In Win Over Knicks, Cavs Continue Rounding Into Form

This string of games against the league’s lowest rungs is providing the Cavaliers with a second preseason. It’s not so much that the games are meaningless – they damn sure aren’t — but in that this still bedraggled and beaten-up squad has time to round into shape against their more inept neighbors. That’s what they did last night to the New York Knicks in a 96-86 victory.

With J.R. Smith now sitting out with a knee contusion that occurred early in Monday night’s game, the team’s backcourt depth took yet another hit. Suddenly Jared Cunningham seems like a godsend. Smith has a knee bruise and “quad tendinitis” that will probably sideline him until next week and perhaps longer, given the level of talent during this stretch.

That puts Richard Jefferson in the starting lineup, which is a less than ideal situation. In the locker last night before the game, we heard Richard Jefferson tell a New York reporter (presumably familiar with him from his long tenure with the Nets) that 15-20 minutes a game is perfect for him, “when it gets to be 25 minutes or more” that’s trouble. Around that time Coach Blatt popped by and told RJ he needed him.

(This year’s new, more diplomatic Coach David Blatt replied to our query as to whether he might need us by saying that “we need all of you in here.” What a mensch.)

The 35-year-old Jefferson is more effective in smaller doses, which all the reserves will see once Hawkeye Pierce arrives to stitch up the Cavs’ long list of wounded. That includes the walking wounded as well. Cunningham had an wrap around his right wrist yesterday, and Timofey Mozgov still seems to be rounding into form.

Delly-Tristan Life Preserver

The sunshine that accompanies this beautiful late Indian Summer here in Northeast Ohio is that the pair that stepped up this summer are again proving reliable life rafts. Or maybe we should call them aerialists?

What more can you say about Matthew Dellavedova? He looked overmatched offensively last year. That little floater wasn’t all that reliable, and that threat makes those alley-oops possible.

Last year Delly was 8-23 (35%) at the rim, 14-61 (23%) in the paint, and 21-56 (38%) from midrange. Including the preseason number in the interest of sample size, Delly is 7-15 (3-4 regular season) at the rim, 8-24 in the paint (2-10) and 9-17 (6-9) from mid-range. That represents a 10% shooting improvement around the basket and a 15% increase from mid-range.

The other guy who is killing it is Tristan Thompson. Whatever qualms you had about that $3 million a year (he rejected a $13.5M offer last year, got $16.5 this year), there’s no doubt about his impact. He plays with energy whenever he’s out there. This year he seems to be attacking the defensive boards better than in past years. (The coaching staff’s encouraged him to box out more and not rely on his springboard ability.)

Last night Thompson got within 3.5’ of 22 rebounds and snared 13 of them in just 25:35. Carmelo Anthony (12/17 in 36 min) and (Kevin Love 12/19 in 32 min) were the only ones close to that. As Thompson’s game speed comes back to him, and he gets better blocking guys out that should improve. Yesterday he hit both of his free throws, and he’s been imposing at times at the rim, holding defenders to 1-7 last night, after getting eaten alive by the very athletic 76ers (10-15).

Because the Cavs came out so flat last night, the shorthanded Blatt didn’t have a lot of choices but to shorten the rotation a bit. Delly and Thompson saw 53 of the 79 bench minutes.

Cavs Early Game Struggles

The issues were several. The team came out flat just like they did against the 76ers. But they aren’t the Harlem Globetrotters – they don’t win just by showing up. Our East Coast cousins delivered that message with identical 32-18 first quarter pastings. The Cavs shot 35% in the first and 41% the rest of the way. The Knicks shot 62% in the first and 32% the rest of the way.

The issue with the offense last night was mostly the passing. If you go back to the first three game the number of passes/touches increased each game reaching its greatest height in the home opener against the Heat where it reached 73.6%. From there it backslid until last night it fell below 70% to 69.8%. (Prior low was the season opener at 71.2%.) This is just meant to provide some statistical context for what your eyes were telling you.

“We got ourselves together rebounding-wise, we got to balls in the second half and again we scored 58 points in the second half and obviously it flowed much better,” Blatt said after the game. “I think we recognized the moment. We were having trouble scoring or making shots so we recognized that we had to pick up the pace and get the ball downhill a little bit more and at the rim sooner, and create some shots through our transition game.”

For the game the Cavaliers were a somewhat astounding 24-0 in fastbreak points. Never seen anything like that. One of the main issues was that the Cavaliers just didn’t make open shots. They were 15-43 (35%) on uncontested shots, and 18-40 (45%) on the contested variety.

You can win like that but it’s not easy. As Blatt mentioned, they stopped settling for jumpers and would up 18-20 in the second half at the free throw line (after a 5-12 first half). By comparison, the Knicks were 6-8, making up a significant portion of the 18 point second half scoring difference. The other was the Cavs finally started making 3s. They went 1-15 in the first half and 6-13 from beyond the boundary in the second.

(Small unusual aside – in the second half it was the Mo & ‘Bron show accounting for 21 of the 39 second half shots. Love shot twice. So much for “the offense flows through Kevin.” You missed the small print: “Until seas get rough.” It will be interesting to see if by the time Kyrie’s integrated anything actually changes from last year.)

To some extent the team let their offense struggles impact the defense and keep them from playing with the pace and intensity they need.

“We can’t ever let that happen. It was just a combination of everything,” James said after the game. “We weren’t moving the ball in the first quarter and they were making everything. We were allowing them to get to the spots they wanted to get to and we dug ourselves a hole which we can’t do.”

Play of the Day

We love to break down the games and frequently rewatch the games in the morning before and while writing the column. We caught this great play last night during the second quarter. It’s a terrific play using Love and Mozgov.

As you can see in the video and accompanying picture, Love ducks into the lane, then darts out. He receives a pass at the 3-point line from Jefferson on the wing as Mozgov steps forward to screen Love’s man. It’s reminiscent in its action to a clever play the Warriors run called the “Elevator Door Play.”

Of course the Cavs version takes advantage of the fact that the opposing center is unlikely to come that far out to defend Mozgov. However it should be noted that T-Mo was 2-6 last year from 3 and is quite comfortable draining one from the corner — Mozgov hit consecutive 3s in pregame (caught 2nd one)

Mozgov is still struggling with his stamina and his knee. He’s not as quick with his feet and moving laterally as he was last year, often appearing a half/full-step late on interior rotations. It’s still too early to worry too much about, but worth filing away and watching.

The Cavs’ “Regular Season Preseason Tour” continues on Friday with the visiting 76ers in town. They’ve got some athletes but they’re still figuring out what to do with them. The Cavs ought to roll, but we know that didn’t happen immediately Monday. Hopefully the Wine and Gold will set their alarm and wake before the first quarter’s over.

We’ll be at the Q on Friday. You can look for us in the corkscrew mustache up in the corner press area or just follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne.