Atlanta Hawks Turn Back LeBron-Less Cavs 109-101

The Cavaliers should see if Cedar Point would be interested in a sponsorship because their play is nothing but a rollercoaster ride of mismatched intensity and defensive effort, offensive brilliance and ball-stopping indolence. It’s up and down to be sure, and last night they finished down, losing to the Atlanta Hawks 109-101 in a game where Shawn Marion (ankle) and LeBron James (sore knee) sat.

Though shorthanded and absolutely wretched during one seven minute stretch (from 3:45 left in the second to 8:30 left in the third) during which they were outscored 27-9, the Cavaliers showed the moxie to battle back and close the game to a two-point deficit at 95-93 with just under five minutes left.

Even minus four key players (the aforementioned plus Varejao and Love, who would depart mid-game), they staged an improbable comeback built on solid defense and Kyrie Irving’s terrific pick and rolls with Tristan Thompson.

However in a familiar storyline, the Cavs had no answer for the Hawks’ pick and roll of Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap down the stretch. During the last five minutes, they made five of their six shots and four of four free throws, as they outscored the Cavs’ duo 14-8.

Kevin Love left the game late in the third with back spasms and did not return. He was probably happy to be done with a game where he had nothing going. Coming on the heels of a 20 pt, 10 rebound performances Sunday in the loss to the Pistons, Love’s 7 point (1-7 FG, 4-4 FT) 7 board, 2 steal performance is a tad disappointing, especially as the team made a concerted effort to get Love the ball in the post.

Whether it was the unfamiliarity of this situation in a season where Love’s spent much of his time around the thee-point line, or whether his back was the problem, he looked out of sorts. The Hawks collapsed aggressively on Love, but he didn’t find the outside shooters like you’d expect.

While this is supremely frustrating, it’s hard not to see the offensive dysfunction as a product of the team’s many new pieces and new coach. Blatt’s rotations have been unpredictable at times as he searches for combinations that will work together and negotiates the injuries that come with having a bunch of older players like Shawn Marion, Anderson Varejao, Mike Miller, and, yes, LeBron James, who turned thirty last night in street clothes.

While it would be nice to see LeBron out there competing and building chemistry with his teammates, he can’t hustle or play defense for them. Indeed, oftentimes on offense the ball stops moving as the Cavs fall into one-on-one play. That’s a continuing plot, because the Cavs’ best players excel in isolation and pick-and-roll, as opposed to the ball movement kind of offense Hawks coach/former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has installed. (It’s worth noting that he reverted to pick-and-roll offense at the end of the game.)

Irving finished with 35 points (13-27 from the field) and 9 assists, but also 8 turnovers, including a couple fumbles and a couple turnovers trying to split the double-team. Thompson had 18 points and 13 boards and looked good down the stretch, though it remains unclear at his size whether he can be a full-time starting center. We’ll certainly see.

During the first quarter, after falling behind 12-5, the Cavs started moving the ball and finding open players. It certainly didn’t hurt that Kyrie brought the hustle. He scored his career-first 4-pt play and found Thompson from his knees, then got up and put in the put back and one, for seven quick points.

But it didn’t last. The team’s playing minus three players, and while that led to some musty bench denizens showing up (Joe Harris 13 points, three 3s, 4 boards, 2 assists), it also led to some bad defensive rotations. Here James Jones is slow to react on the pick and roll leaving Millsap loose for an easy hoop

Of course, the typical Cavalier problems also showed up, such as bad transition defense, as the Hawks beat the Cavs up the court on made baskets and found trailers like Kyle Korver (19 points, 5-8 from 3, 8 boards) for open triples.

There is no way a team should beat you with a full-court pass on a made basket – players need to lift their heads and arms, but the Cavs too often change from offense to defense like they’re going home from work, loosening the tie and smoothing their mustache.

A lot of these things are inter-related, producing negative feedback loops. Last night the team committed 20 turnovers (8 in the second quarter alone) that the Hawks turned into an extraordinary 31 points. It’s not that they’re so great in the halfcourt D, but it beats the hell out of their transition D. However, the transition D is probably the easier to fix, since it merely requires great focus and individual attention. The halfcourt D suffers from a lack of defensive talent and experience.

It’s easily forgotten that when Boston and Miami assembled their Big Threes, it was with players that had been through the wars already and seen the playoffs. The Cavs core outside LeBron have never played winning NBA basketball. While it’s repeated more than a GEICO commercial, the truth is that this team has a lot of learning to do about how to play, and while some of that is David Blatt’s responsibility, you can’t make them drink the Kool-Aid, all you can do is show them the jug.

Of course, the media needs scapegoats because they print every day, so a couple weeks after the Cavs were on an eight-game win streak and looked great, Blatt’s allegedly lost the team and is battling for his job. Hey, I’m not “hooked-in,” but this sounds like a whole lotta of “whatever” to me. Bringing together all these disparate parts takes time and it isn’t any easier when people are going in and out of the lineup.

That said, the Cavaliers concerns shouldn’t be the immediate future so much as April and making sure that everyone’s healthy and on the same page by then. That’s still four months from now, and there will undoubtedly be a few new pieces by then. James Jones played his best game as a Cav, adding three steals and two blocks to three three-pointers. Harris also performed well.

The bench showed some real spark, though it still looks a little thin, and one wonders how long you can start Miller if he’s not going to take any shots. (One shot in the 30 minutes the last two games???) He is a good passer and has made nice rotations since being inserted into the starting lineup, but it’s hard not to feel they need more of a threat there. Harris could fit, but that’s an awful lot to ask a rookie.

Dellevadova too has showed some cracks in greater playing time, committing numerous mental mistakes against the Hawks. On a couple occasions he left his feet when he didn’t have a shot or a pass, resulting in a turnover. He fouled jump shooters, falling for the pump fake late in the play clock. He also didn’t look very effective stopping the Hawks’ Teague off the bounce.

Dion was in trick not treat mode (3-10, 4 TOs) last night, making some truly boneheaded passes, being a little too aggressive looking for his shot, and fouling jump shooters taking 3s. All in all, it’s easy on nights like this to see where Dion’s departure could be addition by subtraction so long as you could find a more limited 3pt shooting off-guard with greater experience/maturity to take his place (they aren’t THAT hard to find).

On the bright side, the team didn’t give up. They scrapped and hustled back from a 17 point deficit to close it to two on a day where they were making turnovers and Tristan missed all five of his foul shots. Jones and Harris stepped up and Thompson continues to improve rolling to the basket and making alley-oops and put backs. It’s a work-in-progress, that doesn’t always yield immediate, readily apparent results.

The Hawks have had a lot more time together than the Cavs and took the Pacers to 7 games in the first round last year. They’re a lot further ahead than Cleveland in togetherness, but not talent. It’s merely a matter of the Cavs bringing the same intensity for 48 minutes, because the lapses are what are killing them.

Tonight they’re at home against Milwaukee, who new coach Jason Kidd has playing very well. They were here 4 weeks ago and pushed the Cavs to the limit losing, 111-108. They had the luxury of the night off, which will help against the undermanned Cavaliers. They beat Charlotte in OT, 104-94, on Monday, but had lost 4 of 6 before that. This will be a real test for the Cavaliers if they don’t show up playing hard, because the Bucks will, even with less talent. (Detecting a theme here?)

I’ll be live tweeting during the game, look for me @CRS_1ne.

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