Cavs Fail to Bury Hawks, Survive Furious Comeback

We’re not sure when the Cavaliers found time to attend Robert McKee’s famed screenwriting classes, but they’ve mastered dramatic structure, turning a runaway blowout into a white knuckle ride in just the last four minutes of the third quarter. (Maybe they could do something to punch up the Blacklist.)

That 18-point lead evaporated quicker than Fiddy’s fortune, heralding a back-and-forth final frame the Cavaliers were ultimately able to close. They showed composure down the stretch (at home) and each of the Big Three made big shots. However, the true dagger came out of J.R.’s hands, a closely contested three that stole back a 90-88 lead, kicking off a 17-5 run to close out the 104-93 victory.

Though it’s great the team maintained their poise and held on to win, it’s hard to watch them dispatch opponents like Batman’s foes in the classic Adam West live action series. (Really any supervillain for that matter.)

If you must trap the Hawks in a giant novelty egg timer and sort of Charles Atlas-them to death, what’s wrong with lingering for a moment to enjoy the satisfaction of a job done to completion. (No wonder the Joker & the Penguin turned to crime, they’d never make it in business!)

“When you go up 17 or 18 and they cut it to 10, you need to just be, ‘Let’s slow it down. Let’s put it back to 15,’” said Richard Jefferson. “Whenever you get a team down 15 points they are almost dead. When you get them to 18, all you have to do is lift the shovel up and poor dirt on them. Especially if you want to be a high level team. We didn’t do that tonight and it almost cost us.”

The Cavaliers have been the cause and solution to their own problems so many times this year, we’re beginning to think they don’t just suffer from a personality disorder, but Munchausen-by-Proxy. Apparently, only they can save themselves from the cliff they’re throwing themselves off of.

From about six minutes left in the third until six minutes left in the fourth, the Hawks outscored the Cavaliers 35-23, making 12 of 19 shots, half of them by Dennis Schroder (who was 6-8 with three triples for 15 points during the run). At that point the Wine and Gold made a little adjustment in their play of Dennis Schroder.

“We just tried to be more aggressive, especially on the pick and rolls, we were going under to begin with, and in the 4th quarter he got it going downhill, especially against our bigs, so I just tried to keep my body in front of him, and give a late contest as best I can, and if he makes it we just have to live with it,” said Kyrie Irving after the game.

The fact was that Cleveland and Coach Tyronn Lue were willing to live or die on Schroder (and Kent Bazemore’s) play. They weren’t going to let Korver, Millsap or Horford beat them. Schroder finished 10-20, and 5-10 from 3 (a 32% career shooter coming in), for 27 points. But he only had 6 assists and 5 turnovers.

The Cavaliers were willing to bet that if they did allow Schroder to beat them, it'd only be a controlled burn, and no one else would get hot. Same take with Bazemore. He finished 3-10 from 3 and 6-14 overall for 16 points. The Cavaliers were betting the Hawks couldn’t win if Schroder and Bazemore were the leading scorers.

In the final six minutes of the game, Schroder and Bazemore were a combined 0-6 while Millsap and Horford were 1-3. Six of those nine shots were threes, and they only took two free throws. Yes, the same trigger happy approach the Cavs sometimes suffer from, bit the Hawks down the stretch.

Meanwhile four of the Cavs last eight meaningful shots were at the rim, they only shot one three (J.R. Smith’s backbreaker), and the Cavs shot a dozen free throws in the final six minutes of the game.

“We did a good job of staying with the gameplan and getting stops when we needed to,” said Love.

The idea that they would continue to make Bazemore and Schroder beat them makes sense and they were able to win that way. Millsap and Horford finished 10-32, and Korver only got up one shot.

“I would rather Schroder shoot those threes than Kyle Korver getting 10 threes because we all know what Kyle can do,” Jefferson said. “We had to change up some things and we had to adjust to it but that’s how a series is, it’s about adjustments and guys stepping up, and today Schroder stepped up for them and almost took the game away.”

But the Cavs made one more adjustment, stuck with the gameplan, and it proved effective. Even with great games, Bazemore and Schroder weren’t enough to take the road victory.

In the end the Cavs finished like they started, scoring 30 points in the first and last frames while holding the Hawks below 40% shooting (33-87, 38%, 11-34, 32% from 3).

The Game

The Cavaliers came out sharp, looking a lot crisper than they had a right to after eight days off. LeBron, J.R. and Kyrie were a combined 9-13 in the first including 5-8 from 3. Meanwhile Kevin Love (0-6) was more hapless than Disco Stu at a rave. The great thing is that we seem to be past the point where Love would pout and hide like a scolded puppy.

