LeBron Slams the Knicks, Rains Leather Down on Them

click to enlarge "Don't mind me, just embarrassing you."
"Don't mind me, just embarrassing you."
When a dominating Cavaliers defensive effort in the first half gave way to a 40-point Knicks third quarter, fans started popping their nitroglycerin pills and clutching their rosaries. Tell Mama it’s alright, the Cavs prevailed 107-93, and evened their trip to the Big Apple by avenging Thursday night’s sheet-staining at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets.

For a Cavaliers team with title ambitions and its fans, the regular season’s proven the world’s longest cross-country drive. In Cleveland’s case it’s featured innumerable pit stops, detours, flat tires and one particularly lethal game of “Who Lost the Map?”

The cries of “Are We There Yet” have been met with “It’s Process” like the chorus of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “No, We Will Not Let You Go!” (And if the Cavaliers don’t win it this year, Beelzebub has a devil put aside for GM David Griffin, at the very least.)

It’s certainly a commensurate battle for the identity of a team that’s as enigmatic as the tattooed agent lady from that blatant Blacklist rip-off Blind Spot. “Who are they?” “Do they know why they’re here?” “When does Delly have to give the devil his soul?”

We’re pretty sure a Hollywood consultant designed the regular season as closely as it resembles a Marvel Superhero franchise – where a lot happens every movie without anything ever really changing. (Maybe LeBron’s really a time traveler?)

All these build-ups and reversals, blind-alley cross-ups and back door betrayals, provide more foreplay than satisfaction, and whittle down to the same blue-balled predicament: Will they or won’t they?

For all the talk of establishing habits and playing right, the Cavs are just over two weeks from exams, and no one has any idea what they’ll get from night to night. The first half against the Knicks was their most dominating defensive performance since Blatt’s departure. The third quarter turned into a typical shit show when the Wine and Gold left the halftime locker room flat.

To their credit, they didn’t fold. On the other hand, it’s the damn Knicks. If the Nets and Knicks were children, the human race would end, so strongly would they speak to contraception. So it’s difficult to take too much from this game. This team could beat the Knicks and Nets by forty plus points for two-weeks running then lose to a Washington Generals team missing its leading scorer.

The Game

After losing an uninspired back end of a back-to-back to the Nets, the Cavs were a bet to bounce back strong. As predictable as their loss of focus, so to is their next game snap-back. They turned up the D to an extent unseen in Lue’s tenure, holding the Knicks to 12-41 shooting (29%) and Carmelo Anthony in particular to 2-12 in the first half.

We’re not as sharp as Austin Carr, who clued us in to one way the Cavaliers were helping to stop Anthony. AC – who hasn’t been reticent in torching Timo’s play like so many autumn leaves – was equally generous in his praise, noting how well Timo did shading over on Anthony and jumping back to his man.
Kyrie Irving sat this game to rest, so Matthew Dellavedova got the start and did well defensively when he was in there, helping to limit any penetration. However, Sasha Vujacic and Jose Calderon are less threatening than Justin Bieber, if much less likely to score.

With Irving absent Love and James worked well together which is sure to ignite the Kyrie hate. Had the reverse happened we know it’d just be the Love haters powering up their bandwagon. Maybe someday Cavs fans will appreciate the difficulty feeding three volume scorers (to varying degrees) enough that their tummies don’t growl.

The key perhaps is that there’s more patience with two offensive focal points that three guys don’t get. Love only started 2-7, but the Cavs stuck with him. It paid off as Love was 7-11 in the middle periods (2nd & 3rd) for 17 points, and 28 for the game as well as 12 boards.

While Love played well offensively, and wasn't bad on defense, he really can't make it more than a game or two without at least one terrible defensive play. Here Love just abandons Kristnaps Porzingas in the corner because.... of Jose Calderon's shot fake? Or did he just want the rebound?  
With only one player attempting to penetrate, the offense ran more often, by necessity. While Kyrie’s drives can be overabundant, they’re also a highly efficient shot. He’s not Stephen Curry (1.12 points per play) in the pick-and-roll but Irving (.91 ppp) is as nearly effective as Klay Thompson (.92), Chris Paul (.94) and Kevin Durant (.94). (LeBron’s 89 ppp.)

