Cavaliers Overcome Selfishness Long Enough To Best Pacers

click to enlarge Look That Says "Anything's Possible"
Look That Says "Anything's Possible"
Sometimes it’s as though the Cavaliers are just trolling us. (We half expect J.R. Smith to suddenly pull off his mask and reveal he's Rick Astley.)

The Cavaliers are fully capable of cutting and sharing the ball like an elite offensive outfit, as they showed against the Pacers last night in the first half. They built a 60-49 lead on 62% shooting, with four of the starters reaching double figures and four player logging at least two assists. (Even while committing 10 turnovers!)

Then halftime rolls around and it’s like success is too boring. So they blow off their job and stable girlfriend for a hot tempered hard body and tickets to Vegas. Sure, the Cavaliers buckled down in the end and won it in overtime. They just want you to know anything’s possible!

We’d act surprised but we’re not sure we could pull it off. Consistency has been this team’s greatest challenge going back to last year. For all we know, this is what GM David Griffin meant when he lamented the team has no patience for success; good times just can’t hold their attention, they need drama. (Would Billy Manziel’s girlfriend take on another client?)

We just hope this doesn’t diminish Tyronn Lue’s campaign for sainthood. Small sample-sizes be damned, he’s reaching them. Way down inside. Way way down where no one can see it. He’s like the two Phils rolled into one (Doctor & Jackson).

We joke to point out how ridiculous it was for anyone to expect that a coaching change and a few stern words from their rookie coach would set this team right. This isn’t an afterschool special and Tyronn Lue’s not a moonlighting inmate from Oz doing a Scared Straight video. These are grown men with “brands” and ideas of their own.

To Lue’s credit, he’s much less hesitant to leave tire tracks on his squad. He could barely say 10 words about the big win to Allie Clifton before he came at his team like LeBron does referees.

“I just told the guys after the game we can’t resort back to bad habits when things get tough. We’ve got to continue to play the same way we’ve been playing,” Lue said. “Coming out in the third quarter they made it tough for us and we went back to our old habits of 1-on-1, holding the ball, dribbling around. Then they wanted me to bail them out and I wasn’t doing it.”

Lue was talking about his unwillingness to call a timeout in the third quarter, forcing the squad to dig themselves out. Lue’s tough love suggests a fictional moment from our own lives. “Dad, hey, remember how you said not to wreck the car? Well, I’m down at the police station right now….” “Well son, scrunch up to stay warm and keep your back to the bars.”

First Half From Heaven

We’d like to say the first half was heavenly but really it was only the first quarter. The Cavaliers hit 15 (8 assisted) of 22 shots (68%), and every starter scored at least twice. Irving and James didn’t take any threes, and the team scored 33 points, for a seven point lead. The lead would’ve been larger but for several sloppy turnovers.

This is the pretty basketball we’d been promised and longed for. There was movement and passing like this baseline backdoor play by Kevin Love, who took advantage of a of his man’s momentarily loss of attention to run the baseline and receive a precision feed from LeBron at the hole to draw a foul.
Down one at the seven-minute mark of the second, the Cavs went on a 14-3 run over the next three-and-a-half minutes to build a nine-point lead. The lead grew to 33-19 and could’ve been 15 points but Matthew Dellavedova missed a reverse layup after his steal. He then proceed to make two more turnovers, helping spark the 7-0 run that got the Pacers back into the game.

The lead was back to 11 after this pretty feed from Kyrie to the cutting LeBron for a layup. It’s an interesting play, because as you’ll see, LeBron gives Irving a brush pick, far in the frontcourt, then rolls to the basket. It’s similar to plays the Warriors run for Steph Curry.
It’s far enough in the front court that it’s hard for anyone to pick up James and once he has the ball and a head of steam, there isn’t much stopping him. (Also worth noting that Love’s position at 3-line must be respected which helps keep the help from coming quicker.)

