Cavaliers’ Best Defense A Good Offense Against Leaky Lakers

The Cavaliers beat the Los Angeles Lakers last night without really trying, much as they beat the Sacramento Kings on Monday. It was a very California few days, where everyone could hang loose, listen to Sublime and sharpen their mustaches without much worry. The Kings and Lakers are so lousy they’d have difficulty beating an egg.

Three victories after the crushing losing to the Celtics at home, the Cavaliers don’t look a whole lot better. There are definitely moments, particularly in the first quarter, where they move the ball and look for each other, but once the team’s up 12-15 points, it turns into recess. They have the talent to score sixty points by half most games but lack the focus and discipline to play with proper intent and intensity for much longer than that.

It’s not just us who feel this way.

“I don’t think we take it seriously all the time,” said coach Tyronn Lue. “I think we get up and the new make the fancy pass or take a bad shot and the score’s gone from 20 to 12. We have to be more professional in what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to build better habits and build something here so guys have to be better.”

On at least two occasions in the first 30 minutes of the game, the team went three consecutive possessions with no one seeing the ball other than the player who brought it across half-court. Introducing the Oklahoma Thunder of the East: LeBron James and Kryie Irving. Of course the Thunder haven’t won shit, and the way the Cavs are playing, neither will they.

That’s just honesty folks. There’s still plenty of time for them to turn it around. They do it in spurts, and perhaps they’ll find consistency yet. There are still thirty more games of pre-season before the playoffs start and the games start to really count. The Cavs seem confident they’ll flip the switch when that time comes, in the meantime, they’re gonna have their fun.

Who can blame them? LeBron James scored 29 on 12-22 shooting, while Kryie had one of those nights where he was scoring like Stephen Sondheim. Irving made 15-24, including 3-6 from the arc for 35 points. The Lakers defensive vigilance suggested narcolepsy posing little resistance to Irving and James who also racked up 18 of the team’s 26 assists.

Tristan Thompson was a perfect 6-6 from the field and 3-3 from the line, but nobody else scored in double figures, or even reach double figures in shot attempts. That’s partly because Kevin Love suffered a shoulder injury and left late in the second quarter. (It’s said to be a simple stinger, and isn’t expected to cost him any games.)

Despite the respectable 26 assists on 48 baskets, many were to each other, or of the one pass variety which is not indicative the below average to mediocre ball movement. The Cavs had just 2 secondary assists (the pass that comes before the assisting pass), and for the team’s passes/touches was 67.8%, one of the season’s five lowest rates, three of which have come in the last five games. So much for building good habits.

It’s a bummer to continually be hammering the team for ball movement, but it’s pretty obvious to anyone who knows basketball what this team lacks. (When asked after the game, Kobe said this team has the talent to win it all, what they lack: “ball movement.”) Give Coach Lue credit, he doesn’t cover for their failure to play right.

“I like how we started the game, I didn’t like how we finished the game,” Lue said afterwards. “I thought we took our foot off the gas, and started messing around a lot on the floor. They came back and hit some threes.”

Coach Lue saw need for plenty of improvement. Obviously when you allow the Lakers to score 64 second-half points something is not working. In the second half the team seems to lose their tempo for one thing.

“We haven’t pushed the tempo. They made 13-28 threes, when we’ve been doing a great job of defending the three,” Lue said. “When teams make that many threes it’s tough to pull away. Defensively we have to get better.”

But we also found out there’s another reason why the team doesn’t run the offense. Some of them don’t know it.

“Offensively we have to learn the plays. I called sets 6-7 times and guys were lost. Didn’t know what we were running,” Lue said. “A few of the players didn’t know what we were running, at times, so we have to continue to pick up the offense.”

Offered a chance to blame the issue on the lack of practice, Lue didn’t take the proffered excuse. “We can’t keep blaming it on that,” he said. “At some point we have to pick it up.”

Yup. It seems the team’s a little Van Wilder when we need Deadpool.

The Game

The big difference between the Lue-led Cavaliers and the Blatt-led team is that they come out much hotter in the first six minutes. The decision to run seems to kickstart the offense which runs at pretty high efficiency in the early going. That’s how the Wine and Gold jumped out to a 29-12 lead with four minutes left.

