Cavaliers Blast Nuggets and Share the Booty

click to enlarge "Now go away, or I will taunt you a second time!"
"Now go away, or I will taunt you a second time!"
Welcome to the preseason’s home stretch, a series of superficially important games that in truth pale next to hitting the playoffs healthy and with a good stride. There’s not much time for studying – which Tyronn Lue acknowledged with a couple moves we’ll discuss in a moment – because by the time you hit the 70 game mark, you are pretty much who you are.

Our lovable Screamin’ Demons drove this point home by performing a death-defying loop – surrendering a 19-point lead in just over seven minutes – before tapping the nitrous during a 68-point second half dusting that laid more rubber than Ron Jeremy. The Cavaliers shot 56% and made 15 of 31, and racked up a season-high 38 assists in a 124-91 kneecapping of the Denver Nuggets.

There were a number of notable things that occurred on the basketball court, which mostly paled next to furor over LeBron’s decision to unfollow @cavs, which had the TMZ wing of sports journalism speculating all manner of things. (What. Ev.) James’ look (inset) says it all, though it’s fair to argue that he shouldn’t be indignant, he knows how the press is. (Can’t he expect more of us? Not in this social gossip, er, media age.)

What’s interesting is that the Wine & Gold’s near-complete annihilation of the Nuggets (a few stems remained) featured a 16-3 Denver run while LeBron was off the floor and Kyrie was leading the second squad.

It followed an absolutely signature first quarter by LeBron James where he offered fans a sneak peak of Playoff LeBron. He attacked the hole with such relentlessness they should’ve renamed the lane Shawshank State Penitentiary. Gaze upon that pretty first quarter shot chart as you would a Rita Hayward poster.

So you can imagine his dismay at the mess they made after he made the bed, cleaned the dishes and mopped the floors.

“We all have to challenge ourselves. We all have to play better basketball, particularly in the second quarter” James said. “We had some lulls in the second quarter where we weren’t moving the ball as we should have and getting up and pressuring the ball defensively and so that team could get a rhythm. Those are things we need to continue to work on but I think it’s great the way we responded after that.”

How do you like the shade, Kyrie?

Kyrie’s Little Bighorn

The ineptitude was shocking (1-8, 3 turnovers, outrebounded 9-2), especially given that Irving’s floormates – Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson – are all familiar to each other. Shumpert in particular has fallen off dramatically of late. We watched in shock as he jumped into the passenger seat for this Will Barton (27 points) drive.
One thing that’s immediately apparent is that the team’s pace drops precipitously, from 98.74 overall to 93.59 for that six-minute stretch. When the team isn’t having success on offense it particularly messes with the Cavaliers defense by putting it in transition, where if they don’t yield a fastbreak, they often do a poor job of defending early offense.

“I thought we lost our pace,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “I thought we turned the ball over a lot, got them out in transition, and we also committed some dumb fouls like in the backcourt. They’re in the bonus. We got two fouls [that] gave them four easy points.”

Lue made everyone suffer through it, failing to call a timeout even as the play deteriorated and the Nuggets gained confidence. It was, after all, only the Nuggets.

“If you’re going to play bad basketball,” Lue explained, “then sometimes you need to figure it out yourself.”

After the game, Kyrie understood he needed to improve his play.

“I need to take it as a personal challenge when I come back with that second unit, just to do a better job of commanding the offense,” Irving said. “They got back in the game. We went in at halftime and make adjustments and get the lead again, so just want to stay consistent.”

LeBron & Kyrie Sitting in a Tree

We’ve been pondering Kyrie and LeBron a lot lately, as probably have a lot of Cavalier nation. At first we thought they were a little like Cain and Abel, which eventually morphed into Michael, Sonny and Fredo. (Guess which one Love is?)

It took time before we realized James and Irving aren’t brothers but mismatched buddies, not unlike Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin in Midnight Run. Sometimes there’s an impression that their behavior gets on each other’s nerves, but they’re handcuffed together and need to learn to make the best of it. Like Charles Grodin, LeBron is a smart guy who just isn’t going to stop talking.

Fact is they need each other. LeBron needs Kyrie to be a reliable scorer to relieve him of some of the burden, but he also must trust that Irving won’t use that responsibility to go Full Iverson out there. Irving just needs to keep betting better. Little allowance is being made for the fact that Irving only turns 24 this week. He’s four years younger than Curry. Chew on that a moment.

