You can’t afford to take anything for granted in the NBA. Fortune’s often little more than a one-night stand or a weekend fling if you’re lucky. One moment you’re the greatest three-point shooting team in a four-game series, the next moment you’re unrepentant chuckers who can’t play defense when their shot isn’t falling, losing to Toronto 105-99.
Labeled as “frontrunners” by Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll after Game 1, the Cavaliers played the part during their time in Toronto. They gave every indication of overlooking the Raptors, showing the same blend of overconfidence and tentativeness that would occasionally undo them during the regular season.
For the last month, we’ve seen their focused side, but for the last two games the Cavaliers have come out like they’d rather remain closeted. They’ve gotten off to flat starts in both games, but battled back and entered the second quarter down 27-24. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
During the two games in Cleveland the Wine and Gold outscored the Raptors 65-36 in the second. The second quarters at Air Canada they’ve been beaten 63-40, which is more than the margin they’ve lost both games.
As we noted in yesterday’s column on LeBron’s foul-drawing ability
, Lue made a note of how important it is to physically get into the other team and be the one that initiates contact, not respond to it. (Because the responder is almost always the one that gets caught.)
“[It's about] hitting first and not retaliating,” Lue said during the off day. “I think when you come out and play aggressive and when you play physical, you tend to get more calls. I think the referees lean that way, and that’s what they did last night. They brought the physicality to the game and we retaliated all night.”
He didn’t feel that’s what he got from his team last night.
“At the start of the game they hit us first,” he said. “Late in the third quarter we got aggressive started blitzing the pick and roll and just [just kept] having trouble guarding the point of entry, them attacking us one-on-one and having to sit-down and take on the challenge one-on-one.”
For the fourth straight game, the team enabled DeMar DeRozan to go off. To be sure, the Raptors ran multiple screens and pick and rolls to isolate DeRozan. In the very beginning of the game, anytime LeBron wound up switched off of him and DeRozan would score with relative ease. This helped get him going.
When LeBron didn't get waylaid by screens or wasn't forced to switch in pick and rolls, he was a fine defender on DeRozan, but it's difficult keeping LeBron on him.
Part of the issue is that after pulling back into the game, Coach Tyronn Lue went away from what had been their typical strategy of pulling LeBron and letting Kyrie and Love close the quarter. Instead LeBron played 14+ straight minutes to start the game.
We’re not sure if that disruption is responsible for what followed, but after starting the game 3-11 from three and 5-8 from inside the arc, they proceeded to take a lot more of threes. They missed 7 straight threes, their only basket a Kryie layup off an offensive rebound that was cleared to him at the arc.
Many protested on our Twitter feed that these were open shots. And they were, in the beginning, but as they shot more and more, the quality declined as well. Dribble pull-ups by Shumpert and Delly often came late in the clock, but that hardly makes them much more palatable.
Here are most of the 23 threes the Cavs took in the first half, and judge for yourself how open they are. Could they not have attacked the basket? On several occasions there is a Cav in front of the basket, but instead dishes it to a three shooter. At some point isn’t it better to take the layup? Or at least force the issue?
Last night the Cavaliers became the first team to shoot more than 40 threes in consecutive games. (They made 13 for a 32% rate.) On a similar note, after winning the paint battle in Cleveland 106-64, they lost it in Toronto 80-56 (also larger than the combined margin of defeat.)
This is not a live-or-die-by-the-three team. If the three isn’t falling, it’s absolutely essentially they do something about it, by driving to the hole and drawing contact.
“At the end of the day you can’t just stand out there and start jacking,” said Channing Frye. “For us we have to establish and continue to attack the rack, not just settle for the three-ball and make sure we get into the bonus and get to the line.”
Though the Cavs got rolling in the middle of the second, making 6 of 9 shots, they couldn’t stop the Raptors who made 9 of 11 during the stretch to push the lead to 12, and then closed the quarter with a 6-2 run as the Cavs went 0-5 to end the half.
While the tendency might be to blame Kyrie for Lowry’s 20 first half points, Irving wasn’t on him for most of those points. Even Shumpert who was on Lowry for at least two of his four first half threes, can’t be blamed since three of them came 3’-5’ past the arc, in Steph Curry area.
“They put it on us good in the second quarter,” said James. “Kyle hit some huge shots in that second quarter. DeRozan hit some big shots… obviously 30-17 is not a good ingredient for a win.”
