Cavaliers Gore the Bulls, Add Side of Frye

The Cavaliers rolled over the struggling Bulls last night 106-95, much like Queen’s disco-inflected pop hit “Another One Bites the Dust.” It wasn’t a work of art, certainly not compared to what we know they’re capable of. There was something a tad perfunctory about it, while the relentless repetition of the chorus echoes the punishing grind of the NBA season.

Certainly the Cavs sometimes single-minded pass-light offensive approach has at times recalled the no-frills, ‘why-do-more-when-five-words-will-do’ choral ethos of the song’s author, bassist John Deacon. (We’ll give a secondary assist to the Jacksons, and Michael in particular, who met Queen backstage in L.A. and encouraged them to release the track as a single.)

Like the song – which was apparently inspired by a Chic track (“Good Times”) Deacon heard hanging out at their studio – the Cavaliers executed well enough to get the job done. There were moments of inspiration – a powerful slam by LeBron off a J.R. Smith feed, back-to-back Tristan Thompson steals and breakaway dunks – but the level of competition has to be considered as well.

We’re not saying the Bulls are as hopeless as same-year hits Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic,” or should be given the Old Yeller treatment like Captain & Tennille’s Viagra-ode “Do That To Me One More Time.” But absent the injured Jimmy Butler and Nikola Mirotic, they’re not the same team that’s beaten the Cavaliers twice before.

Indeed, Chicago’s in a massive tailspin that seen them drop 13 of their last 18. During that time their defensive efficiency’s ballooned to 107.4 points, falling dramatically from what had been one of the league’s five best defensive teams with a defensive efficiency of 99.0 points. The Bulls offense has also regressed to one of the league’s five worst during this stretch (falling to 99.8 from 100.9).

So while it’s always nice to beat an Eastern Conference contender, it’s hard to be too impressed by what we witnessed. It was a good win, but there’s still ample cause for concern.

The Lue Effect

While Coach Tyronn Lue has made no bones about the need to play better defense, it remains a hit-or-miss prospect. There was more consistency, and after the game Lue complemented the team’s game-long physicality, which were both positives, but there were also lapses. After pushing out to a 17 second-quarter lead, the Bulls closed out the half on a 16-5 run.

This is of course just part of the process. Certainly in the first half the Cavaliers defended well, forcing seven turnovers that produced 13 points while only surrendering 3 points off five turnovers. But they also let the Bulls get 10 second chance points (to their eight).

The issue locking down the defensive boards has been a continuing feature of the Lue regime and it’s hard to Sherlock the culprit. The Bulls finished +4 (17-13) on second chance points, and only trailed 48-40 on points in the paint. The Bulls had 15 offensive boards to the Cavaliers 11.

Cleveland also trailed the Bulls in free throw attempts (22-17), seemingly a side-effect of the team’s love affair with the three. They finished the game 7-24 (29%) from three. The team’s taking 2.5 less free throws each game under Lue than Blatt.

This would seem like a bigger issue were the team not shooting better overall (47.5% to 45.2%) even as they they’ve lost a percentage point off their long distance shots (down to 35% from 36%). As we pointed out before the break, that’s probably due to the fact that the team’s getting more open or wide open shots.

Under Blatt the Cavaliers were getting 23.4 open (no defender for 4’-6’) and 16.1 wide-open shots (defender >6’ away) versus 27 and 18 since Lue took over. That’s 5.5 more open/wide-open shots each game.

That’s especially interesting because the team’s taking 5.1 more shots/game since Lue took over. Indeed, those extra shots would seem for much of the team’s 5.7 point improvement in offensive efficiency. (Now they just need to address the 5.2 additional points per 100 possessions they’re surrendering.)

What’s even a bit nuttier about it is that that Cavaliers are making 20 less passes per game than they did under Blatt (306.1 to 288.6), even with more overall possessions, yet are somehow getting more assists (23.5 to 22).

Not sure how you can argue anything other than that the Cavaliers offense is running much more efficiently, even if the ball movement is arguably worse. (Secondary assists have dropped to 5.7 from 6.2.)

It’s beginning to seem that allowing Irving and James to do their thing might hamper ball movement but still make the offense better (at least during the regular season).