Third Rhymes with Turd for Cavs

The Cavs had a big let down in the third allowing the Knicks to shoot 16-23 (70%), including 6-9 from three. Carmelo Anthony accounted for a perfect 4-4. The defensive intensity just wasn’t good, but the Cavs had enough offense going to trade baskets until they could get the Knicks back under wraps in the fourth.

“We definitely wanted to come out strong which I felt we did,” said Kevin Love. “The third quarter – which has kinda been our nemesis at some points throughout the season – I don’t think we necessarily played that well, but we were able to trade baskets throughout and then in the fourth got stops and scored when we needed to.”

When things were going South a bit, the Cavs got four good minutes from Mo Williams at the end of the quarter with the reserves to steady the ship. He’s capable of running the offense and provides that second squad with someone who can create his own shot unlike Shump, Frye, and Tristan. (Jefferson creates pretty well too.)

While he’s a defensively liability, there’s no reason Lue shouldn’t spot him against backup point guards, especially when Delly is playing with the starters and bumping Kyrie over to the “2”. Out since - who remembers? - with a bad knee, his appearance and solid performance were almost as surprising as Lazarus' return.

Lue’s decision to simplify the defense and get back to last year’s core concepts seems to be working. It involves less hedging and jumping out on picks, more steering of ball handlers towards the bigs. Beyond that, Lue’s got his team cramming on defense for the home stretch.

“Today before the game we talked about the last ten games and focusing on two things each game to better at defensively,” Lue said.

“Holy Shite,” we said. Are there really TWENTY things wrong with our defense? But the more we thought about it….

Get back on transition, put a body on somebody, chase shooters off the three, get over screens, don’t get caught watching ball, arms/hands up in the passing lanes, take away ballhandler’s strong hand, mind your pick-and-roll rotations (DON’T SWITCH EVERYTHING!), watch help rotations, and yell to each other when your mate’s being picked…..

That’s ten, and we’re not even the coach.

“Tonight we challenged guys on their physicality and getting back in transition D,” Lue said. “Miss a shot? [Think you… -Ed.] got fouled? Whatever it may be. Make sure they sprint back. I think they only had two points in transition tonight. We have to keep taking steps forward defensively, and I think we can do that.”

The Cavs finished with 9 turnovers which were turned into only 8 Knicks points, while turning 8 New York turnovers into 10 points. The Cavs also outscored the Knicks 15-2 on fastbreaks.

They held on despite having a horrendous shooting fourth quarter. It would have been very easy for the Cavaliers to blame their 4-19 shooting in the final frame, including 1-6 from three. However when the shots stopped falling (13-28 from 3 in the first three quarters) they took it to the rack, getting (and making) 9 of their 25 free throws in the last stanza.

“Every team is going to make a run, we don’t want to be the cause of that,” Lue offered in a classic understatement. “Just going back and watching a few clips, Melo made 4 3's in the third quarter and they were all contested. So they can get hot at any time. We know that and we just stuck with it.

“Take out the third quarter we played both sides of the ball very well. The transition defense was one of the focal points we wanted to focus on before the game and we felt we did a good job of that,” he continued. “We had a few lapses, turned the ball over they were able to score… Offensively we moved the ball very well and played with a great pace.

LeBron James & the Bench Bonanza

The big story this week has been in the aftermath of the embarrassing loss to the Miami Heat, James has taken on greater personal responsibility. Lue and James had a talk after the Miami game in which LeBron was sort of reprimanded for laughing and clowning with Dwyane Wade during halftime of the game.

Since then he’s turned up the intensity noticeably, almost as a message to the league. We’re not sure how many dunks he’s had in how many consecutive games, but the explosion in his legs belies what’s at times looked like The Flash going through the lane. That's how you get a triple double (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists).
But it’s not just the agility he’s shown of late, it’s the power. He’s positively CRUSHING these dunks.
If any of the Cavs Eastern Conference foes were gaining confidence from the Cavaliers inconsistent play the past few weeks, James has waterboarded that idea. He feels, he says, as good as he has in years.

