Cavaliers Hear Thunder But Won’t Let It Reign

Coffee, as Alec Baldwin notes in Glengarry Glen Ross, is for closers. They’re the type of people that gets things done whatever it takes. They don’t look askance, they look inward. They don’t make excuses, they seal the deal. Life’s full of obstacles, they don’t make themselves one of them.

While the Cavaliers can’t consider themselves among their number yet, last night’s 104-100 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder proved they’ve taken strides. The Thunder came into the game 17-8, third-best in the West, and winners of their last six in a row under new Thunder coach Billy Donovan.

The Cavaliers came into the game like refugees from the Walking Dead. Seemingly every week brings a new casualty. Mo Williams thumb joined Iman Shumpert’s ailing groin and Kyrie Irving’s nearly recovered knee on the bench, but it wasn’t enough to slow the team down.

The Wine and Gold rode fine performances from across the cast to overcome their limited lineup, the Thunder’s effectiveness making Kevin Love a subplot, and LeBron James’ ongoing issues coaxing calls from the refs.

They got great support from double-double role players like Matthew Dellavedova (11 pts, 11 assists) and Tristan Thompson (11 offensive boards, 14 points), as well as Richard Jefferson (13 points) who made a trio of big three-pointers in extended time (31 minutes) filling Williams’ role as bench offense. Young buck Jared Cunningham picked up the beleaguered backcourt with 13 solid minutes, mostly guarding Westbrook.

Even seven-foot Russian, Timofey Mozgov, played a key role. Though Thursday night’s performance wasn’t as notable as the prior two games, it continues a trend of positive, more defensive-centric performances by Mozgov.

When Love received his second foul with just over four minutes gone in the second, The team was down 10, 38-28. Mozgov’s entry coincided with a five-plus minute Oklahoma City scoring drought during which they managed just a single free throw while the Cavs rattled off 18 straight points playing alongside Thompson.

That’s the kind of game it was, a game of runs. The Thunder answered, taking advantage of the Cavaliers continuing issues sustaining that focus, and also because Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are real damn good. They closed the first with a 7-0 run and opened the second half by hitting five of their first six shots to take an eight point lead.

But the Cavaliers didn’t fold, stuck with it and ultimately prevailed with a final run of their own.

“Each time that we went down eight, ten points, we never let them get away from us,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. “They had us a few times and we didn’t break. Coming back at the end of the third and then coming out well in the beginning of the fourth was significant emotionally and mentally… to me that was what was the difference.”

Love and Denial

David Blatt pulled LeBron James midway through the first, sparking the game’s first run, an 8-0 run by the Thunder in his absence. The period featured two turnovers (one feeding Love, one 24-second clock violation) and three Dellavedova jumpers. During such moments you’ll hear fans complain bitterly that the team should be getting the ball to Love.

If the fans have this idea, it’s a fair chance the opposing coaches know it’s a thing as well. Since Love is not a primary ballhandler, but more a versatile post player, he has to be gotten the ball in an area where he can operate. He’s not a big guy really, almost more of a small forward by today’s standards than a power forward and he can get swallowed up by longer, athletic fours such as Serge Ibaka.

“Serge really pinpointed Kevin and they did as a team knowing how valuable he is,” said Blatt. “They made it a point to kind of neutralize him but he made some big plays in the fourth.”

In other words, if it’s so easy, you try it Slick. Here you’ll see the Cavaliers use a couple of side screens initially used by J.R. Smith to hopefully return the favor for Love. However Ibaka appears to have a good hold of Love jersey, making breaking free that much more difficult. Too bad the referee standing right there was watching ball, or…. something, but not that.

They do eventually get the switch of a guard onto Love, but Ibaka recovers so quickly you practically have to pass the ball mentally. When it works, it’s pretty nice, as they effectively ran the play right after James left the game. They didn’t score again until Delly hit a three on the above set.

“We had a good sense that part of their gameplan was to keep the ball out of my hands, slow me down,” said Love afterwards. “But I just tired to stay with it….all it takes is one good quarter so I had to keep my mind in it. I have great teammates that will help me do that.

Second Quarter Woes

The Cavaliers continue to struggle through terrible second quarters. It’s been an issue all year and probably where the team’s injuries have borne their biggest imprint. It’s not just the loss of depth but the fact that Blatt hasn’t had a chance to build consistent rotations, nor have the rotations developed the necessary chemistry and cohesion.

It’s probably to be expected but it’s vexing non the less. And as we said when we discussed this Wednesday, the team has the fifth worst defense in the NBA during the second period, and that can’t just be passed over as matchups. Some of that is effort and giving bad teams enough oxygen in the early going that they build the confidence to hang in their the whole half.

Blatt continues to experiment. They played without James for a couple possessions. When he came back he missed a jumper and made a turnover. Love came back, and missed a three. By the time LeBron hit this reverse layup the team was already down ten. A moment later Love picked up his second foul and Blatt subbed him.

Suddenly the Wine and Gold turned molten, knocking down seven straight shots, including two Delly weakside threes (LeBron found Delly out of the post), three J.R. Smith buckets, a Mozgov basket of a Delly pick and roll, and a LeBron breakaway off a quick-witted Delly pass.

But as we said it was a game of runs, and the Thunder came right back with seven unanswered to end the half.

“Early in the game [the Cavaliers] made some difficult shots off the dribble and you have to give them credit,” said the Thunder’s Billy Donovan after the game. “Then I thought several times we lost our man and gave them what I consider catch and shoot threes, 7 of 12 in the first half.”

