Cavs Reach for Fourth Gear, Jazz Get There First

All year long the Cavaliers have approached the regular season the way some gifted students approach school, in a warped sense of maximum efficiency – succeed with the least effort necessary. That’s how the Wine and Gold squandered a small fourth quarter lead and lost to the Jazz 94-85.

It even makes sense, so long as you’re not concerned about the bad habits created by not expending maximum effort all the time, expecting your superior talent will win the day. Somewhere along the way there’s a risk a less talented opponent simply outworks you.

It happened last night in Utah and it happened a week earlier at home against Memphis. Both teams were missing starters. Last night it was the team’s number one player (by usage), Gordon Hayward, who sat with plantar fasciitis. In both games the Cavaliers failed to match the effort and/or execution of their undermanned opponent.

Sure it was the last game of a West Coast road trip, but they’d specifically described this jaunt as a chance to prove their mettle. (Apparently it’s Reynolds Wrap.)

While the Cavaliers played the day before, that was a day game, and the team had been in Los Angeles since Thursday. Utah was also playing a back-to-back and had been in Sacramento the night before. So that’s not an applicable excuse.

The Cavs came out of the gates well, taking a 13-6 lead before making their usual mid-first quarter swoon, an event nearly as reliable as the swallows return to Capistrano. The Jazz went on a 13-2 run to take the lead, but a buzzer-beating LeBron three pulled the Cavs within two.

During the meat of the game, between the second and third quarters, the Cavaliers played pretty good defense. They held the Jazz to 14-37 shooting (38%) but only managed 17-41 themselves (39%). The game was tied going into the final period

The Cavs could’ve been ahead. There were a number of defensive failures and missed assignments, such as this one where Kyrie was staring at his man rather than keeping tabs on the ball after a Jazz offensive rebound. When Kevin Love leaves Rodney Hood at the three line to help with the PnR roll man, Kyrie Irving doesn't slide over to defend his man, giving Rodney Hood (28 pts) one of his four threes.
But still the Wine and Gold battled tenaciously like Charlie Sheen’s paternity lawyers, and finally took a three-point lead on Matthew Dellavedova’s trey to start the last quarter.

Fourth Quarter Fold

The Cavaliers would typically like their chances in a tie game entering the fourth even on the road; however it was the Jazz who stepped up. They made 9-14 in the final frame and 4-7 from beyond the boundary. They also were 6-7 from the line, making more free throws in the quarter than the Cavaliers did all game. They outscored the Cavs 28-19 in the quarter.

Much of the damage came courtesy of Trey Lyles, their number one pick out of Kentucky. He scored ten points in the quarter including two threes, and playing as a stretch four was able to exploit Tristan Thompson repeatedly. He scored 10 points during the Jazz 13-2 run with nine minutes left. It turned a one-point Cavs advantage into an insurmountable 10-point Jazz lead with five minutes left.
As you can see, Lyles made use of his quickness and shooting range to abuse the slower Thompson, much how the Cavs use Channing Frye and Kevin Love to pull classic 4s away from the basket. After the run, Frye came in for Thompson and the two came in conflict.

Lyles eventually got thrown out after bending down into triple threat position and elbowing his way into Frye’s junk like a posh party to which he wasn’t invited. Frye took exception to this and approached Lyles butting heads as they did some nose-to-nose close-talking.
As he was pulled away you could see Frye hold up two fingers and say the words “twice,” making us wonder if Lyles hadn’t already elbowed Frye once, and he’d had enough.

LeBron noted the earlier cheap technical Frye had received after a ball-don’t-lie-moment. Frye had gone hard to the hole in the second only to have the ball goaltended away by Trevor Booker, without a call.

Booker retrieved the rebound and threw a bad pass intercepted by Shumpert and turned back into two by Frye a split-second later. As he went back up the court following his slam, Frye apparently mentioned the mistake to veteran 10-year NBA ref David Guthrie, who rung him up.

The injustice of the earlier call was multiplied by the second one, where Frye was literally protecting his manhood.

“He just voiced his opinion, he said ‘That was a goaltend,’ that was all he said, he didn’t disrespect the ref at all,” said James after the game. “That allowed him to get kicked out because he got that first T… [it’s about] being able to stick up for himself and he did that and I love that side of him.”

Lyles got tossed along with Frye during a lull that went on forever. There were four minutes left and the lead was nine after an Irving step-back jumper but they could get no closer than seven.

“We tried to get it going, but we couldn’t get it going. We couldn’t make shots early. I thought we did a good job of fighting back,” said Lue. “I think we were up 69-66 at one point and they went on a 20-6 run after that. We just didn’t have it tonight.”

More Detail Please

What everyone said after the game was that the Jazz are a good defensive team. That just doesn’t pass the smell test. During the second half of last year the Jazz were one of the league’s best teams.

“They’re a very good defensive team,” said Kevin Love. “They give you different looks. They switch. They’re pretty dynamic on the defensive end.”

This year their man in the middle Rudy Gobert just hasn't been as imposing and neither have the Jazz. They’re 14th in opponent FG% and 12th in defensive efficiency, four slots behind the Cavaliers. They also allow the 10th highest 3 point FG%.

So the Cavaliers weren’t facing a juggernaut of any sort. However there is one thing the Jazz do better than anyone. They slow the game down. They average almost two less possessions per game than the next slowest team (the Cavaliers, natch). This is actually probably part of the Cavaliers’ thinking in amplifying their pace – they may feel the need to be closer to the middle of the pack to take better advantage of their team’s two great open court scorers.

