Cavaliers Melt Down Spurs, Make Paperweights

click to enlarge Here Comes LeBron, Here Comes LeBron
Here Comes LeBron, Here Comes LeBron
Last night the Cleveland Cavaliers gave the San Antonio Spurs a Near Death Experience (NDE) while expediting a half-brilliant 117-103 victory. The Cavs scored 66 first half points, against not only the league’s best defense, but the league’s best road defense.

For the Spurs it was akin to the part of an NDE where the person experiences their personal impact on others. Yup, the shoes were on the other feet for San Antonio last night. They were uncomfortable, they smelled, and afterwards their toes itched.

The 66 points tied Cleveland’s season-high for a half, as the Cavs shot 57% (25-44) and had assists on 17 of their 25 hoops. They finished the game shooting 55%. We haven’t seen a demonstration of force like this since Alderaan got Death Starred.

The Cavs built a 17-point lead that the Spurs were never able to significantly reduce (for long). Everything Tyronn Lue has been trying to do was in full effect from better tempo to shot selection to defense. The win is even more impressive when you consider Cleveland was on the back-end of a back-to-back while this was the first day of the Spurs road trip after three days off.

Things went so well most will probably ignore a potentially worrisome sign in the second half. Only 7 of the team’s 20 second half buckets were assisted, led by Irving with 2. The team also had as many turnovers as assists. LeBron, who had six assists and no turnovers in the first half, gathered one assist and two turnovers in the second half.

After blowing up with 18 points in the first 19 minutes of the game, Love took four more shots over his last 17 minutes of play.

Irving and James took over in the second half and were very efficient if not particularly generous. They missed three shots apiece, going a collective 14-20 from the field and 7-8 from the line in the second half, scoring 35 of the team’s 51 points. No big deal, though the Spurs kept threatening, the individual skills of the Cavs stars were enough to hold them off.

However it seems the idea all along has been to develop better habits. Replicating the ball movement of the first half seems a lot more productive than the team’s two dominating ballhandlers each scratching off a quarter as their own.

We know that’s not how they see it, and tonight’s effort certainly knocked over every milk bottle, but it still made us wonder how committed the team is to its newfound attitude.

Or maybe it’s not even new. That’s what Kyrie Irving suggested when queried about the team’s “new personality” and how quickly they’d changed their nature.

“I don’t think it’s a new personality. I just think our pace is a lot better. It’s not necessarily a new personality,” Irving said, running his hand down his knitted brow. “We had it last year. Coming back from injury me not getting up and down the floor like I should’ve been in the beginning coming back.”

It’s worth noting here that the whole pick-up-the-pace theme is something Blatt had preached unsuccessfully all season, but with even greater force his final days. Just goes to show both, how important buy-in is and how easy it is to lead the media on a snipe hunt.

Stalking the Snipe of Pace

As an aside, it’s worth noting here the press’ willingness to grab a narrative like Mark Foley would a sixteen-year old page and wring it for all its worth. It can be very, “Don't try to understand ‘em, just rope, throw, and brand’em” in this business, which is why some reporters seem to be under the false impression that Lue is trying to or has gotten the team to create more possessions.

The truth of the matter is the Cavaliers actually have been averaging one less possession a game (93.19 or 93.95 if you throw out the Bulls game) than under Blatt (94.93). This is a red herring that some media have bought unexamined.

They think pace mean possessions. It’s really as much about getting the ball into the frontcourt quickly so they can perhaps take advantage of LeBron and Kyrie’s great 1-on-1 skills on breaks or in transition. It also allows for early offense when the defense isn’t set. If not, they're happy to go back into their very good halfcourt offense.

“The best thing about it is we’re not turning the ball over while we’re doing it,” said LeBron. “It’s about getting up the floor if we’ve got something, and go for it early, if not then run our stuff.”

Under former Coach David Blatt, the Cavs took 27% of their shots in the first nine seconds, and 19.8% in the last seven seconds of the shot clock. Now that’s 35.4% in the first nine seconds and 20% in the final seven. The Cavaliers are definitely creating early offense while shooting at a similar clip.

Another notable difference you see is the team is taking more 15’-19’ jumpers now (12.4 to 9.4), where they’re shooting even better than their league-leading rate (50%-45%). They’ve also been getting about 3 less shots at the rim, but are making more (74%-61%)

The Balanced Scoring Plan

Some in the media have suggested the Cavaliers were going to play at a fast enough pace to create more offensive possessions for the Big 3 to share. So if that continues not to happen, can we trust these guys not to feel left out if they’re not getting their shots?

Who is going to bite the bullet on this, because whatever James says, he gets his, he’s the King, and Irving is going to get his too, it would seem.

“It isn’t necessarily planned,” said Irving of the alternating takeover modes. “We sat down and addressed what we needed to address. Coming in we’re not worried about shots. We’re not worried about people being selfish with the shots that they’re getting. We just want to have an equal offense. If you’re open take the shot and we get back on defense. Miss or make we hold each other accountable on defensive end and then offensively, we’re talented enough to get any shot we want.”