A Foul State of Affairs

The second half began with a series of non-calls that seemed a little egregious including a James layup that didn’t draw a foul and a Mozgov dunk attempt that looked more like three guys jostling to keep their hand on a truck in a radio promotion. At the end of three quarters the Thunder had taken three times as many free throws as the Cavs (24 to 8).

In the third quarter alone the Thunder took twelve free throws, while the Cavaliers struggled through five turnovers, including two of James’ team high seven. Overall the Cavaliers finished with 18 turnovers surrendering 26 points to the Thunder while only forcing 12 and turning that into 11 points.

“It gets frustating sometimes beause I’m a guy who attacks the paint a lot,” he said. “I don’t show many jumpers and sometimes I don’t get the benefit of the calls. But that’s okay, I have to contine uto push the envelop, continue ot be positive and contine to work hard on our habits.”

The really vexing thing about the free throws was that it kept the Thunder in the game while the Cavs were making their run. Down 11, 69-58 with just over half the third quarter gone, they allowed an Ibaka jump shot a minute later, then held the Thunder without a basket until two-minutes were gone in the fourth. During that time the Cavaliers mounted a 16-point swing to take a five-point lead.

The run was made with ball movement. Eight of the ten baskets during this stretch were assisted including four by LeBron (11 assists for the game). Jefferson was key during this stretch scoring three buckets. Thompson also scored three times and grabbed three offensive boards – mutually exclusive events. The hoops came off a Delly ‘oop, a James feed, and that rarest of birds, a Thompson post-up basket.

“[Thompson’s] ability to screen and roll is a huge part of our game. Obviously he’s not as high above the rim as DeAndre Jordan but they have the same kind of impact offensively because you have to attend to a guy rolling like that,” said James. “He also had a post-up move where he got to his left hand in the middle on Kanter in the paint, and caught some lobs from Delly. Kept a couple of our shots that didn’t go in, got us second chance possessions.”

LeBron Stirs the Drink

The fourth quarter began with a great play by Kevin Love, in two ways. First, he was set up in post position, when LeBron came under the basket from the weak side. He gave up the ball and his man, Nick Collison trapped James. He’d undoubtedly noted that the Thunder were trapping him on the baseline because he almost immediately shuffled it back to Kevin Love.

Though Ibaka was smart enough (and quick enough) to avoid biting on Love’s pump fakes Nick Collison is neither and jumped out at him to aggressively, allowing Love to brush against him on the way to an “and 1” for the four-point play which tied the game. The Thunder would never hold the lead again.

Love returned the favor immediately fielding a Thunder miss and threaded it between two defenders where a Warfield-esque James grabbed it and slammed it through for an “and 1.”

Before the game Donovan talked about how hard it is to stop LeBron. If there is one staple of opposing coach pregame presser, it’s the ‘how do you stop LeBron or LeBron & (blank).’

The answer is one, you don’t, and two, he’s seen everything before so the only thing you can do is throw a stream of different things at him. But even that has its limits. In the end, to some extent, LeBron gets what LeBron wants, with some moderating effect by a top caliber defender and James’ level of exhaustion.

When it came to the fourth, well, you don’t have to sporting a wall clock around your neck to know what time it is.

“The thing too is– I think any defense, LeBron drove the ball, he manufactured a lot of those threes,” said Donovan after the game. “He drove the ball and you have to come across because he’s coming in for a clean layup and once that happens you’re in rotation. They did a good job of moving the ball and getting the ball behind the line and getting it reversed.”

A few moments later Jared Cunningham would again the beneficiary of a LeBron drive and dish. The scrappy 6’4” third-year combo guard from Oregon State has stuck on the team because her plays scrappy defense, can get to the rim off the bounce and can shoot a three passably well (38.5%).

Early in the season Cunningham struggled, but James has had fun all season bantering with Cunningham and encouraging him. The kid’s got athleticism and he held Westbrook scoreless for three-and-a-half minutes in the middle of the fourth when the Cavs built an 11-point lead. Cunningham continually fought over the tops of screens to stay in front of him.

“You want to be aggressive, move your feet and stay in front of him,” said Cunningham. “You don’t want to give up any easy layups so getting over the pick is something you gotta get though and keep doing it.”

Cunningham, who was unprepared early in the season and had a pass from LeBron bounce off his face, was prepared this time getting his feet set for the 3 that gave the Cavs an 11 point lead. With the team short three point guards, his performance is the kind of unsung stuff that makes a team go. James noticed.

“We got contributions from everybody,” he said. “The bench was phenomenal. Tris, JC once again, RJ, everybody.”

“The man had the ball in his hand and found me on the right side and I just let it go,” Cunningham said. “You just got to be ready and know, he’s going to find you.”

The Thunder fought back, because the Cavs are still teenagers as teams go, so they like a bit of drama. But in the end, Cleveland stuck tough and walked away with the win. The King finished with 11 points and five assists, three rebounds and two steals in the fourth quarter alone, while helping hold Durant to just four points on 1 of 5 shooting. (James also made three turnovers.)

“Every game is a big win. We’re a team that has to continue to get better,” James said in the locker room, echoing a sentiment he’d expressed to TNT’s Craig Sager moments earlier about daily progress.

“We’re an inexperienced team. Yeah we’ve played in some big games, but as far as the years we haven’t been together long,” he told Sager. “So I have to make sure I stay on them and hold everyone accountable, including myself. I had a lot of mistakes tonight. Seven turnovers will not cut it so I have to do better as well.”

That’s what you want to hear from your leader. Not that he’s happy, but that he’s working on getting better. That they all are. That’s the meaning behind your ABCs. Always Be Closing. Now go get yourself some (damn fine) coffee.

We’ll be at the Q for Sunday afternoon’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers. We’ll be tweeting and posting video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our game analysis the next day on the Scene Blog.
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