At that point the Cavaliers were awesome, and the Lakers their usual wretched-defense selves. (Los Angeles has the league’s worse defensive efficiency and worst net differential at -10.8 pts/100 possessions.) The Cavs made 12 of their first 18 shots and seven of them were layups or dunks.

They had another stretch in the third quarter where six buckets in a row came at the rim. (They missed shots in between, but the made shots were all layups or dunks.) At the end of that stretch the Cavaliers were up 22.

In both cases it was followed by a stretch, where the team lost focus and let Los Angeles climb back into the game. They were outscored 21-9 over the last four minutes of the first and first three minutes of the second. (The Cavs closed the half with an 18-7 run to take a 17 point lead.)

Leading 19 going into the fourth, the Lakers went on a 21-11 run in just six and a half minutes, culminating with a Bryant four-point play. The Cavs kept them from pulling any closer, but it wasn’t with their defense. The Lakers just couldn’t get stops so it didn’t matter that the Cavs didn’t. The Cavs shot 58% for the quarter, the Lakers 60% as they put up 37 points.

That’s a fairly embarrassing amount.

Lue’s Numbers

In the 11 games since taking over, the Cavaliers are averaging 111.6, six points more (per 100 possessions) than under Blatt. Lue’s got them making three less turnovers (per 100 possessions) and shooting 53.3% effective FG (eFG, which accounts for 3 pointers’ great value) versus 51.3% under Blatt.

However on defense the Cavaliers are surrendering 6.2 more points. The team’s gone from allowing 48.8% eFG and forcing 14.3 turnovers, to allowing 49.7% eFG and forcing 13.1 turnovers. Meanwhile, attempting to run has hurt the Cavs on the defensive boards where they’ve gone from the third stingiest in allowing offensive boards (20.5% of chances) to being ninth-most generous (24.9%).

Lue said last week that he couldn’t tell if the energy to play at the higher pace had come at the expense of defensive intensity or if it was just general backsliding.

Whatever the cause, the results are clear enough. The Cavaliers have become more efficient offensively, creating more opportunities and scoring more often on them. However, they’re giving away more opportunities than before as well on turnovers and opponent's offensive boards.

The Cavs have been shooting more threes (28.7 to 28.2), and sort of as a result are taking less free throws. Their free throw rate under Blatt (.272) had them 16th in the league. Under Lue that’s dropped (.232) to the third-lowest rate in the league. Less free throws also means more shots, but probably not more points, since free throws are the most efficient shot of all. (One would have to shoot 50% on threes to equal return of average – 75% –free throw shooter taking two.)

This is all sort of a reminder that basketball is a game of trade-offs. The looser, uptempo style tends to produce more threes and mid range jump shots, somewhat less shots at the rim. Indeed, under Lue the Cavs are taking 23.8 shots in the restricted area, and 23.1 in the midrange. Under Blatt the numbers were 25.4 and 17.7.

It’s a little shocking. Cavs are taking 5 more midrange shots under Lue than Blatt, and hitting 43% of them, while under Blatt they were only hitting 40.5%. Another sign of Lue’s superior offense is the number of open or wide-open shots. It’s increased by around 15% under the new coach.

Blatt’s team was getting 16.1 wide-open shots and 23.4 open shots game. Under Lue that’s jumped to 18.4 and 27.3. That’s good enough for fourth and second in the NBA during that 11-game stretch.

Tristan, Mozgov, Varejao & Rim Protection

Tristan Thompson showcased some improved passing last night. He racked up four assists with a couple of pretty feeds to a cutting LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. We checked and he had a five-assist game earlier this year against the Hawks and two years ago against the Thunder. But they’re rare enough. It’s a terrific thing to see because teams really collapse on him, not expecting him to find the cutter as he does here.
Timofey Mozgov didn’t play almost at all in the first quarter, as Anderson Varejao took his minutes. He did a fine defensive job, allowing but one of five shots at the rim. The rest of the Cavs were 13-17 which should give pause to everyone wanting to ship Timo out of town. Varejao allowed 4-4 at the rim and for the season he’s allowing 58%.

Since more-or-less taking over the starting job from Mozgov, Thompson is allowing 57.1% at the rim. Meanwhile coming off the bench seems to have hurt Mozgov as well, who since December 28 is allowing 53.6%. Prior to that point, Mozgov was allowing 43% at the rim and Thompson 45.1%.