In the end, Love finished 4-17, but despite his shooting woes, LeBron kept finding him. That can only do good things for Love’s confidence and feeling of belonging. Despite having to wait for others to give him shots, and with post opportunities more difficult to come by against the Hawks, Love continued to hoist them up and battle on the boards.

“The first half was tough I kept coming to the bench and talking to [Channing Frye] and he says ‘Just keep being aggressive.’ Same thing with RJ,” Love reported. “I was getting great shots, they just weren’t falling but in the second half I kept my aggression. Bron was finding me quite a bit, a lot of great looks, and I was able to convert.”

On defense the Cavs brought great energy and even when they did get beat, quickly recovered, as on this Thompson block of the Sefolosha layup off a quick pass from a blanketed Korver.
The key for the Cavs early on was the terrific passing. Sixteen of their twenty first half buckets were assisted. J.R. Smith and Matthew Dellavedova both had three and LeBron James had five. The ball moved and they shot out to a 30-19 lead.

Richard Jefferson came in to replace Iman Shumpert when he picked up his second foul late in the first and gave the team some great moments with LeBron leading the second squad during the second quarter. He drained two triples and had a fastbreak score off a beautiful James bounce pass from the other side of the floor at halfcourt.
They held the Hawks to 4-15 (1-8 from 3), but they got eight free throws to stay in the game. Both teams seemed to run out of energy to close out the second, and they played more or less to a draw until halftime, with the Cavaliers holding a 51-41 lead.

As we noted earlier, one of the keys was neutralizing Korver. This involved switching the coverage between LeBron and Smith when Korver ran his baseline screens to get open.
This is a case where Smith got probably too much credit, and the scheme too little but he was good. Similarly we heard a lot of people talking about Tristan Thompson’s seven offensive rebounds, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Milsap had eight.

The Hawks actually finished with significantly more offensive boards than the Cavaliers (15-10), though to be fair that advantage was accrued in the first half, as the second half was more or less even on the boards (6 orb/18 drb vs. 7/19).

The Cavaliers came out of the locker room strong, and raced to 72-54 lead before losing their way a bit during the last four minutes of the third. The Hawks hit a few shots and gained momentum with each possession.

“They made some shots. Mike Scott made a three right in front of Kevin and Schroder made a 3,” Lue said. “That got their confidence up.”
“We as a group have to do a little better job of maintaining during those runs,” said Jefferson. “We did not do a good job, and as you go along, each game and each series, it only gets more difficult.”

“Coach Lue stayed on us, he said, ‘It’s okay. They’re making shots. Let’s just try to execute and stop turning the ball over and get back in the game and finish it off the right way,” James said on the court immediately after the game. “I had a couple turnovers that led to some of their runs and I just had to make some plays for my team.”

Kyrie’s Coming Out

With each game it’s becoming more apparent that the Cavaliers primary scoring threat isn’t so much LeBron anymore as it is Irving. Certainly LeBron is still the straw that stirs the drink, but when it comes to tickling the strings, Irving seems to increasingly be the unstoppable force.

They Hawks have been lying back on Irving’s pick and rolls, willing to let him feast on midrange jump shots, which seems a pretty reliable way to die in the scheme of things, sprinkled with some catch-and-shoot 3s from good ball movement.

In the fourth quarter, when the Hawks were taking it to the Cavs, Kyrie responded with three consecutive baskets, an oasis of scoring in the Sahara of the fourth quarter. Those were the team’s only hoops between Shumpert’s layup to start the period and J.R. Smith’s crucial three.

These three plays by Kyrie were the only things staving off an epic drought that would’ve cost the Cavs homecourt advantage.
“We got some big possessions that got us the lead and created that separation that we needed, everyone calmed down, we got into our comfort zone,” said Kyrie. “Me and Bron ran the pick and roll as we normally do to end the game, got great possessions and got to the FT line."

Kyrie had more to say about the James/Irving pick-and-roll, which the Hawks did a better job of defending in the second half.

“I have to take a personal challenge to set a better screen especially in the fourth quarter to give him better angles going downhill so we can create that separation,” Irving said. “So I have to take it upon myself, especially coming off these pick and rolls, they’re kind of icing in-between and dropping the pick and roll, we’ll see where we can get better, I already see some of it, I already have ideas.”