The Cavs had one more assist the rest of the quarter (a Delly to Thompson alley-oop). During the second quarter there was a stretch where Irving or James took 11 straight shots. After going up 45-33 on a James drive, the James/Irving missed six straight shots and the team committed three turnovers, as the Pacers made an 11-2 run.

The Cavs closed the quarter with a 13-5 run, the last six by LeBron, to give the Cavs an 11 point halftime lead 60-49. There were only four second quarter assists. It set the stage for a pitiful third.

Third Quarter From Hell

If the Cavaliers can play a worst quarter than the third, like Rosanne Barr in a bikini, we don’t want to see it. Ugly is always a relative term, but sometimes it applies. (see, George Muresan, at your peril). The Cavaliers third quarter performance is in that category.

On the positive side they had five assists in the third which is surprisingly emblematic, because it DID seem like the only time they ever scored was when they passed. Which they didn’t do much. The team was 5-19 in the quarter, went to the line twice (3-4) and committed five more turnovers.

LeBron and Kyrie were 0-6 which really only scratches the surface of their dysfunction. The only reason they didn’t shoot worse was because after dribbling away most of the possession and putting themselves in a hopeless position they laid the ball on someone else to bail them out. (This goes along way in explaining J.R. Smith’s 2-6, most shots in the quarter.)

“If we’re going to play basketball the way we did in the third quarter then we’re not going to be able to beat teams,” said Lue. “I wanted the guys to understand that and figure it out and then we kinda got it back in the fourth quarter.”

The fourth quarter looked better mainly because it was standing next to the third, like Barney next to Fred. There were still several displays of mind-numbing dribbling of the type usually found at nursing homes, with Kyrie Irving being the principal but not sole offender.

Shot selection was also an issue. There was a play where Kyrie’s man actually fell down but rather than drive he decided that was the opportunity to take a long three. On another, LeBron settled for (an admittedly open) three which he clanked like he has most of his threes the last few weeks. (James is shooting 15% from 3 over the last 10 games.)

“We just couldn’t get stops,” said Lue. “They had like a 30 point quarter, so they got a lot of offensive rebounds. That stopped us from getting out in transition. So they made us play halfcourt offense and we didn’t trust and we didn’t move the ball the way we’re capable of doing.”

J.R. To the Rescue

Thankfully, the defense cracked down in the fourth quarter, holding the Pacers to just 17 points. After tying the score at 89 with over six minutes left, the Cavaliers went scoreless for four minutes. They were behind four when J.R. Smith hit a big three. It had to be the first possession to feature more than one pass in just about that length of time.

On the very next play Smith knocked the ball out of Paul George’s hands forcing, resulting in a jump ball, which James recovered and took down the court for a basket.
Unfortunately, J.R. Smith forever seems to be a player that gives and then takes away. We still think he’s a huge plus, and spaces the floor in way that Iman Shumpert can’t, which is absolutely necessary given the dribble-muddle-drive-flail-and-perhaps-kick offense that the Cavaliers showcase when things go South.

“They were playing us to the inside drive and JR was bailing us out a few times,” said Irving. “It’s the luxury of having some talent.” (By all means, lean on talent when ball movement fails.)

However, Smith is prone to losing track of his man. Here he comes over to help on Irving, who’s guarding Paul George after J.R. Smith switched the pick-and-roll. Cheating too far over to help Kyrie open up George Hill for the Pacers’ go-ahead three. (Irving tied it with a midrange pull-up to sent it into overtime.)
“We didn’t want to switch the 3/1 pick-and-roll and Kyrie and J.R. switched it,” Lue revealed with refreshing candor. “Kyrie had Paul George but I don’t think he had him in a bad way. JR was looking to help. He over-helped and then they kicked it out to George hill for three.”

