Cavaliers Board and Sink Shorthanded Clippers Barely Breaking a Sweat

click to enlarge Step on into LeBron's Posterization Booth
Step on into LeBron's Posterization Booth
The Cavaliers won a convincing 115-102 victory over the Clippers, building on a second quarter lead, and despite some slippage, never letting the visitors completely back into the game.

The closest Los Angeles got was within six, with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter. Then Clippers point guard Chris Paul was called for traveling, and LeBron found Kevin Love in the corner after almost losing it in the lane, and Love buried the three, and they never looked back.

Despite beating the fourth-best team in the Western Conference (to go with December’s home victory over the third-ranked Thunder), we sensed an underwhelmed feeling amongst the press and twitter-sphere fans.

Just an impression, but it felt like everyone was still feeling Golden State. Convincing back-to-back victories wasn’t enough to Soft Scrub that memory, but perhaps a thrashing of the Bulls this Saturday would be enough powerwash that nasty Draymond-flavored scent from the psyche.

What can be said? Human beings are a lot more sensitive to bad news than good. But we’ll continue in spite of ourselves.

The Cavaliers demonstrated even better ball/body movement than they did the night before in Brooklyn, particularly early. The ball movement was epitomized by the balanced scoring. At half, the team’s four leading scorers – Kevin Love (11), JR. Smith (10), Kyrie Irving (10) and LeBron James (9) – were a collective 13-26 from the field and 10-11 from the line.

“We moved the ball extremely well from side to side; against very good defensive teams you have to do that,” said James. “We’ve been harping on that the last couple games and we executed that and I think defensively we were in tune with the game plan and even though they made some shots we stuck with it.

The Cavaliers held a one-point lead with just under four minutes left in the second quarter when they went on a 14-6 run, building a lead they'd never relinquish. Four different players scored buckets, bookended by a pair of Kevin Love free throws to take a nine-point lead into halftime.

They amassed assists on 15 of their first 20 baskets, and only took 10 first half threes. (There would be backsliding on both accounts in the second half.) As we noted in yesterday’s column, the team has a tendency to settle for threes especially when they start hot, and this results in reduced drives to the hole and free throws. They had 15 first half free throws and 10 three point attempts, in the second that was 9 free throws and 18 three-point attempts.

Fortunately the Cavaliers didn’t just shoot well (42-83 fg, 13-28 3s) they also flattened the Clippers on the boards, 47-35, including 14 offensive rebounds which they turned into 24 second chance points, their most all season.

You’re probably thinking “Tristan Thompson”, and that’s sorta right. He had five. But what really happened is that everyone hustled after those 50-50 balls, and those loose, available possessions are called.

“They crushed us on the glass it felt like, but where they really killed us was every loose ball. Half the offensive rebounds were batted balls that were just laying on the floor,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “When you’re on the road you have to win the 50-50 game.”

Just the other day, Irving was chastising his team, saying that they needed to do a better job on 50-50 balls. They did last night.

“Yeah, we still have a lot more to get. We want to limit teams that have centers like DeAndre Jordan that do a great job of tipping it out and getting extra possessions,” said Irving. “For us we want to dive on the floor and be the first on the floor and do what we can to limit those extra possessions.”

Offense Clicking

The Cavaliers continued to push the ball and play with pace as they had in Brooklyn, with the hopes of getting into their offense quicker, as we discussed in yesterday's column. The ball kept moving and found everyone on the court. 

LeBron had 12 assists without making a turnover. (Kevin Love had enough for both of them with 5.) He compensated by being a true triple threat, with two assists, three triples and 8 free throws (for the second straight game after a career-long three-game drought). Love also added 16 boards displaying even more activity on the defensive boards.

Tristan Thompson had 12 rebounds and 8 points, including four straight free throws (10 consecutive across 3 games and 20 of 23) until we jinxed him by posting this and he mixed the next two.

Irving looked much more efficient with 21 points, a couple 3s, three free throws, four assists and only 1 turnover. He’s still struggling defensively (Chris Paul had 30), but one bridge at a time. Kyrie is still getting his offensive timing back, and we all know his defense is at least ten steps behind.

J.R. Smith had another impressive game. He made 8 of 12 and 6 of 7 threes for 21 points, including and extraordinary +30 in +/- in 33 minutes of play. (LeBron was next closest at +21.)