The regression of both calls into question whether it’s as simple as plugging Timo back in. Remember that this regression also tracks to Kyrie coming back and replacing many of Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes. But it’s a worrisome trend nonetheless.

Varejao saw over 18 minutes, just about as much time as Mozgov. Strangely it was Wild Thing with two turnovers (though Mozgov let a rebound pass through his boat oars). On the other hand, Mozgov finished all three of his shots at the rim and grabbed five boards. Varejao had six boards, three of them offensive.

Both probably saw more time than they would’ve because of Love’s injury. Neither looked amazing and perhaps this is the new normal, with Mozgov and Varejao splitting time and being spotted based on matchups. Each does bring something special, though for our money, the troubles the team’s had with penetration demand more of a presence at the rim.

(As a final aside, we keep hearing about how slow Mozgov is. We know a lot of this is just angry hyperbole, but it’s worth noting that Timo moved up and down the court faster than anyone on the team. Since the new year began he’s the 8th fastest player over 6’10, with Donatas Montejunas and Frank Kaminsky.)

Final Analysis

Listen, the team is only going to be able to do so much ball movement since the Cavs’ two best players are ball dominant penetrators who live to go downhill. They have a tendency to be a bit single-minded in that approach, particularly Kyrie.

Tyronn Lue will have to shoulder some of the blame for telling Kyrie to attack and essentially enabling his inner-Westbrook when we might be better served with a bit more Isiah Thomas. (Another player who struggled to subjugate his own skills and absurd handle to serve his ‘mates.)

While there’s no doubt the team has to do better at ball movement, there will be a limit – we aren’t anywhere near there yet. Let something like 71-72% of their touches turn into passes and we’ll talk.

It’s just common sense. When guys play hard defense then run down on offense, never touch the ball, but again must retreat again on defense, for several possessions, to some guys (see, Kevin Love) that can be demoralizing. Similarly to see the guys dominating the offensive side fail to put in enough defensively is probably a tad galling.

The crux of the problem is the team still has the same three central issues that dogged Blatt.

(1) The offense is often an afterthought to random 1-on-1 and pick-and-roll action. While such stuff is fine balanced by offensive sets, it’s apparent the Cavs don’t even know the sets enough not to get lost out there. Same thing with ball movement.

(2) Describing the team’s defensive effort and intensity as intermittent is generous. While seemingly capable, they only occasionally keep their hands up and in the passing lanes to create deflections. When up double figures, they may take a few possessions off. Penetration is also a trouble, as guys like Mo and Kyrie spend more times trapped on screens than your average house fly.

(3) Shot selection like defensive effort seems to be inversely proportional to the lead. Bigger the lead, the more they’ll settle, particularly for threes early in the clock. While Lue’s uptempo mandate has undoubtedly improved the offensive results, we remain worried that it will lower the good shot threshold too much. An open three is probably not as good a shot for many on this team as a cutting player going to the rim.

It’s undeniable that we’re quibbling. Blame David Griffin for setting the bar as “pretty good is not good enough.” We agree, and see their current play as being insufficient to beat the best in the east as Boston recently showed. We’ll see how things go in Toronto after the break.

We appreciate Lue’s attempts to loosen the shackles on James and Irving. So far so good. Irving looks like he’s completely back, and since taking over, James seems to have made it his mission to be much more of a facilitator in the first half.

But it’s hard to get too excited about offensive advance when it’s accompanied by such dramatic defensive backsliding. Meanwhile the team can’t shake its tendency to revert to bad habits when pushed, and can’t even maintain good habits in good times. That might be good enough for the Eastern Conference (maybe) but it won’t be against whichever historically great team comes out of the West.

In the end that’s all that really matters. As the Cavs learned last year, nobody gives a shit about second place.

We’re going to enjoy our break and write a number of cover stories on medical issues for alt-weeklies in Minnesota and Arizona. We also have a story coming out in the Guardian next week on the endurance of the much-maligned midrange jumper.

We’ll be back at the Q a week from today, on Thursday for the return from the all-star break against the Chicago Bulls who’ve been reeling of late, losing 14 of their last 19. Jimmy Butler will still be out, giving the Cavaliers a big advantage. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne during the game and read our postgame analysis Friday morning in the Scene and Heard Blog.
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