Pounding the Inside Game

Perhaps it’s becoming clear to Cavs fans that coaxing ball movement out of these gentlemen is not the easiest task. From our point of view, LeBron has to buy-in first because Kyrie will never get it until he sees James do it, and James still likes to go into takeover mode, which over the years has changed from Tansformer to Abrams Tank. Still powerful, but not nearly as versatile or intimidating.

Just ask Myles Turner who denied a James dunk. Yup, that was Father Time with a text message: Meet the New Guard. Turner’s been on a tear since coming back from a thumb fracture. Over his last nine games he’s averaging 16.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. He finished with 14 and 10 including six offensive boards and four blocks.

James couldn’t do anything with him when attacking him in pick-and-rolls, though that didn’t stop him from trying. And trying…. and trying. Lavoy Allen (4) and Jordan Hill (3) also pounded the boards as the Pacers secured 17 offensive boards and beat the Cavs 25-13 on second chance points. They also beat the Cavs 16-9 on fastbreak points, thanks in large part to the ten first half turnovers, which they turned into 13 points.

“We went small and they hurt us when they went big. Jordan hill and the rookie [Turner] hurt us. They’re really relentless on the glass. they went and crashed hard on us tonight.”

Lue said the problem wasn’t boxing out, it was just a matter of the physical talent and desire Turner and his mates brought to the fray

“It was just one of those games where they got a rhythm offensively as far as offensive rebounding and kind of stuck with it,” Lue said. “If we had gotten the rebounds and gotten out and run it would’ve put a lot of pressure on them going to the glass.”

Playing To Your Strengths

In the fourth quarter, the Cavs stuck with/went to the ISO sets that they had been using, because, basically, those are still very effective, when not used every single time down even if the opponent is loading the lane with defenders (hello Kyrie!).

So that’s what they did in overtime and it worked. Irving had eight overtime points as the Cavs cut through the Pacers defense with their James/Irving pick-and-roll, executed more effectively than it was most of the second half.

“We went to the 1-3 action and they had trouble stopping it all night,” Lue said. “You put Kyrie and LeBron in a pick and roll, you gotta pick your poison. So they have to show because they can’t go under on Kyrie [Ed.: Once he starts making 3s consistently] if they switch it now you have LeBron posting a PG and you can get any shot. So we kind of stayed with that and it pulled us through for the game.”

The victim in all of this is Kevin Love, who always seems to start fast. It’s like a horse his owners are sandbagging for a big pay day: Love goes back on the shelf nearly as quickly as he catches your eye. If he had a bus pass he’d get more consistent service.

The only difference is the Tyronn Lue gives a damn. We’re not trying to put a fine point on it, simply noting that David Blatt didn’t seem to like Kevin Love very much, or have enough faith to make plays for him and play him in fourth quarters. Somehow Lue’s made it work.

“When you play hard you can cover up for a lot of mistakes,” said Lue while explaining Love’s improved defense. “[And] when a team plays hard you can cover for a lot of peoples mistakes.”

Sign of Lue’s concern/respect? He consoled Love after the game about the other stars not involving him in second half reindeer games.

“I talked to Love after the game and said I’m sorry I didn’t get to come to you as much as I wanted to,” Lue said.

That’s why he’s a player’s coach. Or he will be until Mo Williams finally fumes because he went from getting few minutes under Blatt to practically none on Lue’s short bench. Like Blatt when he first started coaching the Cavs, Lue is leaning harder on the starters than his predecessor or is considered prudent.

Admittedly, overtime, but every starter played at least 41 minutes, while Matthew Dellavedova (who looked horrible but because of who he is was a team leading +10 in plus/minus) and Timofey Mozgov both saw just 12 minutes.

Those two seem so important to the team’s future that it’s slightly worrisome they aren’t getting more time. Especially since Mozgov has been playing pretty well other than the moments of brain flatulence that produced the airball from 20’, his only miss of the night.

Passed Disgust

We’re not going to belabor this, but last night was the worst night all year for the Cavs in terms of sharing the ball. We don’t look at assists, since that’s so outcome-driven, and one good stretch and hide a lot of sins. (Not too mention assists and ball movement aren’t necessarily more than cousins.)

