Cavaliers Take the Bucks, Get Invested For Playoffs

Drama was high in the Hall of Justice. You could cut the air with a Tweet.

Superman had been testy about people stepping on his cape, questioning the efficacy of his heat vision from a distance, and the never-ending media genuflection at the altar of the Avengers. Others speculated some of his ire was directed at Spiderman’s freelancing and hogging of the one-liners.

And as for Aquaman, he remained Aquaman, the hero mostly likely to put the super in superfluous. Once at home in a land of a thousand lakes, now he’s afraid to even dip his toes in the Cuyahoga. Instead he mostly circles the three point line like an exhibit at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

Batman remains the only one unfazed. Then again, he’s a sociopath – with the ball. No conscience. He zooms around on his bat scooter, head bobbling while tossing homemade photobombs. His wry indomitable presence is much more Adam West than Keaton-Affleck-Cooney-Nolan. (Sadly, his high-haired Gotham partner, Robin, continues to deliver more BIFF!s than POWs. Maybe his wing’s still sore.)

What’s more, the streets of Metropolis hadn’t been delivering the caliber of villains that could make our intrepid heroes stand up and take notice, or at least get off their cellphones. For some reason, the Justice League couldn’t generate the same intensity for crooked cops, governors, and city councilmen.

But they’re not the Justice League for nothing. Working in concert they can wreak the kind of prodigious destruction that would even arouse Kylo Ren. The hometown heroes proved that last night with a 113-104 win over just the type of team the Cavaliers sometimes struggle with, the long, athletic and physical Milwaukee Bucks.

It wasn’t a perfect performance. They surrendered points in transition early, and lost the defensive thread in the second quarter after showing terrific intensity and energy in the first. They also made 15 turnovers which the Bucks turned into 21 points (better than their 14 TO for 19 points).

But they recovered well in the second half, matching the Bucks’ physicality: They secured 10 offensive rebounds, had seven blocks (two by Aquaman!), and got to the line 13 times (to only four for the Bucks). The ball moved all night, from drive and kick to ball swings, resulting in 29 assists on 40 field goals, and 10 secondary (hockey) assists.

The Cavs should’ve won by even more. The Bucks hit a ridiculous 61% of their open shots, while the Wine and Gold managed just 34%. They made up for it by hitting 62% of their contested shots. That’s indicative of how hard the team played, particularly the Big 3, who made 14 of their 20 contested shots and finished with 76 points and twenty assists.

The Game

The Cavaliers came out just about as well as they have since the all-star break. They moved the ball and attacked decisively. They took advantage of mismatches and kept moving off the ball.

The Bucks tended to sink back into the lane to prevent the Cavaliers from driving, but no matter. The Cavs kicked it back out and then attacked the closeouts and used interior passing – when not just beating them up the court in transition. It was truly a terrific offensive first six minutes.

Lue’s done a good job of continuing to hone the offense with each game. While they certainly are up & down enough to be dubbed the Coasterliers, it seems like taken in two-week chunks, you can see steady improvement in the offense. You have to overlook a little backsliding, but by and large the sets have gotten better.

There’s good spacing. Guys are finding open guys, and lately they haven’t settled so much for threes, but continued to attack the lane and maintain a balance. Though the Cavs shot 34 threes (made 10, 29%), they also shot 27 free throws. (And as we noted earlier, a lot of open 3s didn’t go down, including 5 zilches from the heretofore invincible, Three-Lantern, Channing Frye.)

The Bucks have lots of length and tend to switch pick and rolls most of the time. This was a boon for the Cavs as it allowed them to get Kevin Love on guard Jerryd Bayless a couple times. Love was able to take advantage and scored nine of his 24 in the first.

“They started the game switching the point guard onto Kevin, so we took advantage of that,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “When they had to double team, Kevin got some shots up and we continued to move the ball. When we do that we’re tough to beat.”