The Game

The good news was that Pau Gasol’s superior size and strong post skills didn’t allow him to overpower Tristan Thompson when the Cavaliers undersized center was manned up on him. Gasol finished with 14 points and four assists, but was never truly a threat.

Too bad we can’t say the same about Derrick Rose who played one of his best games since his knee surgeries, going 11-19 including 6-7 at the rim and 2-3 from distance. He only had two assists because he was calling his own number so often, and at times Kyrie played him tough. Other times he reached foolishly and ineffectually, letting Rose go by as though wearing Acme Rocket Skates.
One of the noteworthy aspects of the game was how much LeBron handled the ball. This is part of what Lue talked about when he mentioned making Kyrie Irving an attacker with less responsibility to run offense. Instead that’s fallen to James who made good quick decisions with the ball all night. James had more touches (76) than anyone, and Love (62) actually had more than Irving (59) despite playing two less minutes.

While the Cavs did run some offense, many possessions revolved around pick-and-rolls by James and Irving designed to either get LeBron the ball in the post or open up the middle of the floor for him. James is particularly devastating splitting the lane, as the collapsing defense opens up shooters on both sides.
In the above play, Kyrie pushes the Bulls get back and rather than force it, Irving pulls the ball out along the baseline as James finds an open space near the free throw line. As the Bulls collapse on him, James finds Love on the wing.

Other plays frequently involved James on the left block. On one occasion, while the Bull’s attention is on the ball-side, J.R. Smith sets a backside pick on Love’s man, allowing him to flare into the corner wide-open.
James is so deadly in the post, he needs to be double or at least shadowed as Gasol attempts to do by cheating into the lane. LeBron naturally spots this and whips a pass to the wide open Love for a corner three.
This will be the team’s bread-and-butter come playoff time; they couldn’t fully unlock it last year because of the personnel and the need for James to score, not just facilitate, which as we all remember, deeply impacted his offensive efficiency. For optimal effect, James really needs to have offensive threats all around him to take full advantage of his passing skills should teams attempt to double him.

We noted increasing interaction of this James-Irving-Love triad, and see that as being essential for a high-functioning Cavaliers offense. Last night the ball movement was there at times, and while the team only had 21 assists on 42 buckets they did have 9 secondary assists, which is a positive sign.

Large & In-Charge

It was a good day for all the Cavaliers big men that weren’t traded. Russian bear-tamer Timofey “Siegfried” Mozgov expressed his enthusiasm by scoring double digits for just the eleventh time all season (but fifth time in the last month). He tied a season high with four blocks, had four offensive boards (fourth time in 36 days), and didn’t commit a single turnover.

Nobody wants to get too far ahead of themselves but Mozzy seems to be getting closer to where he was last year and further away from what he’s been most of the year (see, disappointing). The fact that things have really only begun to turn in the last 30-45 days seems to support the idea that Mozgov’s finally rounding into form.

Mozzy’s shooting over 60% since January and has committed only 12 turnovers the last 23 games, after committing 32 the first 27 games of the season. Indeed he’s only committed one turnover in seven February games, which maybe only seems like some personal record.

Mozgov played 26 minutes last night, even joining Tristan Thompson on the floor for stretches without mishap (one of team’s worst defensive pairings this year allowing 109.7 points per 100 possessions). It was the most minutes Mozgov has played since mid-November. It’s seems like his fall-off in play was physically-related because you can track his fairly steady upward progress.

Timo seems to be winning Coach Lue’s confidence, and with Anderson Varejao on a flight out-of-town, there seems a good chance Mozgov’s minutes might stabilize in this 25 minutes/night range.

We’re hoping his improvement will allow Timo to play with Tristan, which during last year’s playoffs was very effective defensive pairing (97.7 vs 102.2 during regular season). That’s largely because Thompson steady play also seems to be on an incline.

As we noted a couple weeks ago, Thompson’s rebounding rates are worse as a starter than off the bench, almost assuredly from him wearing down from extra minutes given his poor fourth quarters since assuming the new role. Other skills, from shooting percentage to blocks and assists, are up even accounting for the greater minutes.

More than that, he has looked much more at home out there and less frequently out of position. Last night Thompson tied a season high with 8 buckets, had 3 steals (he’s only had as many as two once this year) and two blocked shots. His scoring was more incidental to his running the floor, though he did take back-to-back steals the length of the floor for scores.
Thompson and Mozgov’s play is even more encouraging as it occurred against one of the best frontlines (Gibson/Gasol/Portis) in the league, even missing Mirotic and Noah.