We like to look at the ratio of passes/touches, something we’re momentarily dubbing the Selfish Index. The team’s best nights are over 72% and heretofore they’ve bottomed out around 68%. Last night the Cavs set a new low for the season with 66.9%.

It’s clear this team hasn’t truly learned its lesson. And that’s why we’ve been dubbing this “preseason.” They’re still in the process of figuring it out.

“Obviously, we all wish it could happen overnight like instant oatmeal. But it’s not gonna happen that way” James said afterwards. “The best teacher in life is experience. When the game gets tough and we have some adversity, we can’t resort to our old ways. We’ve got to continue to work on our offense.”

Sadly, “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work any better on teammates than it does on your children.

Accountability's Just Another Word For Something Left To Lose

This is what everyone’s looking for from the Cavaliers. They actually had a players-only meeting the other day to discuss it. The Big Three evidently offered to hold each other accountable and promised to bring together all the nations of the world in a hundred years of peace. Oh, well, that’s just a rumor, anyway.

Words don’t mean much between the lines, but they are part of the process as well.

“That’s one of about 20 meetings you’ll have over the course of the year because, honestly, this is a game about progression and getting better,” said James Jones. “So the moment you conquer something, something else comes up, or you have to take it to another level. So we’re talking accountability, we’re talking effort. There’s a minimum level that we’re looking for, and once you reach that level we’ll have to go to another level.

“That’s the beauty of this game,” Jones smiles. “Every team meeting is THE team meeting, until the next one that’s guaranteed to come.”

Emotional Versus Intellectual Understanding

It appears to us that the Cavaliers, one through fifteen, know what is expected of them, and how to “play right,” as Blatt so euphemistically described it. (Why not “Get Correct”?) It’s not a matter of getting them to believe it, or really even to buy-in. Not on a mental/conscious-level.

In the battle for the Cavaliers hearts and minds, we’re pretty sure Lue has the latter locked up. They know and appreciate him. But that’s not enough. They need to know in their hearts, truly feel it in a way that perhaps doesn’t happen until, as it is for many young men, it leaves a scar.

“This is a learning experience. We haven’t had many of these opportunities to be up big, lose the lead, fight and make it a possession game on the road,” Jones said. “You prefer to maintain your lead, not turn the ball over so much and make so many execution mistakes but it happens and you have to learn to bounce back. I’m glad but we’re still such a long long way away because for us it’s going to be about being consistent.

“To weather the storm you have to develop a toughness and it’s not a physical toughness, it’s an emotional toughness, it’s a mental toughness. The only way you get that is playing in adverse conditions,” he continued. “You can’t get that from practicing hard or playing hard and competing hard. You have to get it from facing adversity.”

Final Analysis

It’s two steps forward, one step back for the Cavaliers, and while it’s "Uptown Funk"-level infuriating to see them make the same mistakes over and over again, we are comforted to realized that as Jones says, the threshold is a lot higher than say, the Browns’ whose mistakes are moe akin to calling IT because the computer’s unplugged.

This team can and does play defense; they can and will move bodies and the ball. They can even do (usually one or the other) for a half at a time. But this team is for the moment congenitally unable to do the right things night-in-night out.

And that’s okay. That’s what the regular season is about. They’re going to fail, and really, that’s sort of the most important thing. It’s a subtle truth of life that it’s not your successes that really make you who you are, but your failures and your ability to respond to them. When will they address these issues, isn’t the question, it’s when will they be able to stop?

It seems to us that the Cavs are mired in young adulthood: They know the difference between right and wrong, they just figure they’re old enough now to ignore hard-earned childhood lessons.

The Cavaliers face the Hornets on Tuesday. We’ll be watching with you, posting video, analysis and snark (not necessarily in that order). Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame analysis Thursday morning.
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