Cavaliers Impaled on Drive Shaft as Pistons Pull Away

click to enlarge Kyrie and Cavs can't squeeze by the Pistons.
Kyrie and Cavs can't squeeze by the Pistons.
Van Gundy’s drifting Pistons revved up their humming engines in Cleveland late last night, spitting dust on the husks of the inconsistent schmucks sporting Wine and Gold but little fight. Lackluster would-be Busters hardly manufactured enough bluster after quieting the Thunder’s storm out West. They passed the test then digressed, it’s no contest they’re not the best when they can’t do it every single night.

Maybe the Cavaliers aren’t blinded by the light, but they’ve quoted the gospel of Lue, and properly genuflected at the altars of tempo, passing and defensive intensity. They’ve professed their faith, why haven’t the basketball Gods showered love down on the deserving Cavs?

Could it be their commitment to ball movement’s less sturdy than a Hollywood marriage and threatened by the same narcissistic tendencies? Are these really the gritty, no-surrender scrappers that took a 2-1 lead on the Warriors, or has the lingering sense of entitlement rendered that nothing but a brilliant disguise?

The Cavaliers are a frustrating sort. They tease with talent, shimmying their shoulders before the empty Cleveland mantle, mouth open, eyes full of promise and intent, while their heart pumps hot and cold like a porn star in an igloo. If the Cavaliers talk gets any cheaper they’ll be Hollywood producers.

Cavaliers fans are their unfortunate spouse, dull-eyed and empty-faced, left to contemplate the burning bed or accept torturous fate.

It’s a game about money, there are no strings attached, and that’s how Anderson Varejao now calls Golden State home. At about the same time Wild Thing was changing colors, his replacement Channing Frye was taking the floor.

The seven-foot long-distance shooter finally passed a long-awaited physical early Monday and was cleared to play that evening. There was some concern because Frye had missed a season three years ago because of an enlarged heart, something the Cavaliers certainly needed, at least symbolically last night.

Detroit had lost their last five in a row and was looking to avenge a 114-105 loss to Lue and Company at the Palace three weeks ago. In the interim the Pistons picked up Tobias Harris (who deactivated LeBron’s “Chill Mode” last year) at the trading deadline and their other trade with the Houston Rockets, for Marcus Thornton and Donatas Motlejunas was voided earlier in the day after the Pistons doctors examined Motlejunas’ injury.

Both the Pistons and Cavaliers were playing their second game in two nights, but the emotional win over the Thunder on Sunday made this a bit of a trap game, especially with the long flight from Oklahoma City. (Kyrie Irving reveals trouble with bedbugs in Oklahoma had limited his sleep.)

Whatever the reason, the Cavaliers had trouble maintaining their energy. They’re shorthanded in the backcourt with Shumpert and Williams injured, and the traded Jared Cunningham (now "a river that don’t know where it’s flowing" after being released by the Magic earlier in the day). It was most apparent in the trouble the Pistons backcourt gave them.

Reggie Jackson and Kantavious Caldwell-Pope combined to go 12-16 and score 29 of the Pistons 56 first-half points as they took a seven-point lead they’d never relinquish.

The difference in the game was the Cavaliers' 12 first-half turnovers which the Pistons tuned into 16 points. The Cavaliers were only able to turn the Pistons four 1st half turnovers into 9 points, accounting for the halftime difference. (That 7-point difference remained at the end of the game.)

The Pistons also beat the Cavaliers on points in the paint 40-28, much of it occurring in the first half, which they won 22-14.

The Game

The Q was suffused with the smell of burning rubber as each team laid a patch during the first six minutes going a collective 15-22 from the floor, with the Cavaliers taking an 18-16 lead. The Cavaliers kept shooting well, but committed four turnovers the last half of the quarter, then kept up that pace through the entire second.

Kevin Love picked up where he left off against the Thunder, scoring 14 points in the first quarter, just how he likes it. He scored on a couple of short hook shots from 8’-10’, and then went to the line to get him started, then moved outside with a 16’ bank shot and a couple threes.

It was an impressive effort featuring a 12-point outburst by Reggie Jackson to almost match Love, as well as the Pistons' last eight points of the quarter. They outscored the Cavs 17-10 the last half of the first.