It’s a bold suggestion that as great as Playoff LeBron was last year, he could be even better next year. The NBA better double-bind the record book because LBJ could be looking to break that bitch.

Of course the biggest story last year was the failure of the bench to get James’ back. Griffin made moves to address this, but to be honest it was difficult to evaluate the efficacy of those moves given the injuries all season.

The addition of Channing Frye seemed like the last piece, but watching the return of Mo Williams caused us pause as well. There are a lot of moving parts and we’re still not convinced Lue’s got enough arms to juggle everything he needs to as a rookie coach, not to mention the lineup rotations.

But he does appear savvy enough to spot mismatches. Hopefully he’ll be able to spot his bench players in situations that minimize their offensive or defensive efficiency.

Finding the right combinations to do that is probably easier said than done, and perhaps accounts for Lue’s ever-changing lineups. We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt until playoff time but we’re worried because he’s kept those rotations short until very recently, and we suspect he’s going to need everyone to get past whoever emerges from the West.
We found encouraging news, perusing the stats. The Cavaliers bench has been performing as well as almost anyone’s bench in the league, only topped by the Atlanta Hawks (who are peaking at a much better time than last year).

Indeed, the Warriors bench looks like nothing special, while the Cavs bench appears to be a keen balance of offense and defense without leaning too far in either direction. Weirdly, the bench's pace has actually been slower under Lue than Blatt.

Overall, it's a vast improvement from where it was last year, and even earlier this year under Blatt. (Channing Fyre has something to do with that.)

Final Analysis

Are the Cavaliers rounding into form or are we merely high from the elevation in the moments before the teeter-totter comes crashing back to earth? You could probably make convincing arguments in both directions. All that does is reinforce how little the regular season means.

The Cavaliers have maintained their 2-game lead (in actuality a single game lead since the Raptors hold the tie breaker) on homecourt advantage through the Eastern Conference Finals. So however bad they’ve looked intermittently, they’ve lived up to their main obligation.

After home games against the Rockets and the Nets, the team runs a final gauntlet of seven games against six playoff contenders including Atlanta twice and a very hot Hornets team. It will challenge their ability to maintain the top seed, especially if Lue holds to his promise of resting guys before the playoffs.

Though LeBron scoffs at homecourt advantage and wins at least one road game during (just about?) every playoff matchup, it’s hard to argue its lack of importance. We couldn’t help but notice that 13 of the last 15 conference or NBA finals matchups that have gone to 7 games have been won by the home team.

One of those exceptions is the notorious Sacramento/Los Angeles 2002 game 7 which the refs handed to the Lakers with some of the most questionable calls in the history of the game. We don’t think any Eastern Conference team is likely to take the Cavs to 7, but if they did, we’d damn sure rather they be at home.

All in all, a decent week from the Cavs, highlighted by a tightening focus and the Coach’s renewed emphasis on defense. That’s good news given all the attention lavished on the offense and the defensive backsliding.

We were also encouraged by the fact the team took 25 free throws last night, many after their three point shot fled. The ability to balance that will be key, as James himself noted.

“We’re aren’t a three-point shooting team but we have guys that are capable of shooting it from a distance and our team is predicated on me breaking down the defense, Kev getting in the post, Kyrie getting into the defense and allowing our shooters to have space,” James said. “So there’s a fine line between how many 3s we take and how much we get into the paint. Tonight we did a great job of mixing it.”

James is cognizant that it’s been a rollercoaster ride, but prefers to focus on the stopping point rather the nausea-inducing trip.

“The first half we took five steps forward, in the third quarter we took two steps backwards but we ended the night being three steps above where we were the other night. That’s a good sign,” James said. “[But] no way, shape or form are we allowed to ever give up 40 points in a quarter, like we did in the third quarter.”

The way James destroyed the Knicks last night, we think any future offenders won’t need to be put on the rack, just having LeBron take them there is probably punishment enough.

The Cavaliers play the Rockets at the Q on Tuesday. We’ll be there, offering analysis, video and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame column here in the Scene and Heard blog on Wednesday morning, and hear us discuss the Cavaliers on the Defend Cleveland Show Monday morning at 11 a.m. with Michael James on WRUW- FM, 91.1.