Point guards are changing as quickly as the game and what Kyrie brings offensively is exceptionally rare. If necessary, you could move him to off-guard, as the Cavs do in Delly lineups.

We think his passing will continue to improve and as we noted in our last column, Kyrie's defense, while not good, has been steadily improving and is statistically close to where he was last year this time. We still believe patience will reward the Cavs much more than an impulsive trade.

Much as we’d like to say James needs to turn down his intensity and the angry dad act, we won’t presume to know how to motivate a 23-year old superstar, and have to defer to him on that.

At least there’s comfort in the knowledge that James turns off the social media come playoff time. (This is presumably what sparked James’ unfollow, not some Stephen A. Smith-sponsored conspiracy involving aliens, Miami and a copy of the U.S. Constitution.)

Great Defense Through Better Offense

There has been a rash of articles about the Cavaliers mediocre defense in recent days, an issue we’ve been hammering for a couple weeks. The team’s been decidedly middle of the pack, after performing at a top five level under Blatt.

Blatt liked to slow things down, not giving opponents a chance to run, and forcing opponents to continually face their halfcourt defense. They can afford to slow things down and get into a grind’em out game because LeBron gives your team a good chance to score even in the final seconds of the clock. He finds open guys or can simply go hard to the hole. We saw the apotheosis of this in the NBA Finals (as well as the flaws in this strategy). 

The issue has always been for this team – and, let’s be honest, for most teams – that they don’t do well defending in transition. They aren’t particularly vigilant about stopping advancing ballhandlers before they reach the free throw line, and sometimes wind up a blob of players in the lane nobody guarding anyone in particular.

We believe Lue made a pragmatic instead of idealistic decision about the Cavs transition defense when he took over. Rather than attempt to make them better at getting back on D and locating their man, he’d reduce the issue by making the offense more efficient, limiting other teams’ opportunities to push the ball off rebounds.

“If we can score then we can force them to take the ball out and then we get our defense back,” said Channing Frye. “If you notice now, when we get easy baskets now the offense’s flowing a lot easier. ‘Okay we got three layups so now; someone’s feeling rhythm, now we get JR a shot.

“It’s really those one or two stops are getting us going. Now we feel like we can get stops, now the shots don’t really, there’s not as much pressure on us to make these shots,” Frye continues. “Now we’re feeling confident, we’re feeling good and that once we get a stop we’re going to get out and run and we can score some easy baskets.”

Without abandoning the ‘defense creates offense’ dictum that presumably was written on one of those stone tablets Moses carried around, Lue’s approach points out the two sides’ transitive qualities. Obviously good defense creates good offense, but the reverse isn’t so seen as equally obvious, though it can be.

Further, if you play at a high tempo, you force your opponent to be more efficient with their offense to be able to hang. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, they aren’t really doing a lot of that, allowing teams to shoot 50.6% EFG against them, 14th in the NBA. So opponents aren’t having much trouble hanging with the Cavs, and when they make a lot of turnovers it always seems to yield a lot of transition buckets and early offense.

“Having a good pace on offense means we’re playing good defense,” Lue explained. “That’s what we’re looking for, we get stops, we rebound the basketball, then we can get out and run and play with more pace.”

As much as Lue makes it almost sound like a reward for playing defense that’s probably intentional.

“Guys like to get up and run up the floor,” said James. “Anytime you get an opportunity to get some easy baskets it puts pressure on the defense, so for us when we’re able to set our defense in the half court situation it benefits all of us.”

Back To Basics

To answer the defensive slippage, Lue pared back some of the defensive “wrinkles” he installed when he came on. While this is easy to take as setback, we wonder if this isn’t a lot like what Blatt did to the offense after the January trade. After adopting the KISS principle, the Wine and Gold dominated, even if all they did was a glorified pick-and-roll most of the time.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the Cavaliers offense last night featured plenty of movement and less than usual pick-and-roll drives, hence the 38 assists on 48 buckets.)

“Our defense is going to get better. And I take full blame for that,” Coach Lue said before the game. “We’re trying to do some different things and now we've just got to get back to the basics and get back to our foundation.”