The Cavaliers fought back into the game and took the lead 42-40 on back-to-back threes by Kyrie Irving.
Again the Pistons closed the quarter strongly, outscoring the Cavs 16-7 the last six minutes. Cleveland started the second half slowly, rallied, then fell behind 18 with 8 minutes left, then flipped the switch with a 14-2 run that cut the lead to six with two and a half minutes to go.

They weren’t able to go to Kevin Love like they did in the first half, when he scored 17 (he finished with 24), because the Pistons doubled him. Often this left a three shooter open, which in the postgame Lue indicated was his preference, they just didn’t make the shots. Hmm. Might have something to do with the guy making 27% of them, akin to making 40% of one’s two-pointers?
The Cavaliers couldn’t get the stops or the big shots to further bridge the gap, though they had time and opportunity. Irving finished with 30 and 5 assists, but both he and James (12pts, 8 Rebounds, 5 assists) disappeared from midway into the second through the end of the third, going a collective 2-12 and shooting but 3 free throws while the Pistons were shooting 14.

Getting Downhill

This is an ongoing issue. The Cavaliers are shooting more than 2 less free throws/game than under Blatt even though they’re getting five more possessions/game. Last night Detroit had 8 more free throw attempts, and the Cavaliers took twice as many threes as free throws. It also happened in the loss to Charlotte.

They’ve exceeded 20 free throws in a game twice in the last eight games. That current stretch accounts for six games of the 14 times all season that the Cavs have taken under 20 free throws. We feel the Cavaliers are settling for jumpers rather than attacking the basket as much as they need to, and it hurts the offense. Nearly a third of their 79 shots last night were threes.

Getting to the line helps smooth out scoring droughts by providing the easiest points in the game and free throws also usually keep your opponent out of transition. For the season, the Cavaliers are shooting the 5th most 3s (28) in the league and shooting a 10th-best 35.7%.

Looking at the game’s shot charts it’s fairly clear what happened. The Pistons were able to finish at the rim a lot better than the Cavaliers, who struggled more to score in the midrange area outside the paint.
The other thing that stood out is the number of threes the Cavs took from above the break (as opposed to in the corners). They were 2-19 on this longer three, and there were plenty of bricks to rebuild Cabrini Green. For the year the Cavs are a top ten NBA team at shooting the Corner 3.

Above the break, not so much. For the year the Cavaliers are shooting 34% on threes from above the break, eighteenth in the league, while at 20.5 attempts/game, they take the seventh most in the league. That’s something the Cavaliers ought to appreciate about newcomer Frye. He’s shooting 40% on threes from above the break, which is where he takes 80% of his threes.

You also notice from the shot charts that the Pistons got to the basket more frequently and did better when they did than the Cavaliers. Jackson was breaking down defenders at will while Tristan Thompson was having trouble defending the rim. He was eventually pulled and saw his fewest minutes of the Lue regime.

We’re hopefully it’s recognition of the fact that Timofey Mozgov’s play has improved over the past few weeks, and that his rim protection is sorely needed given the difficulty the team sometimes has with the pick-and-roll. Since Lue took over, Mozgov’s really stepped up his defensive play, even as Thompson regressed to Kevin Love levels.
Last night they blitzed the picks like Hemi-powered drones and big men showed more aggressively than Miley Cyrus at a photo shoot, helping slow down the Pistons’ roll (43% shooting) in the second half. Unfortunately the Cavs offense slowed even more, shooting below 33% in the second half. While the better rim protection helped, overall the Pistons made 61% of their shots at the rim and 64% of there shots on the left block.

Lue’s Defense

After such an uninspiring defensive performance we wanted to look at the Cavs stats to see if we could discern what’s different.

First off are a few offensive stats where you can see the Cavaliers are making two less turnovers, shooting a little better but drawing less fouls, as we noted earlier. They’re getting fewer points off turnovers which is an indication of their defensive failings and perhaps their tiredness from pushing the pace on offense.
You’ll also note they’re scoring three more second chance points, but if you scan to the right, you’re see opponents are scoring 3.2 points/game on second chance points. So that evens out. (Note at the end, the Cavs are allowing 4% more offensive rebounds.) It’s more points because of the higher pace, but it cancels out, much as the Cavs’ nearly two additional points in the paint is mirrored by the opponents +1.6 PITP.