We keep hearing people suggesting that Shumpert should be taking J.R. Smith’s job, but we just don’t see it. In the month of January, J.R. Smith is +12.7 in net efficiency to Iman Shumpert’s +8.6. While Shumpert’s offensive skills are improved, he’s not even in the same state let alone area code of Smith.

Perhaps when the offense is running smoother and Love/Kyrie/LeBron have worked out the ball-sharing romantic triangle, it will make more sense to start Shumpert. But right now we see a lot of possessions that included attempted post-ups, drives, ISOs and PnRs that devolve into not much. In those cases, with seconds ticking a throw to J.R. at the 3 line, even for a contested 3, is a solid bet late in the shot clock.

Shumpert offers no such offensive assurance, with the added obstacle that people will slough off Shump and muck up the lane even further for the Fabulous Threesome. Finally, just looking at history, Blatt has kept Irving on opposing point guards during first quarter or so of games. Shumpert’s just as effective coming off the bench and there’s nothing to prevent him from playing the fourth if the situation calls for it.

Meanwhile Smith’s microwave heating cycle means some games might be on their way to being over before halftime should Smith tap into that third rail and go unconscious (like he did last night). His ability to function so nicely without getting a lot of shots or attention is rare, and he’s played very good defense of late as well, such that Smith’s defensive rating is only 1.5 points/100 possessions lower, while his offense has five points on Shump.

Timo Cleared for Takeoff

Timofey Mozgov put up his best performance in a month with his third straight start. He’s looking for confident and aggressive on the court late, and he’s not only knocked down a couple solid midrange jumpers but gone hard to the hole. Having Kyrie in the lineup never hurts.
Mozgov made of his six shots and one of two free throws for 11 points in his second straight game. He not only added 5 rebounds (two offensive) but a pair each of steals and blocks. He didn’t even make a turnover. There were suggestions of alien abductions, pod people and even the old Steven Wright standby – he’d been taken away and replaced by an exact duplicate. (This just happens to be the duplicate’s good night.)

“It’s confidence in himself, and coach is giving him more confidence as well, putting him out on the floor,” said James of the Russian center. “He’s getting more minutes and consistent minutes and it’s helped him. We are all happy to see him get back out there and catching lobs and being a force defensively when guys drive.”

Blatt Speaks His Mind

Do you mind if we pull you aside here, near column’s end to talk to you about something? Most writers wouldn’t do this, but we have a special relationship. If any other journalists see us like this, somebody might say something, however, we feel it’s worth breaking the illusory fourth wall to speak to you about sportswriting and being human.

We’re going to assume that most of you have enough driving experience with your brain to appreciate that it came with dozens of little niggling factory defects. A few from personal experience – hardwired male ocular obsessions, weakness for fatty fried foods and consistent inability to remember the names of people we’ve talked to dozens of times before, as well as where we either put the keys or parked the car.

Two other defects that affect all of us and figure into life, and sportswriting in particular, are confirmation and negativity bias.

Most of you are probably familiar with confirmation bias. It’s the tendency to accept information that fits our beliefs about the world and discount everything else.

A great example is our feeling – which so far as we know is a lonely one among our writing confederates – that LeBron was not throwing Blatt under the bus in Chicago after their Game 4 victory when James said he told Blatt he wanted the last shot.

My read is that (1) it’s not unusual for stars to ask for last shots, as came out in the weeks to follow, (2) James’ immediately preceding comments were about how he had stunk the place up (9-29, 8 TOs) before that and he clearly wanted some redemption. But rather than Hero Makes Big Shot To Erase Forgettable Night, it’s LeBron Shits On Blatt.

To me this is confirmation bias. (This is of course my subjective take.) For those guys who had been writing about the LeBron/Blatt disconnect, every event and occurrence was viewed through that perspective and anything that confirmed that narrative was quickly picked up, anything else was discarded.

Such narratives can gather steam even if they’re nothing but hot air. That’s the nature of confirmation bias, and why it seems some people are always selling you the same story, or are incapable of seeing that there’s another perspective to it.

Negativity bias is the brain’s innate predilection for “the processing of negative information. In comparison with their positive counterparts, negative stimuli receive a larger allocation of attention and a swifter response once recognized by the brain.” Or at least that’s what Wikipedia has to say.

Human beings are also more sensitive to downside risk than to potential gains (we think this is why some favor Iman Shumpert over J.R. Smith). It all fits in that kind of socio-biological sense in that as fragile creatures in the early world, we had to be a lot more wary of lion and tigers and bears, than attuned to, say finding a nice meadow to catch some rays. Negative stimulus needed to come in stronger for our brain than positive stimuli because not being fearful enough was literally a matter of life and death.