This is an interesting theme we’ve picked up woven into the conversation. You work on defense and then the offense is like the treat. The wide-open feel is supposed to get everyone involved.

“Open up the floor, let everybody play, move the ball and not plays so much 1-on-1,” Lue said before the game.

It’s great rhetoric for so long as it lasts, but it will be a test to see how long it persists. This team is nothing if not consistent in their inconstant good habits.

Lue said several very interesting things yesterday, suggesting something of a different role for Irving and James offensively than they had under Blatt. Love, obviously, has had such a different role since Lue came on, you have to wonder if Blatt disliked him, because of how he’s spread his wings in his new role.

Irving! Attack!

One of the most fascinating things we heard yesterday was Lue’s response to a good Chris Fedor question about LeBron’s high assist totals since the coaching change. Lue admitted he had indeed elaborated a different role for James.

“I want the ball in LeBron’s hands to facilitate and create for other guys,” said Lue. “I want Kyrie to be in attack mode, more aggressive, looking to score because I don’t think anyone can stop him 1-on-1… also having Kevin at the elbow opens things up because he’s a great passer.”

He’s essentially made LeBron the point guard and Irving the shooting guard, though as Jalen Rose has mentioned more than once, positions don’t really matter anymore for the NBA. “Scorer,” “Facilitator,” “Rim Protector,” and “Rebounder” are more appropriate descriptors in a league where position is becoming as fluid as gender.

This all seems part of a Lue plan to make better use of his big three than Blatt did. While hoarding his talent and then playing it together in devastating bursts sounds like a strategy for Magic the Gathering, it wasn’t very satisfying for the Cavaliers, especially given the power issues already at play over who shoots when.

So Lue’s decision to try and play Love with the second team is a sound and welcome plan. It did not come to fruition last night because Kevin Love was so freaking en fuego. (We do appreciate Lue’s flexibility on his rotational plans.)

Lue was moved to scrap the plan and go with Love's hot hand for most of the quarter, until he subbed all three stars near the end of the first. In the second half Lue split Ky and LeBron’s time on the floor to some extent so the two didn’t have to compete for shots as much. This actually worked rather well.

This of course did nothing for the formerly on fire Love. We don’t need no water gentlemen, just deprive him of oxygen (the ball), and watch him die.

If Lue can get these guys to follow through on what he’s suggesting, it’s clear their combined firepower, working in the same direction instead of cross-purposes can mete out some destruction like the Avengers or Michael Bay. But that’s easier said than done.

“I think sometimes we resorted to the 1-on-1 game because we have guys that can ISO,” James noted. “Coach gets on us in film sessions about one pass shots. He wants us to work the offense. If we don’t have something early in the transition game. He put this on the board a few games ago 5+ passes we’re shooting 58% from 3 and it goes down with less passes. So we’ve always been conscious about it but he’s put even more of an emphasis.”

More of an emphasis than Blatt who complained bitterly about ball movement after every game? Just saying. Sometimes turning the page is more important than who’s right.

Love Leads the Way

Over the last two nights, the Cavaliers have been treated to a display by Kevin Love reminiscent of the archetypal school librarian throwing off her glasses and letting down her hair to be revealed as a total hottie. (We don’t write the archetypes, just acknowledge them.)

He’s scored all over the place (much like Wilt Chamberlain, and we don’t mean hoops), and his play resounded with confidence. He now made plays without hesitation, and between the head fakes and the nice setups he’s rarely had anyone in his face of late.

This is how Love looked when it was just a twosome; turning the offensive bonanza into a threesome with Irving back meant somebody had to serve as meat instead of bun. That’s been a tough transition for Love because he must rely on the other two for his opportunities. (His usage went from around where it was in Minnesota during the first six weeks to lower than it was last year after Kyrie’s return.)

It’s like waiting in line behind the guy who keeps going “hold on,” “only going to be a second,” and “I’m almost finished” to the point where you’re about to make it true for him. Love’s impatience has been apparent in a low, constant roar of complaint about shots not unlike a whale’s song, and his tendency to mope on defense.

Let’s hope he keeps getting shots because lately he’s also played damn good defense and can be found running all over the court to meet his help D responsibilities. This is quite the switch from when Love's idea of help defense appeared to be turning his head.
As you can see, Love got lots of great looks. Only one of his seven first half buckets was even contested and he finished with three contested shots versus 10- uncontested ones. LeBron made many of them happen by breaking the defense down then dishing.

This was clearly Lue’s plan and looked pretty effective. LeBron is an amazing passer and says he prefers to make plays for others. We’re not always so sure, but we’re cynics by birth.