Cleveland’s also allowing three less points off turnovers. While only scoring 1.4 less, a net gain, even when you account for the additional fastbreak point the Cavaliers are allowing. They’re allowing about the same field goal percentage and they’re fouling a little bit less.

As for the shooting, it’s interesting to see that Cavs are so much worse in the restricted area, even though they’re allowing fewer shots. This is another indication that Thompson maybe needs to be spotted more, and maybe not have such a stranglehold on the starting job. While the team’s done very good defending corner threes, it’s done worse with the more frequent three from above the break. Given the team’s strong focus on limiting threes it’s a little surprising.

Final Analysis

The Cavs are a point better overall in net efficiency than they were under Blatt, and that’s up over a few games ago. The team’s moving in the right direction even if that movement’s mostly two exits forward, and one missed exit back.

This is the nature of “the process” and must be accepted as part of sweating it out on the street on your way to case the promised land. There’s no doubt the Cavaliers still have a long way to go. But on the positive side it’s more like a recalcitrant teen than an unmanageable employee.

The Cavaliers failures are maddening but pretty consistent. They need to move the ball, they need to make quick decisions or pass it, and move on the weakside. We’ve seen it, but it’s inconsistent, which is the same theme on the opposite end of the floor. The energy and focus are in-and-out like visitors at a drug dealer’s house.

They commit too many turnovers, don’t always go downhill, and need to be more effective fighting over screens to prevent penetration.

None of this should be news to anyone that’s watched the Cavaliers, and the predictability is sort of comforting. It isn’t like the Browns who seem to coin new and inventive ways to suck every time they take the field.

The Cavs have a frightful tendency to approach the court like they just returned from a lost weekend. But that doesn’t diminish our faith that they will figure it out in time. It’d be nicer if they developed their better habits faster, but change is always incremental, and everyone always wants to be further down the road yelling, "Hurry up, hurry up."

About A Car

We’ve layered the column today with references and lyrics from Bruce Springsteen who is in town tonight. (We'll be there!) His passion for autos dovetails nicely with the Pistons, and we dropped a Thunder Road reference into that game’s write-up so it seemed like a natural.

In honor of the Boss and the teenage American Dream of the auto, we asked three Cavaliers about the moment in their life when they got their first car, the sort of apotheosis of Springsteen's early craft. For him, nothing spoke to the possibilities of life better than open highway and the promise of some redemption underneath that dirty hood or in the shadow of that Exxon sign that gives this harsh city light.

“It was a 1996 Maxima, I got it when I was twenty and I was a junior in college
I didn’t get my first care until I was pretty old, I didn’t get my first driver’s license until I was twenty,” recalls Richard Jefferson. “Didn’t do anything special, just tried to enjoy that bit of freedom for the first time.”

“It was a 1992 red Nissan Maxima, I was 17. My uncle gave it to me. Actually the first thing I did was drive it to one of my high school games,” say James Jones. “It was [freedom]; for me it was practical. I had to be at school at 6:30 and practices ran late, and I’d get home 7:30, 9 o’clock. My mom and my dad worked, it just made it a lot easier for me to focus on basketball and my schoolwork.”

“It was a 1971 Chevy pickup. I was 16-17. It was Arizona, with no A.C. no power steering no radio windows didn’t work and I drove 25 minutes to school. It’s an old man story, but it’s a true story,” says newest Cav Channing Frye, beads of sweat beginning to form at the memory. “My Dad was, 'Hey I got you a car,' and I was like Oh, what’d you get me, a Ford F-150 or something? And he was, ‘something like that.’ I went outside and was like, 'Oh damn. This?' And he made me wash that thing every day.”

Frye kept it for one year of college before replacing it with a Dodge Durango, with power windows and A.C., having already served his time.

We’ll be at the Q on Wednesday for the matchup against the Charlotte Hornets. Follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis on Thursday morning here in the Scene and Heard blog.

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