Just like Game 3, the Cavaliers made a valiant effort in the second half, playing the kind of defense in the third quarter they need to play all game. The Cavaliers outrebounded the Raptors 13-6, and outscored them 28-21, thanks to the 3-ball (6-9) and better ball movement. They had 7 assists in the third quarter, nearly as many as they did in the whole first half (8), as the starters played the entire quarter.
“I feel like we slowed them down in the second half and made them a little more tentative. I feel better about the second half and about us outscoring them, playing some great defense, especially with our second unit,” said Irving. “What it boils down to is we have to lock in on that weakside, when they’re doubling myself and LeBron and we all have to be ready to shoot, and to make that extra pass, and we’ll be fine.”
In the fourth, the Cavaliers took the lead for the first time 84-83, as Dellavedova ran the offense skillfully and the Cavaliers scored their first 12 possessions of the fourth quarter, highlighted by three consecutive Channing Frye threes and three layups/dunks, two by Richard Jefferson.
The only problem was they couldn’t stop the Raptors either. Toronto was 10-15 in the final quarter and 7-12 from the line.
“We kept going back and forth,” said Frye. “Give them credit. We were making dunks and layups and wide open corner threes and they’re making floaters and hard contested twos. They established their pace and continued to do what they wanted to do. We finally got a little bit of mojo, and then we had to be perfect. They hit some big shots had some balls that went their way. It is what it is.”
In the second half, the Raptors shot 19 free throws to the Cavaliers 2. This included 10 in the final 4:50, when they went on an 11-3 run to close out the game. Even though the Raptors didn’t get a single free throw in the first half, they kept taking it to the hole, breaking down the point-of-entry. In the end if paid off.
Looking at their second half shot chart you can see they got the type of shots you want, and the Cavs didn’t do enough to push them away from the basket.
“We kept being aggressive and driving to the basket as they were, and creating contact and that was something we wanted to do, make sure we attacked the paint and attacked their feet and our guys accomplished that,” Raptors Coach Dwayne Casey said.
One day after receiving a $25,000 fine for comments made about the referring after their Game 3 victory, Casey got calls going his way at a crucial time. However it’s important to note a lot of that isn’t on the refs so much as the Cavaliers lack of aggression on offense.
For large swaths of the game they relied on the three, and didn’t explore other, more reliable scoring strategies quickly enough. After getting to the rim 56 times (making 30) in the first two games, they’ve gotten there 45 time the last two (making 22).
In the end, the Cavaliers couldn’t stop the two-man game between DeRozan and Lowry down the stretch. They were only 2-4 from the field but both were big, and the 10 free throws didn’t hurt. But the real culprit was that the Cavs couldn’t make a shot, going 1-9 the final four minutes, 7 of those shots from 3.
“We came back we were in control of the game we were up 2 points and we just made some defensive mistakes,” said Lue. “We had a few defensive breakdowns you can’t have down the stretch of games especially in the playoffs and they executed every time we made a mistake.”
On a certain level you just have to take your hat off to Lowry and DeRozan. They were pretty well contested all night. But hitting midrange jumpers is what he does, and that’s sort of what Ty Lue’s defense is built to give players. In the end, the pair was 21-30 on contested shots and just 7-13 on uncontested ones.
If you’re looking for a bright spot, consider that nearly two-thirds of the Raptors shots last night were contested and they made 63% of them. (Oddly, last night they made just 10-27, 37% of their uncontested shots.) After getting clobbered on the boards in Game 3 and beat 22-16 in the first half, they won the boards 22-13 in the second half.
The Cavs scored 58 points in the second half, shot 10-20 from 3 and 23-43 overall, but dug themselves too big a whole to climb out, especially given the talent of DeRozan and Lowry who have a J.R. Smith-like ability to make it even in the face of terrific contests. The Cavs are hoping that can’t continue.
(We want to say as an aside that while making half your threes is great, what isn’t factored is that you’re not getting to the line, and the Cavs only had 2 free throws in the second half. Also some of those long rebounds turned into transition and early offense the other way.)
There were a number of odd things going on, mostly Lue’s decision to play the starters the entire third and LeBron the entire first. The former went well, as the reserves led the comeback, while the latter failed. The Cavs simply must find the answer to that second quarter, and make sure it works in Game 6.