One place even the most ardent Blatt fan has to give it to Lue is his increasing effectiveness getting the Big Three into offensive pick-and-roll sets together. They started the game with a nice one, using Kevin Love twice as a screener. (He actually set *mildly* physical picks!)
They were crisp for the entire first quarter, but especially during the first six minutes when they made 9 of 14 shots. All but the first one was from inside or around the lane as they continually got downhill on the Bucks and moved the ball for premium looks. They also got a couple nice putbacks. We were so impressed with the way they came out, we made a 90-second video of those nine offensive hoops/opportunities (eight baskets and a Love drive where he was fouled).
The ball movement was contagious, and moves were made quickly. There wasn’t a lot of dribbling around deciding what to do. The Cavaliers finished the first quarter 13-22 (59%) though only 1-9 from three. Everything else was at the rim. Indeed that held most of the game as the shot chart suggests. They also had nine first quarter assists, led by LeBron with four.

“Everyone’s energy picks up when they touch the ball, when the ball is moving and people are getting touches,” said Lue. “When guys are touching the ball and feeling a part of it, when you play that way everyone feels involved.”

Second Quarter Defensive Stink

The Cavaliers offense was better than the defense in the first quarter – no news flash – but it wasn’t bad. The Bucks are a long athletic team that causes a lot of matchup problems. But the Cavaliers held their own in the first. The Bucks shot 48%, and hit 4-5 threes, but Cleveland would tighten up the defense at the arc going forward (3-11, 27%).

But while the Cavaliers did better at the boundary, they struggled much of the second quarter. The defensive intensity fell off a little, but mostly the Bucks did a nice job of exploiting different matchups with their big backcourt players such as the 6-7 Khris Middleton and 6-11 superstar playmaker Giannis Antetokounmpo (24 pts, 6 assists, 1 block).

Here the Bucks took advantage of the matchup on Delly and Kyrie on three possessions. Though both do well under the circumstances, it’s definitely a mismatch.
“I’ll take the blame for the second quarter,” offered Lue. “We played Kyrie and Delly together and they came back with Giannis and Middleton at the two and the three. So they posted Kris on Delly a lot or Ky and then we had to double team and that kind of got the ball moving. Guys were rotating and that’s how they got the offensive rebounds [five in the quarter].”

That said, we were impressed with the way Kyrie rose to the challenge of guarding the taller Khris Middleton. His play here is emblematic of the improvement we’ve seen and talked about, since Lue came on. It’s not there every play by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s becoming more consistent, and watching Kyrie compete like this is very exciting (if equally discouraging since it’s apparent he can play good D if so motivated).

We love that Coach Jim Boylan pulled no punches about their second quarter play on the broadcast, when asked what he’d like to see from the defense in the second half.

“The fundamentals would be nice,” Boylan snarked. “Boxing out, getting more physical. I’m very disappointed in our defense in the second quarter. I don’t know. They seem to turn it on and turn it off and that will get you beat.”

Physicality Makes the Man

The book on LeBron since time immemorial is that you get physical with him. The same thing holds doubly true for the rest of the Cavaliers. It’s not that the team’s incapable of playing physical; they just shy away from it, preferring to play fast and in the open court, something Lue has obviously emphasized.

It’s fortunate that the Cavaliers are able to play this way (particularly when, like last night, Timofey Mozgov’s attitude is more Ivan Drago than Yakov Smirnoff). But sometimes it takes encouragement, and sometimes the team shrinks. They seem to need to get into the mindset.

We saw it last year. The Cavaliers saw some physicality from the Celtics, but it really didn’t prepare them for the Game 1 against Bulls, who just came in and physically pounded the Wine and Gold. However, once they got into the grind-it-out mode, they were fine with it.

The same thing happened last night. It was a slower paced game (91.74 overall, 86.75 in fourth quarter, Cavs average pace is 95.76 since the break), but the Cavaliers adjusted and met the Bucks' physicality.

“That’s something Coach Lue got on us about,” said James. “He told us to be a little more physical in the second half and you know, we just took that approach and got on them at half, and we were able to finish the game off the best way we know how.”

