Cavaliers Can’t Handle the Heat, Leave a Puddle

click to enlarge "Ah man, this sucks."
"Ah man, this sucks."
Even Fox Mulder doesn’t want to believe as much as we do. Frankly, Heaven’s Gate gave their followers more to go on than the Cavaliers. We’re not advocating a diet of sedatives and vodka, though it might’ve been preferable to watching the first three quarters of last night’s 122-101 bloodletting in Miami.

Though the Cavaliers were competitive in spurts, they weren’t nearly enough to counteract those moments when they morphed back into extras from The Walking Dead. Honestly, Comcast Cable has quicker response times. All night the Heat weaved around Wine and Gold defenders as if on skates, casually plunging daggers into the heart and cranium, then pirouetting over the crumbling corpse.

Perhaps those not yet inure to the Cavaliers peculiar form of Rickrolling, still screamed at the screen. Those of us who’ve endured a season of bafflingly inconsistent effort shrugged our shoulders, shook our heads and muttered, “I told you not to go into that room. See what you got yourself into?”

Armchair psychologists could run up quite a tab with this crew. Is it ADHD? Are they bored? Is it coaching or maybe affluenza? Low blood sugar? (Twinkies, Stat!) Mood disorder? Personality crisis? (Frustration and heartache is what we got.)

The Cavaliers have more excuses than Welcome Back Kotter’s Epstein or the Exxon Valdez. (We’ve been pissing drunk plenty of times, and never spilled 31 million gallons of crude or soiled the bed like the Cavaliers last night, though we have thrown up in the trash can.)

They just can’t maintain any consistency. It’s like that significant other that keeps letting you down and apologizing. At some point you need to accept, that’s who they are.

Some will fairly point out that this team has done enough to be the number one team in the Eastern Conference. Which is naturally true, until it’s not. The Cavs lead over the Raptors has shrunk to 1.5 games, and since a tie is a Raptors win (because they hold the tie breaker), the Cavs lead over the Raptors is even slimmer.

There are still 13 more games but that hardly seems like enough time for additional lights to come on. It’s hard not to believe WYSIWYG, and that any hope for “play right” salvation will have to come in a deathbed playoff conversion.

What are we talking about? The Cavaliers have shown a sick predilection to completely lose their defensive intensity and allow teams to make 6, 8, 10 shots in a stretch before snapping out of it like a catatonic state. On offense they’ll share the ball, effectively drive-and-kicking, then go on ridiculous narcissistic dribble and ISO-laden binges where you’d need a scalpel to free the ball.

When the offense fails the defense really goes into the shitter. Lue’s greater pace seems to have helped inasmuch as when they maintain it the ball moves better and players too. But it’s all too easy for opponents or by the Cavs their own weak focus, for the pace to bog down, and then the halfcourt offense looks even worse than it did before “pace” was a thing.

There’s no denying that Lue’s helped make the offense more efficient, and the success of the small ball lineups with Love or Frye at center has been intriguing. But the defense has regressed, and nobody wants to talk about it, all we hear is some blather about pace.

Perhaps the Cavaliers can outrun and outscore most teams in the regular season, but that’s simply not going to happen in the playoffs.

The funny thing is that the Cavaliers can play right, and have played right in stretches. We’re just deeply concerned that they’ll come out flat like they did against the Heat, unable to sustain their initial energy beyond the first six minutes like in many games this season. They may fall behind, but won’t be able to stage their double-digit comeback against a focused playoff defense. That’s our fear.

We understand and appreciate playoff LeBron. But we just watched him go 13-20, scoring 26 points in 26 minutes and they were hardly close to staying with the Heat. Playoff LeBron won’t help a team that was being outrebounded 32-14 midway through the third. Indeed, the team’s stature and frontrunner status (and, let’s be honest, behavior) makes us wonder how much this team’s high on their own fumes, overconfident of their ability to “flip the switch.”

“We have to take the challenge. We are 29-30 games over .500 but that’s not good enough. That’s not good enough, we can’t accept that,” said Richard Jefferson. “We have to take a personal challenge, everyone top to bottom – players, coaches, everyone – to demand more of each other, to demand more of ourselves.