The eyes said that the Cavaliers did much less hedging, icing the pick-and-roll by laying in the lane and retreating, while posing a credible threat to the ballhandler until his defender can catch up. It worked pretty well, all in all, though Emmanuel Mudiay and D.J. Augustin offer as much challenge as Congress does to a bullshit detector.

Frye suggested the simpler design would ultimately help them, in a manner which undoubtedly scored some eye rolls: “The coaches have simplified our defensive principles for us, so now there’s no excuse for us not putting in the effort or saying ‘hey I didn’t know what’s going on.’”

Hands up for anyone discouraged by the fact that almost seventy games in there were guys who excused their lack of effort by blaming it on their ignorance of the scheme! We’d like to say that’s sort of unprofessional, but what we really mean is that’s not particularly championship-worthy behavior.

Then we realized we’ve watched them – play seems too strong a word for what happened in Miami – and remembered this team set a deadline of the playoffs and they’re still cramming.

While the players are still leaning on the remaining dozen games to hone their mettle (and prove it’s not tinfoil), Lue made another concession to reality that impresses us for its candor, if not its implications.

Lue announced that he would put more emphasis on rest than securing the top seed. Last year the Cavs were the second seed and wound up facing top-seed Atlanta in the Eastern Conference Finals and sweeping them. Toronto’s had the Cavaliers number for a couple years, but you’ll also remember that the Hawks smoked Cleveland during their last regular season meeting last year, and that had no bearing on how they matched up in the playoffs.

The Cavs are likely to circle the three back-to-backs they have among their final twelve beginning with Milwaukee on Wednesday and the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday.

Hopefully they’ll use the next few games against the Nets (twice), Buck and Knicks to nail down those defensive schemes and solidify the rotations. Because six of the last seven are against teams jockeying for playoff position.

The Game

Let’s be honest. The game is almost an afterthought so long as it's a victory. Other than the aforementioned skid mark in the first half of the second quarter, the Cavaliers played strong, physical basketball, made their threes, pushed the ball and moved it on offense, for almost the entire game. That’s an accomplishment in itself.

Here Mozgov got a baseline slam off some generous ball movement. (Good Mozzy showed up, offering nine points a couple nice steals and two offensive boards – four total – in 21 minutes of +26 play.)
They pushed the ball well, even proving capable of turning a backcourt inbounds play into a fastbreak opportunity for the in-bounder, LeBron, in a testament to the Nuggets serious defensive deficiencies.
Delly finished with 10 points and 7 assists, but just really seemed on point last night. He’s so reliable in running the offense and taking advantage of what’s given him. We loved this feed to LeBron under the basket from the top of the key.
On a team of inconsistent players and effort, Delly's just about the only guy you can count on playing the right way.

Final Analysis

In Saturday’s column, before the shellacking in Miami, we suggested that the team is coming around, but because it’s more like a spiral staircase than an escalator, the improvements are more difficult to track. The perspective looking down doesn’t change much until you reach the top.

That could be the Cavaliers policy going forward. The team’s clearly still got some schizophrenia, given that second quarter, and it’s difficult to judge much from a game against the Nuggets. But we are encouraged that Lue chose to simplify the offense rather than keep denting his head on that wall.

Judging from his comments about their lack of focus against inferior opponents, he’s seeing the same thing we are.

“We get up and get cute,” said Lue. “You know, fancy passes. We take a couple bad and questionable shots. So we just need to continue to get better at that and continue to step on guys' throats when we have them down… when our backs are up against the wall we tend to step up and play hard. Most of the league is like that, just with this team and what we’re trying to do, we have to be better at that.”

We’re taking the attitude that any game they don't lose to a patently inferior team is a good game. There’s not much time left, why waste energy prognosticating a lack of accountability and subsequent doom, when not only is the jury out, but we know exactly when their lunch break’s over.

At the end of Midnight Run, DeNiro and Grodin both wind up with something they want, before going in different directions to their respective sunsets. What’s a little bickering on a highly entertaining and ultimately successful journey? Enjoy the ride. (It won’t start hurting for a few more weeks.)

The Cavaliers next game is Wednesday, hosting the Milwaukee Bucks. We’ll be there posting video, analysis and snark. Following along with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Thursday morning here in the Scene and Heard blog.
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