Though he usually disappears in the second half, Love actually came up big in the third, going 4-5 and scoring 10 points to go with LeBron’s 10. If Love can hit trailing 3s (below) he could be as valuable as Channing Frye. (*wink*) Kyrie Irving didn’t score in the third and took but one shot. (He did have two assists.)
While the Cavaliers stepped it up in the third quarter, the Bucks didn’t roll over. After pushing the lead to 10 at 88-78, Milwaukee closed the quarter on a 9-3 run that cut the lead to four and almost two, but a Miles Plumlee basket at the buzzer was ruled to be a split-second too late.

Fourth Quarter Switch

The Cavaliers ability to turn up their defense in the fourth quarter perhaps should be reassuring, but much like investing a lot of unsupervised power in unelected spooks, it somehow makes you feel even less secure.

Nonetheless that’s what they did, holding the Bucks to 17 fourth quarter points and 44% shooting. Though the Cavs didn’t do much better (7-19, 37%), they got to the line 7 times, and wound up with assists on six of the seven baskets. They pushed the lead to 10 with under three gone in the fourth and the Bucks never got closer than six.

J.R. Smith stepped up in the fourth scoring eight of his 13 in the last stanza including a big three with the lead down to six in the last minute. Though he had a couple weeks of less than inspired defense recently, he seems to have recovered his defensive mojo since the Miami game, and his offense – both driving and behind the boundary – has been remarkably consistent.

Mozgov has also stepped it up of late. He made 5-6 for ten points, grabbed 3 boards and had a couple assists including this beautiful pocket feed to Kevin Love. He's shooting 68% in 10 March games.
His counterpart, Tristan Thompson also had a great game, bouncing back from a quiet night against Denver on Monday. Thompson finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, five of them offensive and two nice blocks.

“He continues to be near a double-double every night, continues to give us that energy. I thought Timo was great again too. They kind of played off each other,” Lue said. “Down the stretch of games, last year, Tristan was the #1 fourth quarter rebounder. So when we miss shots down the stretch, he’s always coming up with the big offensive rebound. That’s just who he is.”

Irving wasn’t particularly sharp on his 24th birthday finishing with 16 points (all but two in the first half) and eight assists against two turnovers. LeBron finished with 26 on a less than efficient 9-22 (a few missed bunnies), with five offensive boards, eight assists, two steals and a nasty block.

He mentioned how good he feels, especially compared to last year, and noted that any game where he has two big dunks is a sign of how good he’s feeling.

Final Analysis

What’s not to love? The Justice League’s got its groove back, and while their victim’s just a dumb four-legged creature like the Bucks, it’s nice to see our heroes, gut and mount it, after toying with it for a while.

It hasn’t escaped our attention the Pagliacci they pulled (i.e. sad clown act) in the second quarter, but like that horrific first six minutes of the second against Denver, this inconsistency comes with the frame. Until now nobody’s been motivated to replace it with a team photo.

The offense is getting more in tune with the ball movement and more comfortable with the different sets, which are increasingly making use of the Big Three. Given the fine play off the ball by Tristan, J.R. and Frye, that development feels like the last cog to a powerhouse offense.

Indeed, since the all-star break, the Cavaliers are averaging 111.4 points/100 possessions, compared to the Warriors’ 111.6. (Golden State’s only 0.6 better on defense as well.)

With great power comes great responsibility, and apparently a good deal of dolor when there isn’t anybody worth wielding that power against. At least that’s the Cavs story, and they’re sticking with it – at least for three more weeks until the playoffs get started.

They’re finally rounding into form, but if you’ve dealt with cylinders you know they have a pernicious tendency to revolve, and with our Coasterliers at the controls, they’ll undoubtedly lose their footing again and wind up run over again. That’s just their process.

But it’s hard to miss the improvement. Savor it. We’re not far from it being put to the test.

The Cavaliers travel to Brooklyn tonight for the back end of a back-to-back. Expect Lue to sit at least one, if not multiple starters. Kyrie Irving is our educated guess. We’ll be watching the broadcast with you, offering analysis, video and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame column here in the Scene and Heard blog.