Cavaliers Must Address Post-Break Issues Before Playoffs

The Cavaliers went on a terrific run from midway through January to the All-Star break, but in the last eight games they’ve not looked nearly as good as they did before. They’ve gone 5-3 in that time, and also lost the last game before the break. They won last night over the Suns, 89-79, but surrendered a huge lead forcing the starters to return and salt away the win.

The night before in Atlanta they weren’t that fortunate. Taking on the top team in the East, they came out without passion early and wound up down by 17 until they played better in the second and third periods to pull within two at the end of the third. However, the small-ball lineup that Blatt was using got massacred by the Hawks in an early fourth quarter run and never got closer.

Rather than get into a lot of game analysis we’re going to talk about several subjects under the rubric of what the Cavaliers need to work on going into the stretch run and preparing for the playoffs in April. We begin by looking at their potential Conference Finals combatant.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks showed why they’re the premier Eastern Conference outfit on Friday with an impressive 106-97 lead. The Cavs came out a little lackadaisical in this one, failing to bring the requisite energy in the first quarter and falling behind by 17. Though they recovered, the energy and manpower required to get back forced Blatt to use a lineup rotation that got roasted quicker than it takes to get through the drive-thru at Steak & Shake. (Of course it didn’t help that they immediately went into three-shooting mode rather than working for hoops in the paint, but we’ll get to that.)

The early issues with the Hawks were in transition, one of the Cavaliers' biggest issues intermittently throughout the season. Right off the bat Atlanta got up the court and found Kyrie Irving on center Al Horford when Timofey Mozgov couldn’t locate his man on D. A minute later Carroll hit a 3 in transition. Hawks got Mozgov caught on Paul Millsap, and he did okay considering he had to handle his drive from the 3 line. Eleven of the Hawks' first 17 points game in transition during first six minutes. Then it got worse as the offense disappeared.

It was 11-10 after a LeBron James jumper with 7:35 left. They were outscored 15-1 from that point forward, which was the difference in the game. The offense during this stretch? Four three-pointers, three turnovers, a forced jump ball off a Kyrie drive, and a Kevin Love free throw. All of the three-pointers were open, but the team must not settle for this shot every time. They could attack the closing defender and make the defense move but over the last few games they have not been doing that enough.

The blitzing Hawks D definitely made a difference in the game forcing 14 turnovers by LeBron (9) and Kryie (5). They not only blitzed the Cavs’ main ballhandlers, but also clogged the paint with weakside defenders, daring Cleveland to make the extra pass something they simply did not do (17 assists on 29 shots). The Cavaliers are 14th in the league in percentage of shots the feature an assist.

Some people suggested that Timofey Mozgov was an issue in the Hawks' outburst, but it didn’t look that way on the video. Here’s a look at his first quarter defense, and it looks great given the circumstances. Indeed, he did an admirable job covering for other people’s issues, if typically unsuccessfully.

Timofey Mozgov

Coach David Blatt doesn’t like to discuss his players’ weakness in public and so has mostly evaded attempts to pin him down on Mozgov’s absence in the fourth. The local press is always looking for a meme, and this seems to have displaced the Where’s Waldo? questions concerning Kevin Love for no other reason we can discern other than boredom. Love took six shots all game, less than anyone in the first eight but Iman Shumpert (but I won’t let him hijack this section like Tristan Thompson has Moz-erati’s second half time).

However that’s not to say it’s an inappropriate question. As I noted in my column, the Cavs have shown a tendency to get their asses kicked in the paint. They’re 17th in the league in points-in-the-paint (PITP), and they’re 22nd in the league in allowing PITP. Even Mozgov’s arrival hasn’t been the cure-all. They were 12th allowing PITP in February and 15th in scoring PITP. They were also 19th in allowing 2nd chance points (neither Thompson nor Mozgov are great defensive rebounders). They’re 24-5 when outscoring opponents in the paint, which means they’re 16-20 when they don’t.

Which brings us back to Mozgov. He’s the team’s best shot-blocker and rim protector, something they’ve been missing all season. He is absolutely essential to progress in the playoffs when the game becomes more grind-it-out half-court basketball. We noted in our analysis of the Toronto game that we were getting clobbered inside (50 PITP) when Blatt went with his small-ball lineup and the same thing happened in Atlanta (54 PITP). Each night they fell overly in love with the 3, jacking up 74 triples in the two games.

When Mozgov goes out, the team tends to shoot more 3s. It’s not a given, because Tristan can run the pick and roll for oops as easily as Mozgov. Indeed, Tristan converts on 71% and is in the 92nd percentile of roll men in pick & roll, league-wide. Mozgov only scores on 56% of his pick & roll plays (neighbors include Tiago Splitter, Enes Kanter, Omer Asik and Steve Adams) putting him in the 71st percentile. (However, T-Mo’s 6% “and 1” rate is 11th in the league for those with at least 25 chances.)