Aside from Kyrie’s offense, he helped the Cavaliers change up their coverage on Dennis Schroder, coming over the top of the pick rather than going under as you saw in the earlier footage. Notice Irving fights over top on the pick and this leaves Schroder to attack the basket or pull-up, neither of which he’s able to do in crunch time, surrendering the ball to LeBron for his fifth turnover.
(It’s worth noting because of the bad rep that the aforementioned Schroder buckets largely occurred while Shumpert was guarding him, continuing a playoffs of substandard D – teams are shooting nearly 60% against him.)
But in the end it basically came down to someone hitting a sick contested three in the way that only J.R. Smith can. For the game he was 4-8, missing 4 uncontested shots and making all four contested threes, as is his weird way. None were bigger than this.

The King Still Reigns

We haven’t said too much about LeBron James. He was mostly a model of consistency. Sure, he missed a couple shots right at the rim, but he was fouled pretty badly both times without a call. The latter featured an inadvertent Horford elbow to the skull, which was enough to warrant a Flagrant One against J.R. Smith in a similar situation.

But when he had to, he put this one in, giving the Cavs a six-point lead.
LeBron is shooting free throws at a historically low rate, about one for every 7 shots (.162) in the playoffs, which is more than half his regular season rate (.347) which was already nearly 20% lower than his career rate (.422). Not sure what else there is to say other than to note that James is taking 44% of his shots from within 3’, a smidge lower than his season rate (.46) which was 15% higher than his previous high (.4) his last year in Miami.

Why isn’t James getting calls? No idea. But it’s real, and it’s even worse than it was in the regular season, when it already seemed unfair. Now it’s enough to inspire conspiracy theories.

LeBron is shooting it where he needs to, getting high efficiency shots. He had nine assists to go with a team leading 25 points on a fairly efficient 21 shots. (He’ll only become truly efficient when he starts drawing foul shots again.) But again where we saw James make his biggest contributions weren’t on offense.

His defensive intensity has fueled the team on that side of the floor. We suspect that whether Lue and James have talked about it or not, the goal until the NBA Finals is for James to facilitate on offense and let Love, Irving and Smith carry much of the offensive load so that James can focus on defense. He had 5 steals, personally accounting for almost half the Hawks 12 turnovers, which the Cavs turned into 12 points.

It just seems watching your leader go all out on defense gets the team going, and when the defense sparks the offense everything flows and the ball moves quite nicely

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers held court despite an eight-day layoff that had them feeling rusty, if not necessarily looking so rusty in the first half. Indeed, the real culprit seemed to be the fact that like a bored cat, the Cavaliers can’t bring themselves to kill the mouse, preferring to bat it around, in the process giving it an opportunity to escape.

The Wine and Gold almost squirreled away a victory, and should come better focused Wednesday. That was probably the Hawks best opportunity for a road win. If we were them, we’d concentrate our mental energy on holding serve at home.

Horford was will handled all night by a combination of Love and Thompson. The Cavs just seem to matchup well with the Hawks, and their hoverboard riding long distance artillery piece is a lot more versatile.

Despite a strong system, good coaching and decent talent, it still appears the Hawks can’t beat the Cavaliers. Their best hope lies in getting the Cavaliers to beat themselves.

The squad’s eight turnovers are a good sign, but the Cavs wil need to maintain it, while improving their showing on the boards. The Hawks outboarded Cleveland by five — all of that on the offensive end. The Cavs will need to turn that back around. Winning the rebounding battle was a key part of their sweep last year.

In the end, it all went according to plan, with the Big 3 carrying the day and the supporting cast doing enough of the little things to get by.

“When things get hard we have to come together even more and down the stretch Kevin was 4-17 but he stayed with it but he and LeBron and Kyrie stepped up at the end of the game," said Lue. "They made plays for us and that’s the kind of team we have and what they do for us.”

Look for a story tomorrow, between games, where we’ll throw together some loose series/Cavs information behind a feature on the statistical measure ESPN loves but which has some serious statistical flaws, Real Plus Minus.

If you’ve been bugged at how guys who share the floor with superstars benefit from the afterglow, and aren’t as good as their appear (we’re looking at you Draymond Green), than you need to learn about multicollinearity and the many failings of Real and Real Adjusted Plus Minus. That will run Tuesday morning. (We'll be trying to run more stories between games this series.)

On Wednesday we’ll be at the Q for Game Two of the series with the Hawks. We’ll be posting video, analysis and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame Thursday morning here in the Scene & Heard section.