given the quality of the players out there. That said, it is a lot harder to score when Shumpert and Thompson are in the game. The Pacers just crowd the lane and let the Irving and James pull-up for jumpers.
click to enlarge cavs_slough_tt_and_shump.jpg
That’s not going to be sustainable for long, and certainly not against the better teams. Shumpert is going to need to know shots down consistently, when his inconsistency is the only thing regular about him. Meanwhile Thompson somehow escaped playing the entire last seven minutes of the game without being subject to the Hack-A-Thompson. Indeed after missing his last five free throws since the thumb injury, he didn’t take even one last night. #DodgingBullets

That same hash tag could apply to playing James so many minutes. On the other hand, there’s no arguing with production. The Big 3 became the first trio in Cavalier playoff history to score at least 25 points. Irving finished with 37 on an efficient 14-24. James was 11-20 for 25 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists and eight turnovers (only two in the second half). Love was the poster boy for efficiency with 27 points on seven shots (and 12-12 from the line) as well as 11 boards and three assists. Kevin (39 minutes) played only three less than LeBron but was +17 in +/- compared to LBJ’s +6.

The Cavaliers rebounded well and will need to continue to control the boards, especially if they can’t cut down on turnovers. They simply can’t be giving teams +7 points off turnovers (24 to Cavs 17) in addition to a 4-point edge on second chance points (11 to 7). If Shumpert continues to play, you have to worry about the Cavs’ offensive efficiency stalling out. Deron Williams (who was 3-4 from distance for 9 points) could be looking at some extra time as well, should Shumpert’s post-allstar break shooting woes (38.5% FG, 25.3% 3p) continue. Richard Jefferson should also be seeing more minutes as the team’s more versatile bench defender.

We’ve never seen the Pacers as that tough of a matchup. The Cavaliers are simply enabling them with inconsistent ball movement, poor free throw shooting and bad turnovers. It’s all correctable, but then it has been all season. They seem to be rounding – slowly – into form. Just don’t rush them.

We’ll be doing postgame columns all playoffs though we’re leaving town for the next two games to celebrate our birthday with some longtime chums that now live out-of-state. So we’re not sure what’s going to happen on Thursday’s birthday night, or the subsequent Saturday game. We’ll just have to see how hungover we are.

In the meantime, let me encourage you to check out my book, King James Brings The Land a Crown: The Definitive Chronicle of the Cavs’ 2016 Title Run. We’ll be signing copies at the campus bookstores at Ashland University today (Tuesday) from 1 to 3 and at Kent State on Wednesday from noon to 2pm. (We’ll be at Cleveland State and Oberlin College on Wednesday and Thursday of next week respectively.) We are also on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James every Monday at 11am on WRUW 91.1.




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