“There’s things I have done the last 10 or so games I need to do a better job of,” Jefferson continued. “Being sharper with our rotations and calls, and everything. Everybody to a man can do a better job. That’s the difference between being the first seed and in being a team favored to win a championship.”

The Game

The Cavs started their small ball lineup with Kevin Love as center and LeBron James as power forward with Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving, but had to abandon it just over three minutes in when Love picked up an offensive foul, his second.

It will probably go unremarked by most beat writers, but Love left the game with the score 11-9 in favor of the Heat. Thompson came into replace him and wasn’t nearly as effective. Indeed Amar'e Stoudemire immediately scored on him twice.

While Lue won’t admit it, the small ball screwed with his lineup rotations (or maybe Love's foul trouble?), such that he took Irving out for Delly with five minutes left and inserted him back in for James with three minutes left, in the midst of a 7-2 run. It didn’t help, as the Heat closed the quarter on a 6-2 run.

The Heat shot over 60% in both quarters of the first half and 59% in the third. Suffice to say the Cavaliers efforts were generally insufficient. They made rookie Josh Richardson (6-9, 4-6 from 3, 19 pts off bench) their Superstar Sub of the Game, their tradition of allowing a generally innocuous scrub to torch them like Larry Bird. (Previous winners include Kent Bazemore, Justin Holiday, Shelvin Mack, and others.)

But the biggest issue was two pronged, one, their perimeter defense was porous enough to make the Mexican Border seem impregnable, and two, the size of Hassan Whiteside forced the Cavs to load up the paint with a predictable impact on the Heat’s three-point shooting. Whiteside finished 6-9, 13 rebounds, four offensive, 2 blocks, 16 points, while the Heat were 11-19 from beyond the arc.
But often it had nothing to do with Whiteside. The Cavaliers weren’t aggressive getting into Heat ballhandlers, stopping the ball or limiting where they wanted to go. Without a big in the game (Mozgov sat until it was long past determined), there was no rim protection. (Yes, Virginia, Mozgov’s rim protection FG% is still 10-15% pts better than any other Cavs big.)

The Cavs were also typically bad in transition, where like ball movement, their effort goes in and out. Here the Cavaliers are ostensibly back, but nobody’s really matched up on anybody, allowing Deng to drive down the center of the lane before hitting a corner shooter.
Both these plays were part of a crucial stretch in the second quarter when the Cavaliers looked able to take the game back into their control but faltered. The Cavs had closed it on a nice sequence with good passing, resulting in a Richard Jefferson drive to the hoop. That’s how the Cavaliers are supposed to play, inside-outside-in.
It was interesting then to hear Lue single out that moment and suggest that poor shot selection led to those transition subsequent Heat 3 attempts and completely hamstrung the comeback.

“We got back in the game and cut it to four,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “Then coming out of a timeout, we had something we wanted to run, kinda got into transition two or three times and took a couple questionable shots. They came down and made 3 or 4 threes and broke the game back open.”
Well there were two plays immediately after the Cavs pulled within four. LeBron took a long ISO stepback three, more suited to J.R. Smith’s general 3-point shooting skill level than a guy who’s having a tough time breaking 30% this year. Then Kevin Love took a poor contested three with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. They were down 12 again before Lue could call another timeout.

While it’s nice to hear Lue call LeBron out (though it appeared no one else picked up on it), it seems the Cavs need buckets of tough love not dollops. And a lot of good it will do on a night when LeBron was the team’s only true threat.

However Lue’s deeper point is well taken: LeBron was not facilitating anyone last night, and it hurt the team.

“As usual when we struggle, we hold it and when we hold it we don't get good opportunities for everyone to get involved, and end up in isolation too much,” said Jim Boylan, in an straightforward halftime diagnosis of the Cavaliers' offensive issues.

When do we move beyond diagnostics to treatment? From faltering pick-and-roll defense to the transition defense to the inconsistent ball movement to settling for jumpers have been chronic issues all year.

If the Cavaliers are in some kind of test therapy for it, we’re guessing they're the placebo/control group. Though at times it feels as though there’s been incremental improvement, every backslide like last night raises the question whether that’s wishful thinking.