Delly got a bit more time, and looked a lot better in the second half after having some defensive struggles staying in front of Lowry in the first half. We remain surprised that Shumpert isn’t making more of a difference. He’s averaging more than 17 minutes in 12 playoff contests but only has 8 steals. The Cavs could really use his disruptive presence, especially at the point-of-entry (where the ballhandler initiates the offense).
While Jonas Valanciunas was available, Casey opted to stick with what’s worked so well in Toronto and buy his seven-footer another couple days of rest. We expect to see him as their secret weapon in Game 5. His size adds another wrinkle. Similarly, we wonder if Lue might be considering Timofey Mozgov yet.
Defenders are sagging badly off Thompson, which hinders the offensive flow, but on defense Channing Frye can’t offer the same defense of penetrators and neither is a rim protector. That complicates life greatly. On the other hand, with the exception of Lowry, Toronto isn't much of a three-point shooting threat.
Mozgov can potentially cut down on penetration and is a bit more of an offensive threat, though not as good in the pick-and-roll as Thompson. However, Tristan only occasionally runs the Pick-and-roll anymore, with most of the screening done these days by one of the Big Three in order to get a mismatch or an untethered roll to the basket (example from last night below, without further comment).
It’s also worth noting that Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter for the second straight game. Can Ty Lue be going through the same cycles of affection, frustration and disdain that Blatt seemingly endured? We don’t think so. Lue is a big supporter and he needs a confident Love.
On the other hand, Frye may be nearly as useful when Love’s not as mentally engaged. We didn’t see any big defensive miscues, but when he’s not scoring his rebounding doesn’t compensate for the defensive challenges. Love also twisted his ankle late in the third and didn't return, though judging from Lue's comments, he could've returned.
"Putting him in with 4 minutes left in a hostile environment isn’t fair to him," Lue said. "Channing gave us a great lit off the bench and we just kind of rolled with it."
Most of us thought the Cavaliers had matured out of their maddening loss of focus and intensity, but it’s one of their character flaws and we should’ve known it’d rear its head again. Every person and team is flawed in some way; it’s a matter of minimizing the complications.
When team members fulfill their roles many flaws can be disguised like with foundation and blush. When guys fail to perform, the chain breaks and everyone looks complicit, just as the entire team looked like world beaters just four days ago. The earth is on an axis, you have to expect it will turn on you. That’s Cleveland Knowledge.
Yet we’re still pretty confident about this team. Kyrie bounced back strong from his terrible Saturday showing, with 26 points, 6 assists (but 4 turnovers, the rare blemish in that category this postseason). James, too, was efficiently amazing, putting up 29 points (11-16 FG), 9 boards (4 offensive), 6 assists and just one turnover.
While some complain that LeBron needs to take over more offensively, we like that he’s still deferring to his teammates and playing his role on this team, which is no longer primary scorer. It may yet come to that, though, and we hope that Lue is adaptable enough should we reach that point.
We’re still impressed with everything Lue has done, and have to join others in acknowledging we underestimated the Raptors grit and 56 wins, just one less than the Cavs. Lowry and DeRozan are great shooters who can get even hotter in streaks. Yet we would not be surprised if they regress South of the Border. Biyombo is another guy who plays better at home (all the more reason to start Valanciunas on Wednesday.
This is still a great team, but it still has growing to do, and perhaps these trails will prepare them for the fact that every level of the playoffs is typically more intense and harder fought. Guys like James Jones, Jefferson, Frye, and LeBron James understand this in their bones and the good performances of the latter three of late showcase that.
The fact that those three and Irving played well and it still wasn’t enough belies the simplest truth the Cavs keep missing. If Cleveland wants to win the championship, they have to make defense the focus, everything flows out of that.
When they’re making plays, they’re getting out in transition and run off rebounds. When the defense is engaged, they can survive the scoring valleys. When it’s not, they keep falling behind, press, start shooting more threes, and often dig themselves deeper.
The Cavaliers might have a well-seasoned champ in LeBron, but composure and poise under pressure comes out of a collective which is only as strong as its weakest link. Let’s hope the mounting flames burnish their steel and don't melt their brains.
We’ll be at the Q for Game 5 on Wednesday. We’ll be posting video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and read out postgame analysis on Thursday morning, here in the Scene and Heard section.