Thompson’s skill at running the pick and roll (10th best among those with at least 25 possessions) is likely why he’s in the game late. He’s also able to switch onto guards allowing the team great flexibility in how they defend the pick and roll. The drawback is that Thompson isn’t close to the rim protector Mozgov is. Mozgov is tied with Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins for 10th in defensive FG% at rim with 45.3%. Tristan is far worse with 52.1%. He lowers opponents FG% by 3% within 10 feet, Mogov lowers it by 4.3%.

T-Mo is very fast in a straight-line and gets up and down the court faster than just any other seven-footer, with the exception of Houston’s Donatas Montejunas according to player tracking. But his lateral quickness isn’t the best and he got exploited both in Houston (Montejunas) and Atlanta (Horford) by big men that were able to get him out in space and go around him or over him. Horford pulled him into the right corner and hit a three over him – his 10th of the season, all at home. (He’s hit 50% of them at home.) Numbers bear this out. Opponents shoot nearly 9% better outside 15 feet when Mozgov is guarding them (versus +2.2 for Thompson).

So it really comes down to a case of what you want to give up. Lately, Blatt has been willing to surrender the rim in the fourth quarter in an attempt to cover jump shooters better. It’s a move that allows for more efficient pick and rolls, which is the team’s bread and butter. It’s hard to argue with that.

However, at the end of the game, Thompson doesn’t do a lot of pick and roll because James will often wave him off, preferring to break his man down off isolation. We don’t have stats for it, but we’re willing to bet those isolation sets result in many drive and dish 3s — which are great when you’re hitting them, and can really screw you if you aren’t — resulting in lots of transition offense for opponents because of long rebounds and an unbalanced floor after the drive.

When Mozgov is on the court, the team shoots a higher percentage on threes than anyone else, presumably because his big presence hampers opponents’ ability to closer out shooters, requiring a body to stay close to him. When he’s off-the-court the team shoots more 3s than when anyone else is off the court and shoots a lower percentage than when anyone leaves the court other than LeBron or Kyrie.

The result is that when Mozgov leaves the floor the team isn’t as effective in the paint on defense and tends to shoot more 3s, both negatives for points in the paint, a pretty strong indicator of Cavs success or failure. Blatt is a big fan of game-planning to attack a team’s weaknesses but we worry in some cases he might be outsmarting himself by not sticking with what’s gotten them here – Mozgov’s interior presence and ability to get up the court quickly on breaks.

It’s something we definitely saw last night as Mozgov ran the floor and got early position on offense resulting in quick plays at the basket on several occasions when not stuffing it like he did on these two first quarter possessions last night.

Questioned about the fact that the team has gotten away from trying to set up Kevin Love with early post opportunities and first quarter points recently, Blatt pointed to Mozgov’s match-up with Phoenix. The Suns sat injured second-year center Alex Len and started 12th-man vagabond 7-footer Earl Barron, who’s played for eight different teams in nine years, a grand total of 130 games.

“We haven’t gone away from that as much,” said Blatt, referencing Love’s increasingly limited first quarter touches. “I felt we had a decided advantage in Timo around the rim, so we went to it and it was pretty successful. That was the plan.”

Kyrie Irving

Irving is one of the best offensive players in the league and without his amazing gravity-defying plays at the rim this team would be in serious trouble. (For instance, LeBron probably wouldn’t be here.) However this offensive brilliance doesn’t free anybody from responsibility to play defense. In the first third of the season, his mediocre-to-bad defense on opposing point guards was one of the team’s most vexing issues.
He dramatically turned that around in January when LeBron came back. You could actually see glimmers of it before that in the way Irving played Steph Curry in January. When Mozgov arrived the team was able to play the pick and roll a little less aggressively, and Kyrie really began to excel defensively.

Some of it was the coverage and some of it was simply much greater intensity upon LeBron’s return. Now that intensity seems to have ebbed away again. It’s something we had an inkling of from the eye test, but the numbers bear it out.

Kyrie’s defensive opponent FG%
November..Overall: +2.8%;  Inside 10’ +7.2%;   >15’ -0.7
December…Overall: +2.0%;  Inside 10’ +9.4%;   >15’ -3.1%.
January……Overall: -1.7%;   Inside 10’ +3.6%;   >15’ -1.0%
February….Overall: -2.9%;   Inside 10’ +1.2%;   >15’ -0.7%.
Since ASB..Overall: +3.0%;  Inside 10’ +0.0%;   >15’ +5.3%.
March…….Overall: +8.5%;  Inside 10’ +7.8%;   >15’ +3.1%

Part of it is the quality of the competition and the number of games they’ve played of late. Part of it is simply piss-poor pick and roll play at times. It was shocking at times against Atlanta, such as on this play where Teague splits the defenders. The Cavs have lately returned to showing hard at times. Here Love jumps to far out and lets Teague past him while Kyrie goes over instead of under the pick, an epically dumb decision against Teague, who’s not a threat from behind the arc (3.1 3pta/gm, makes 33.1%). It allowed an easy finger roll.

But there’s also an issue with Kyrie’s defensive commitment and intelligence. He’s honestly seemed a little lazy at times on picks, reverting to some of those old, bad habits. His play is absolutely key for the team and his regression the last 8 games is a big part of why the Cavs have lost three of them. The difficult road games played its part too – all the losses were away from home.