LeBron, Facilitator

We’ve mentioned before that under Lue, James has become the team’s de facto point guard. In those 12 games James has racked up 96 assists (eight/game), while only making 28 turnovers (2.3/game), a terrific 3.5 assist/turnover ratio.

It would appear that Lue’s harping on him is having a positive effect on Irving as well. His assists have gone up from 3.9 game under Blatt (James was at 6.2) to 5.2. Both Kyrie and LeBron have also seen their assist-to-pass percentage increase from 12.1 and 17, respectively, to 13.4 and 18.3.

It’s all a reminder of how much of the game is about slow progress, much like life. A person’s personality will no sooner change overnight than a team’s character, but both with continual attention can turn the boat around.

Between the increased passing, better play by their bigs and the increasing number of open shots, we feel the team is beginning to make strides. They’re probably closer to half-steps at just this moment, but they’re all moving in the same direction, and that’s a big positive.

Goodbye to the Wild Thing

We don’t blame anyone that’s disappointed the Cavaliers traded Anderson Varejao, Jared Cunningham, and a protected 2018 first round draft pick for 6-11 Channing Frye. The prototypical stretch four, Frye’s a 32-year old, nine-year vet out of Arizona. He’s a career 39% shooter from three and he’s shooting 40% on the year. Frye gives the Cavaliers another big who can stretch the floor besides Kevin Love.

This was sort of the issue with Varejao. While he still could hit the midrange jumper (47% from 10’-16’) he was shooting a career low of 42% from the field including just 54% at the rim and 29% from 3’-10’.

Those are No Country For Old Men kind of stats. According to defensive plus/minus he wasn’t doing too badly (+1.9), but his defensive FG% is +3.6, including +9.6% inside 10’. (He was -3.2% versus threes.) He was allowing a scary 57.4% at the rim.

By comparison, Channing Frye is a greater threat on both sides of the ball. Aside from his three-point shooting, Frye’s proven himself a savvy defender. He’s only allowing +0.8% on defensive FG%, and he’s -2.8% inside of 6’. Those are very close to his numbers from two years ago, so they seem pretty consistent. He only allowed 48% FG at the rim, better than anyone on Orlando but Aaron Gordon.

That ability inside is why some have suggested that Frye could play the “5” with Kevin Love. Though he’s obviously a lot better suited to the task than Love, it still seems like a “stretch.” Frye’s not that beefy. However, according to, Frye’s spent just over half his time at the center position. That brings the Cavaliers the kind of flexibility they’ll need to beat a team like the Golden State Warriors.

We’ll miss the energy and spirit Varejao demonstrated on the court. We’ll miss him personally in the locker room where he always seemed upbeat and willing to talk. Even though we didn’t know him well, he always made it a point to say hello.

He’s a great fellow and will definitely be missed. (And no, he can’t be resigned once the Trailblazers cut him, as they’re allegedly planning to do, thanks to rules enacted in 2011 following the episode where Ilgauskus resigned with the Cavaliers after being traded away and bought out.) Jared Cunningham's athleticism and ability to cover point guards might also be missed, but his offensive deficiencies became more apparent as the season went on, making it harder to justify giving him minutes, even over Mo Williams.

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers looked pretty refreshed by the break and delivered what was expected of them. They’re by no means a consistent team, but the things they’re attempting to do are showing up in games with generally positive results. This is what known as moving in the right direction, but anyone who’s followed the Cavs this year knows it’s just as likely to be followed by a step backwards.

There will be a fine chance for that on Sunday when the Cavs fly into Oklahoma City to face their Western Counterparts, the Thunder. They’re almost like a mirror image of Cleveland with their Hall of Fame wing and unstoppable offensive point guard. We expect it to come down to how well those surrounding the teams’ twin stars perform.

Regardless of what happens, it’s just rehearsal for the real thing come mid-April. In the meantime it’s just a slow train, blowing its whistle and moving on down track.

We’ll be watching at home like you on Sunday, posting video, analysis and snark, though not necessarily in that order. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis Monday morning in the Scene & Heard blog.
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