Cavaliers Eclipse the Suns But Some Darkness Remains

The Cavaliers posted a 101-97 win last night against the Suns which recalled that great deal your friend got on his new stereo, the origin of those ballpark franks, or your wife’s previous sexual history: The less questions asked, the happier you’ll be.

The Cavaliers went into Phoenix having dropped the first two games of a four-game/five-night road trip, and seven of their last ten on the road. At this point, even a relatively ugly win against the Suns was welcome.

Ugly, as Lyle Lovett will tell you, is in the eye of the beholder. The Cavs fell into the trap of playing West Coast basketball, notable for its low “good shot” threshold and general lack of any defense. It’s a seductive style that quickly turns a cocktail at the hotel bar into alimony and a two-pack-a-day habit.

The Cavaliers shot 11-19 from the 3-point line in the first half and spent a good part of the second half jacking them up. That became much more problematic in the second half when they chucked up 22 more and only hit 6. They only shot 15 times inside the arc in the second half (making 6 as well).

Thankfully James and Irving got to the line 10 times between them allowing the team to survive its 32% second half shooting. As we noted in yesterday’s column, the Cavs have a bad tendency to fall in love with the three and settle for it rather than initiating real offense.

Even an open three isn’t always the best shot if early enough in the clock; by attacking the defender closing out on the three it’s often possible to get a shot at the rim with the possible “and 1.” Teams that rely on the 3 don’t get as many free throws and that diminishes offensive efficiency on several levels (from foul trouble to getting into the bonus to the easy points offered on the line).

Once the Wine and Gold get the 3 on their mind, they start to crave the precious and soon ball movement and attacking the paint stops.

After getting a season-best 45 shots at the rim against the Warriors, the Cavaliers posted consecutive season-lows, getting 17 in Portland and a startling 8 against the Suns. The 26 points in the paint they produced against the Suns was their second lowest total, only surpassed by the 22 they scored 22 in their embarrassing home loss to Washington at the beginning of the month.

The team was bailed out, not by LeBron James, but Kyrie Irving (22 pts) and J.R. Smith (17 pts), who together had 19 of the team’s 41 second half points. LeBron James (14 pts, 7 ast) had but six second half points and only one bucket as he operated off-the-ball consistently for the first time this year.

We should perhaps clarify that. LeBron loves to dominate the ball. But as we were saying in Thursday’s column, that really stagnates the offense. James can be a very deadly player cutting to the basket, without dominating the ball as much. The team’s not unaware of this, as J.R. Smith’s halftime comments illustrate.

“The more we let LeBron play one-on-one the easier it is to guard him,” Smith told Allie Clifton. “We need to keep moving ball and get it to him when he's got full head of steam.”

The issue it seems is a matter of trust. James needs to feel confident in delegating offensive authority, and the only one he truly trusts to do that with is Irving. Still coming back from the kneecap injury suffered in the Finals, Kyrie sat out the Portland game and will sit out the game in Denver tonight. (He promises that’s the last back-to-back he’ll miss.)

It’s easy to make too much of postgame demeanor, but LeBron was rather terse with the press after the game, particularly when asked about the low number of shots and high number of assists. When someone inquired if this was part of a new approach, he gave a look of some sort and said, “It’s just what happened,” as though he weren’t entirely pleased. But that’s probably just media reading too much into things, then again, maybe someone staged an intervention.

Despite his minutes-restriction, Blatt maneuvered the lineups such that Kyrie was able to finish the game with the starters. That made all the difference as he hit the game winning three on a play where the team moved the ball three times before Irving drained the three with less than half a second left on the 24-second clock. It was the only three he made in the second half in five tries. It was made possible by a great J.R. Smith play which sent him flying out of bounds to save an errant Irving pass, providing a chance at redemption.
The whole sequence is classic and a sign that the Cavs have the moxie to pull out a road game even when they spend half the time indulging their worst instincts. (This is where the twelve-steppers grow concerned we’re enabling their behavior by focusing on the outcome and not the unsightly process.)

"It really helped that [Irving] was there for us at the end of the game. But first of all JR Smith made an incredible winning play to save that ball. He made a fabulous save, we made an extra pass and Kyrie hit a huge shot. He made a couple plays down the stretch,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. “Hopefully that gives him a lot confidence because we know those are the kinds of things he can do.”

Love as a Passer

There’s another reason to play LeBron off the ball other than the fact that his possessions often turn into ISOs that look like a game of Red Rover — everyone on one side of the floor waiting for a chance to come over. That reason's Kevin Love’s under-utilized passing ability.

One of the things that made him so tough in Minnesota was that the ball always flowed through him, so he had a lot of opportunities to create for others. In the present offense he feels more pressure to score when he gets the ball, but with him running more picks with Kyrie there will be chance to find a cutting James under the basket as they have once or twice a game for the past several weeks (though not last night).
As you can see, FG% on passes from Love is 53%, and 58% on two-pointers. He clearly needs more opportunities to create for others. It couldn’t happen much last night because he injured his arm during the game. It was just a stinger and he said after the game that he was fine, but as a result he played less than nine minutes in the second half. However he was part of the first half three-pointer extravaganza, with two as part of 13 points, but only had three in the second half, in large part due to the stinger.