What the Cavs Need to Improve Upon

The Cavs are one of the best teams in the league and easily have one of the best assemblages of talent. But no team is perfect and there are a couple glaring issues to keep an eye on going forward, which will probably prove a lot more important than how much Matthew Dellavedova or James Jones plays, and even more important than whether LeBron was or was not wearing a headband.

We’ve mentioned Mozgov’s need to be in there more than Thompson when other teams have a strong inside presence or like to drive to the basket a lot. We’ve also noted Kyrie’s regression and the disappearing act the Love has recently endured. We’re not so worried about his points and touches, which are necessarily going to be diminished, but how he takes his diminished role. With Kyrie and LeBron the Cavs really don’t need a third guy scoring more than 15, but they need him to be able to get it every single night very efficiently. We’ll see how that goes.

Turnovers are a big issue for the Cavs. It’s not the turnovers themselves per se. The Cavs make 14.6/gm the same as the Warriors and the Spurs. But they’re 17th in allowing opponents points off turnovers, while the Warriors and Spurs are in the Top 10. This speaks to the team’s troubles in transition and the fact that their turnovers are often the type that results in breakaway jams the other way.

The Cavs are 12th themselves in points off turnovers, but would probably like to be a lot higher on the list, up where the Warriors, Mavericks and Rockets sit at the top. The main issue is that they’re 20th in creating turnovers. They make up for it with pretty strong shooting defense – they’re tied for 10th in eFG% (which compensates for the greater value of 3pt shots), and over the last 15 games they’re 4th.

The Cavs are only 13th in defending the 3, and given how important that is to the post-season, could also be an issue going forward. Finally, the Cavs need to get better at moving the ball. The one-on-one play is great but that alone won’t get it done in the playoffs. Speaking to Jim Chones before last night’s game, he noted how when you move the ball, everyone feels more involved and becomes more engage on defense as well as offense. If you’re just standing around waiting for a pass, the on-court intensity especially on defense tends to be diminished.

The Cavs are actually #16 in number of passes a game but are 25th in Assist Opportunities, the number of passes that lead to a shot that if it were made would generate an assist.

What the League Does Well

We’re endlessly curious about player tracking and play type statistics with regard to understanding what teams do. In baseball it’s readily apparent which teams run, are built around mashers or rely on pitching. Similarly how football teams score is generally no secret. But in basketball where teams score 30-40 teams from the field, and in a league where everyone jacks a substantial number of 3s, it’s hard to really know what everyone does well. You probably know the players, but only Coaches Brown and Van Gundy seem to know the teams by their predilections and types of sets.

So here’s a little primer in the form of a high-school yearbook awards show, focusing only on playoff teams. Keep in mind that the Cavaliers numbers are depressed by the numbers put up by that less talented pre-trade squad.

Most likely to Drive (pts/gm off drives): Mavericks (19.5), Hawks (19.0), Spurs/Thunder (18.3) (10th Cavs 17.5)
Nicest Car (FG% on drives): Raptors (49.4), Spurs/Warriors/Wizards (48.2) (7th Cavs 47.5)
Looks Good Just Standing There (Catch & Shoot pts/gm): Hawks (34), Blazers (30), Warriors (29.7) (19th Cavs, 23.7)
Feels Good Just Standing There (Catch & Shoot FG%): Hawks (42.8), Warriors (40.8), Wizards (39.9) (20th Cavs 37.5)
Think They’re Smooth Operators (Pts/gm on Close Shots): Spurs (19.1), Grizzlies (18.3), Wizards (17.2)
Really ARE Smooth Operators (FG% on Close Shots): Mavericks (70.8), Clippers (69.4), Warriors (64.6) (10th Cavs 61.5)
Gym Rats (Pull Up pts): Clippers (23.9), Raptors (20.9), Warriors (20.3) (10th Cavs 17.8)
Biceps of Steel (Pull up FG%): Clippers/Warriors (41.0), Grizzlies (38.9), Bucks (38.6) (8th Cavs 37.8)
Models of Efficiency (eFG%): Warriors (54), Clippers (52.8), Hawks (52.6) (5th Cavs 51.3)
Most Likely to Work @FortKnox (Def Rim FG%): Thunder/Pacers (48.1), Warriors (49.1), Blazers (49.4) (25th Cavs 53.3)
Best Roommate (Secondary or “hockey” assists/gm): Warriors (8.1), Spurs (7.1), Hawks (7.0) (Cavs 10th 5.8)
Fastest from Zero to Fifty (fastbreak points/gm): Warriors (20.7), Suns (19.0), Rockets (18.1)
Won’t Take No For an Answer (Offensive rebound%): Bulls (28.0), Thunder (27.7), Rockets (27.5) (8th Cavs 27.2)
Most Likely to Receive Large Cash Settlement (FTA rate): Heat (.315) Bulls (.308), Clippers (.301) (8th Cavs .295)

The Cavs have a pair of big games this week in Texas, joisting with the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday and Thursday respectively. I will be tweeting with live video from the game throughout both games. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my column the next day in the Cleveland Scene.
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