As we noted, they were even getting stops in the second and third – but the Cavaliers never got the pace very high, and struggled somewhat to get good shots in the halfcourt offense. This is the main concern that comes out of this game. When the Cavs are slowed down, can they find efficient shots? Because that's what the postseason will be like.

“We couldn’t get that pace up today, we couldn’t push the ball and get stops so we could get out and run,” said Lue. “They played hard. Their switches hurt us a little bit, when they went to switching 1 through 5. It made us stagnant and go one on one. We didn’t get single-side bumps on Kev and Channing spacing, so they did a good job of adjusting to that.”

If you’re not good with basketball terminology, that might’ve been lost on you. We aren’t coaches, but we know Google, and found this illustration to sort of explain the single side bump. As we understand it (and we could be wrong) this is the pass out of the PnR to one of the players on the court creating space.

Because the Jazz were switching the pick-and-roll, the weakside 3-threat (which the Cavaliers really like to hit, whether on the crosscourt pass or out of the PnR) was not coming open. Usually help – off the “3” man in the diagram — would come over and bump the roller – the “5” man – to give the two defenders engaged in the pick-and-roll a chance to recover to their men.

Of course this raises other rather salient questions, such as if they’re switching all the pick-and-rolls, and that’s causing issues, how come the team didn’t run some GD offense at that point? There was an awful lot of pick-and-roll offense that wasn’t producing points.

“We gave what we had. We just couldn’t make shots early,” Lue said. “We went 10 of 42 from 3 coming off a game where we shot almost 50% from three. So it was one of those games. I just thought we tried to compete. We tried to fight. We just didn’t have it.”

We don’t know which rubs us more the wrong way, the idea that it was “just one of those games,” or that Lue points to a game where they made a ridiculous percentage and number of threes, as if to say, “yeah, we didn’t make as many as the night before.” Is that really his expectation?

It’s an even more salient conundrum given the team’s frequent over-reliance on the three. Open threes aren’t going to be that available in the post-season. Passing off a loss to the Jazz as we didn’t get the kind of open threes and opportunities out of the PnR, seems to be excusing the Cavaliers inability/unwillingness to run anything outside PnR. Their enthusiasm for running the offense trails the vigor of a child picking over their vegetables.

Does Lue need to keep them on the court after the game until they run a play? Especially given the Cavs already well-established predilection for one-on-one, hero ball when the going gets tough?

Some of the 42 triples were the result of the team’s attempts to get back into the 
click to enlarge Cavaliers Shot Chart
Cavaliers Shot Chart
game, but even through three quarters, 26 of their 64 shots, over 40% came from beyond the arc. They were 8-26 (then went 2-16 in the fourth) from three (31%) and 19-38 within it. Simple math tells you to take the two if you can hit half of them and can’t make at least a third of your threes. But the Cavs are stubborn.

“We had our chance. We definitely settled for the outside shot a little bit too much tonight. We didn’t get into the paint and they did a great job of capitalizing on our mistakes,” James said, responding to a question about the number of threes. “It’s a fine line. I think in the first half we had great looks but you have to recognize sometimes that it’s not going down and get into the paint a little bit more and try to create some opportunities where you get to the rim.”


Final Analysis

That the Cavaliers were still in this game entering the fourth quarter is sort of the blessing and the curse of this team. They’re good enough that even on a night where shots aren’t falling and the other team’s giving them all they can handle, they’re just six to twelve minutes of solid play from a win.

The sooner they shed that crutch the better. But nobody becomes a better person overnight. All of life is about coming closer to who you want to be. Perfection’s a goal, not an expectation. Same thing with the Cavaliers.

The Eastern Conference is much tougher than in past years. There won’t be as many allowances for slippage or poor play as they’ve enjoyed during the regular season. We hope they’re not getting used to these “preseason” dispensations and excuses.

At the same time, it’d be foolish not to acknowledge the blessing as well. The Cavaliers have more road wins (20) than any other Eastern Conference and trail only the Warriors and Spurs in the West. (The Clippers also have 20 road wins.)

Even though they lost, the Raptors did as well, so the Cavs suffer no real repercussion for the loss. They did miss an extraordinary number of uncontested shots (13-46, 28%) while making nearly twice as many contested shots (22-42, 53%).

But as James said, if you’re not hitting the open jumpers, it’s time to go to the hole and draw some contact. That’s been lacking at times under Lue’s guidance. You just won’t win many games in which you shoot only 8 free throws, like last night.

Not coincidently, 7 of Love’s 11 shots were 3s. Irving managed to shoot 23 times (1-9 from 3) without drawing a single free throw, and James only shot two. This is less than 10 days after shooting 98 over three games.

It comes one day after getting up and down the court, moving the ball and finding open men. Instead they reverted back to their old ways of dribbling around and settling for jumpers.

“Tonight was weird in that regard because yesterday that ball had energy,” said Love. “We fed off playing downhill with Kyrie and Bron. When two of the main guys with the ball are playing downhill and hitting guys with the ball we’re a far better team.”

What are you going to do? Inconsistency has been their calling card all year. They can blame the regular season doldrums and what really are you complaining about – they’re in first place. It’s like explaining to a student that getting an A isn’t as useful as learning something.

We’ll be at the Q on Wednesday for the game against the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs are battling the Jazz for the last Western Conference playoff slot, and as such should come in hungry, thought they’ve lost 6 of 10. We’ll be posting commentary, video and analysis throughout the game. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis on Thursday Morning, here in the Scene & Heard Blog.