Another noticeable difference in the offense under Lue is the prevalence of screens and picks involving the Big 3. While Blatt was using Love more in pick-and-rolls as the season went on, it was nowhere the frequency we’ve seen lately. We also saw LeBron set several screens for Kyrie. Using LeBron as ball screener is new, and the whole idea seems to be built upon overloading one side with the Cavs’ Big Three, then throw weakside when defense collapses on penetration, as with the first bucket of the game.

The Parker Tweak

Tony Parker ran wild over the Cavaliers last time they faced him, and he caused some issues again on Saturday, but not nearly to nearly the same extent. He finished 5-10 with 13 points and six assists against three turnovers.

One factor was the general level of Kyrie Irving’s defense has picked up of late. He wasn’t great at staying in front of Parker, but he chased vigorously to get back into place. This is another change from Blatt, under whom the team tended to switch and double more often. (Even though Lue had run of defense, Blatt had input.)

Against the Spurs, we saw much more one-on-one defensive play. Guys had to recover, they couldn’t just pass the responsibility onto someone else.

Diaw didn’t get a double and neither did Aldridge. They did double Leonard on the block (he still finished with 24), but played the Spurs pretty straight-up.

Another difference was when Parker received picks from David West and LaMarcus Aldridge, the bigs covering them stepped out or “hedged,” keeping Parker from gathering any momentum as he detoured around, giving Kyrie or whomever time to recover. In the last game against the Spurs they’d hung back from him, allowing Parker to take it right at them, much how you run right at a pass-rushing end in football.
“What was different tonight is we went to the show,” Lue said. “Last game they took advantage of us being on drop and isos and Tony went 1-on-1 against our bigs a lot the whole night. So tonight coming into this game we decided we wanted to show and make them veer out, and then play one-on-one against our guards, and it was effective for us tonight.”

Call Me Some Defense, Not Ishmael

The team has played some pretty good defense the last few games, or at least they’re challenging shots. Like in Detroit, the team contested more than 60% of the Spurs shots, though they still hit 50% of them. The Cavs rim protection hasn’t been good (Spurs made 17-22) but the Cavs keep winning.

As we noted when Thompson replaced Mozgov, the Cavaliers are more concerned about their ability to extend the defense to the three line than with the peril of substandard rim protection. Just one of many ways the three-ball’s changed the game. Indeed, Lue wasn’t even so concerned about the Spurs high shooting percentage (49%).

“I really don’t go off field goal percentage, I go off 3s and 3 point field goal percentage,” said Lue. “What we’ve been doing is taking teams out of making their 3 point shot – running guys off so they’re getting easier 2s and pullups. We’ll have to live with that. But nowadays in this game the 3s hurt you so we want to limit guys' 3s and live with our rim protection.”

Kevin Love suggested that the quicker pace has helped them get to those 50-50 balls. It’s like the difference between being on one’s toes or heels. “The pace kind of helps us,” he says. “Playing fast but under control is helping us get to those.”

Final Analysis

The Cavs came up with their fourth straight game with 114 points or more. The team hadn’t even had consecutive games over 110 this year, before running up three games in excess of 120 points at the beginning of the month. That too faded.

The question isn’t whether Tyronn Lue has made the Cavaliers better. Without a doubt he has, even though many of his thoughts simply reiterate ideas of his former boss.. It’s sorta sad Blatt had to lose his job for the team to start listening to what he had to say, but that’s life. (Lesson: Don’t go looking for justice from man-made institutions.)

The second half showed that the team can still win without ball movement, we just kinda wish they didn’t have to prove it. In our mind it just makes it easier for them to go away from sharing the ball and not feel like it hurts the team. It’s not debilitating, but it’s still sub-optimal.

Only when they share the ball does Love have a chance to truly shine, and he’s one of the most devastating offensive players in the game. But he needs those chances, and they simply aren’t always forthcoming.

Lue also seems to have these guys feeling accountable on defense. They played hard and really boxed out. (Weird how they’re rediscovering basketball fundamentals suddenly.)

We don’t like to admit it, but there does seem to be a different vibe in the locker room and around the team. Players seem to be going out of their way to make more friendly gestures and overtures towards each other. It feels more playful and not so tense.

Maybe it’s superficial, maybe it won’t last, but like everything else in life, there’s only so much margin in being a curmudgeon and not enjoying at least a Dixie Cup of the Kool-Aid. This is Cleveland, sometimes the Kool-Aid is as far as it gets.

We don’t think that’s the case, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the-team-that-shall-remain-nameless are on a pace to shatter the record for best regular season win percentage. At the very least, we’re going to try to enjoy those moments when it looks all downhill, knowing it probably won’t remain that way for long.

We’re traveling to Indianapolis where the Cavs will meet the Pacers on Monday. We’ll be posting video, analysis and snark, follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can hear us tomorrow morning at 10am on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James, on WRUR, 91.1. You can read our analysis of the Pacers game on Tuesday on the Scene blog.
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