The holdover effect is that by and large we’re entirely too fascinated with bad results or the potential for bad results. It’s like that saying, the good you do dies with you, the bad you do lives forever after. It’s also probably partially responsible for why sad songs are so much more resonant than happy ones.

Thank you dear reader, for indulging us long enough to explain how this relates to basketball. We didn’t want it to seem like we were slamming anyone so much as noting how human fallibility manifests itself vis-à-vis the Cavaliers loss to the Golden State Warriors, and feeds the surge of interest in Chicken Little’s gloomy forecasts. Obviously with mandates for attention, sportswriters have a reason to focus on the half-empty glass and their own negativity bias in the name of clicks.

We go to our embedded correspondent, Coach David Blatt for his thoughts on why Cavaliers fans should disregard the talking heads-fueled panic. Two things to remember” This is not “Life During Wartime” and there are no clicks without bait.

“I hear a lot of far-reaching conclusions and personally I don like it,” said Blatt during a long pregame soliloquy at least one journalist pegged as a rant. “I know we are not yet at our best and we can almost be encouraged by that because if we’re in the position that we’re in and we have where we have to go in terms of getting better, there’s a positive. A real positive.

“But you know we didn’t get where we are right now by being a bad team or by having all these problems that suddenly surface when we have a bad game like we had,” Blatt continued. “We worked pretty hard to be as of today, midseason, in first place in our conference and with some very good wins under our belt and with out players finally getting back and getting healthy. Again that guarantees nothing but it shouldn’t be overlooked.
Blatt went on to say that the loss to Golden State wasn’t indicative of the team’s effort and progress.

“We had to work very hard to get where we are this year. Very hard. And we have a ways to go but I told everyone here in the very beginning of the year that it was going to take us tim,” he said. “We weren’t a homogenous unit from day one, with all our guys out and not having a real preseason. But we’re okay. We’ve got to get better and we will, but it shouldn’t be overlooked what we have done so far.

“The big thing is that you can be consistent as a unit each and every time you get on the floor,” Blatt said. “You can’t always play well. You’re not going to win every game. There are going to be times that seemingly nothing goes right. But your effort level and your consistency in terms of your approach, those are the things you want to see more than anything else, and I think we’ve seen that… I don’t think that [the effort in the Golden State game] has been the norm here at all.”

Thanks for indulging both me and my curiosity for her human biases and Blatt for the kind of unmediated forum he rarely gets. We can’t speak for him, but we appreciate the opportunity to do us.

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers played a solid game from beginning to end, particularly defensively on a very good team in the Clippers. While some will quibble that Blake Griffin isn’t there, they’d won 10 of 11 without him coming into last night.

Mozgov rounding into form offensively is good news as well. Though you won’t convince any of the real haters (when can you?), Mozgov’s been the Cav’s best defensive player (and in January the only rotation player with less than 100 net defensive rating). It’s his struggles offensively that have held him back. The glimmers of his offensive game returning is truly a positive sight.

This very much looked like the team that was 5-1 on the road a week ago, and which has won 11 of its last 13, nine of those on the road. Indeed, the Cavaliers 18 home games to date, is the least in the entire Eastern Conference. But you know, that wouldn’t fit the story about how dire things are for Blatt and the Cavaliers. While that was salable narrative last year, it seems a tad light this one, Warriors or no.

Our suggestion is that you sit back and try to enjoy this, because it’s going to be fits and starts, but it’s moving forward much more consistently than it’s faltering. And that’s all LeBron worries bout.

“The regular season all I care about is the process,” he said. “We took two or three steps backwards on Monday and a couple steps forward these last couple games and that’s all that matters to me. We have a lot of time. Not as much as I would like, but enough time to prepare and get ready for each and every game and we’ve done it well the last two games.”

If you don’t believe LeBron, listen to one of the two other guys in the arena with a ring, Doc Rivers.

“Every team is different. Some teams you just get it right away and some teams it takes time,” Rivers said when asked about his championship winning Celtics team. “You just have to be patient.”

And avoid the negativity bias.

We’ll be at the Q on Saturday night for the matchup with the Chicago Bulls. We’ll be posting video from the game, snark and analysis. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read out postgame analysis on Sunday morning.

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