“It is what it is,” was James’ pithy analysis. “We’ve got to finish the season off as well as we can and then get ready for the postseason. You’d like to be playing extremely well in late February going into March, but if not you continue to work your habits.” But what if they’re all still bad?

“Consistency is a part of life,” said LeBron, and we’re sadly aware that ongoing defensive issues (particularly with penetration) have been the Cavaliers most consistent feature.

Kyrie’s Defense

As the buck hardly ever stops at LeBron, blame most often rolls downhill on Kyrie’s head. While the two superstars have an uneasy fit, they are definitely making strides to improve their on-court chemistry. Right off the start we saw two terrific Pick-and-Rolls between LeBron and Kyrie. Unfortunately like every other positive Cavaliers aspect, they have trouble sustaining it.
When not lambasting Irving’s unwillingness/inability to pass (we showed in yesterday’s column that he actually passes more off drives than LeBron), the survey audience’s next favorite complaint is his defense. We understand. On this play he turns his head to watch ball, interrupting his attempt to get back to his man, who uses the time to stand directly under the basket and get a layup.
It’s hard to see something like that and be impressed. However, looking at Kyrie’s individual defensive stats in the way of DFG% (as opposed to the very noisy lineup or plus/minus metrics) you see a player that has improved in every aspect since Lue’s arrival.
He’s almost 24 (3 days away) and he’s getting better, perhaps faster than the Cavaliers are at embracing ball movement. (Yes, low bar.) Try to be patient.

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers have shown a variety of troubling tendencies of late, including but not limited to settling for threes rather than getting to the hole, losing their defensive intensity when they get a lead, a sudden upswell in turnovers, getting beaten in the paint (56-42 last night), and failing to push and move the ball causing the offense to stagnate.

There is no reason to believe that they’ll necessarily solve these problems in the remaining 13 games. Lue is still fiddling with his rotations fercrissakes.

“Sometimes you have to change your lineup depending on how the game goes,” said Lue, when asked about the inconsistency of his rotations. “I know what my rotation is, if you’re asking me that, yes, but sometimes the game dictates something else.”

Tell that to Mozgov who’s yo-yo’d in and out-of-the-lineup so much, we half expect to find Lue making him walk the dog.

One of the other issues is that the team doesn’t consistently or effectively match other teams’ physical intensity. It’s something that shows up on offense and defense when they’re really on, and vice-versa.

“When were physical and we’re the aggressor to start the game offensively and defensively, we’re at our best,” said Lue. “But when we’re on our heels to start the game it’s tough to try to come out of that.”

The small-ball lineup wasn’t nearly as effective versus the Heat as the Wizards, and all the bended knee media genuflections seem suspect at this point. At least Lue didn’t dodge the blame.

“I kinda went with my gut and went small to see how it’d work out,” he said. “It didn’t work out so well.”

Heat reporter Ethan Skolnick noted that several Heat players were surprised the Cavaliers matched the Heat. Usually that’s seen by opponents as saying “Uncle” in surrendering to their style.
That certainly was the outcome. Lue, who said he struggled with the call until right before the game, indicated he may stay away from starting the game that way in the future, but won’t limit its use otherwise.

“I like [small ball] more probably when we get a chance to go to it in the flow of the game rather than starting like that,” he says. “Because we can’t really run what we want to run offensively when we start small.”

There were other complaints bandied about related to the schedule (5 games in 7 days) and the back-to-back (a 30-minute flight South to Miami?), which came off as weak. This is the part of the season when teams are bearing down, not reaching for crutches and excuses.

This team is so talented that their bouts of incompetence and indolence are doubly vexing. They should be so much better. But maybe that’s all they are. We’ll need to wait for the playoffs to discover if they’ve just been teasing us all along.

The Cavaliers face Denver on Monday at the Q. We’ll be there posting live video, commentary and snark. Follow along with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis here, on the Scene and Heard blog. You can hear us discuss the Cavaliers Monday morning on the Defend Cleveland Show at 11 a.m. with Michael James on WRUR, 91.1. 
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