Richard Jefferson filled in some and did a decent job. He played almost 12 minutes, drained a three, and had a steal and a blocked shot. Though Jefferson has been a member of some of the Cavs worst defensive lineups, his defense on the ball seems to be pretty solid. For the year opponents’ FG% is 1.5% lower when Jefferson guards them. He’s a terrific three shooter, can put it on the floor and finish. He’ll be a great late-game option if his defense can hold up.

The $82 Million Man Has His Day

Because we’re natural mavericks we probably buried the lead. The biggest story coming out of the game – even bigger than the victory and Irving’s standout performance was Coach Blatt’s decision to start Thompson over Timofey Mozgov. In some sense this had an inevitability about it, and that’s why we mention it late in this piece.

“I just felt like we needed to be a little faster on the court to start the game a little more mobile and just to shake it up a little bit,” said Blatt. “I just wanted to inject some more energy… potentially for a while, [but] I don’t see it happening forever.”

The way the team has been playing in the first quarter, and the starters in particular, almost called for some kind of action. Mozgov recalls former Browns wideout Greg Little the way he struggles to hold onto anything thrown his way. Timo could be Edward Scissorhands’ spatula-handed cousin. Those paddles are still useful on defense, as he showed in blocking three first half Suns shots during just seven minutes of play.

But Mozgov’s offensive struggles made it difficult to keep him with the first team. Every time he fumbled an easy two into a turnover, LeBron does his best Cyclops imitation, burning holes through his fragile psyche. Mozgov is already hard enough on himself, making him more self-conscious of his failure just sends him into a shame-spiral that turns his offensive motor movements into the frenetic mayhem of a car dealership balloon person.

The hope is that the second squad, with its less intense scrutiny, will enable Timofey to rebuild his confidence to the point where he resembles a useful offensive player. At this point Thompson offers more offensively, similar to saying brussel sprouts have broccoli for overall taste and texture.

Thompson’s offensive limitations are the real regulator on this experiment. Just as in the Finals, teams have begun to sag off Thompson’s picks of ballhandlers at the three-point line. They’ll concede the pull-up midrange jumper, but want to limit penetration to the rim and post-up opportunities for Love. In all three road games, teams have used whomever is on Thompson to effectively double-team Love even before he receives the ball.
We saw a clever counter for this from the Cavs last night as the unguarded Thompson, instead of rolling from the pick toward the hoop, flared over to the top of the key and picked J.R. Smith’s man, giving him an open straight-away look. It’s comforting that the Cavaliers have already considered how to counter this defense, because if Mozgov doesn’t start, they’ll likely see a lot of it.

The other comforting thing about the move is that Thompson has really picked up his play. We mentioned this a couple weeks ago, and just want to revisit it briefly. Whereas Thompson has allowed opponents to make 58.1% and 52.2% of their field goal attempts at the rim the last two years, he’s continued to improve and this year is in the same neighborhood as Mozzy and Draymond Green.
It will still be interesting to see if he can match up with opponents' length at the start of games, but given that he plays well down the stretch, this isn’t as scary as it was last year when Anderson Varejao went down and Thompson looked ill-prepared for the task.

Open Shots

One reason the Cavaliers won last night was they hit their open and wide-open shots. We noted a few days ago that the Cavaliers are shooting under 40% on wide open shots in the first halves of games. That’s 26th in the league. Over the last ten games that same issue has infected the team in the second half where they’re shooting 42.3%, 22nd in the league.

That’s their FG%, not their eFG% (which takes into account the greater worth of 3s). Because so many of their shots are 3s, it makes up somewhat for their lower shooting percentage (raising the team to 17th in eFG%). But we also know that when they aren’t hitting their threes it seems to screw the entire offense up. After the win last night, they’re 4-9 in games in which they shoot 28 or more threes.

Last night the Cavaliers made half of their open & wide-open shots and 42% of their contested shots. Those high percentages compensated for their lack of shots at the rim last night, but it won’t always work out that way. Hopefully Irving's return and better balance in LeBron's offensive workload will lead to a more dynamic offense and better rotations that won't be so overmatched in the first half.

Final Analysis

It was nice to see Kyrie Irving back and to have him take the big shot instead of James for a change. It’s not that LeBron’s not the key to the team’s championship hopes, but his bull-like charges to the rim aren’t drawing fouls like they should and it’s proven detrimental to the offense as a whole.

It will obviously be a balancing act, but whether Blatt mandated, James acquiesced or they agreed over crumpets at the Algonquin, the idea of diversifying the late-game offense was a needed one. The same goes for the Thompson move. We’ll see how well it works, which Blatt seems open to dictating his choices.

The ball movement remains an issue, but getting the ball out of LeBron’s hands and forcing other guys to do things seems to be a step in the right direction. Of course, in the two-steps-forward, one-step-back manner of this season, the Cavaliers will still have another game without their allstar point guard tonight in Denver.

Between the thin air and the grueling road stretch there are ample opportunities for excuses. Let’s hope they don’t indulge and play the kind of game the Cavaliers are capable of against at team that’s as mishmashed as any in the West. They may not be as hopeless as the Lakers, but they’re close.

The gulf in talent gives the Cavs a real opportunity to even the road trip, even though under the circumstances it will be a serious challenge. Let’s hope they rise to it.

We’ll be watching along with you here at home, commenting and posting video on Twitter. You can follow us @CRS_1ne, and read our analysis of the game on Wednesday in the Scene blog.

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