Cavaliers play well but beaten on improbable 28’ bank shot

Two heavyweights traded punches like baseball cards with an almost careless disregard for their own bodies, and it was the Cavaliers that wound up in the spokes of a 99-96 loss.

It’s a disappointing loss only salved by the fact that the Bulls beat the Cavs in just about every relevant category and still had to rely on a heavily-contested Derrick Rose banked three to win the game. (“No,” Rose said after that game, “I didn’t call glass.”)

“They made a great shot at the end to win,” said James after the game. “They had more points in the paint than us. They had more second chance points. They had more fastbreak points. We just kept fighting. That’s what I love about this team.”

There were more reversals in the game than WWE with 19 lead changes. In the first half it was the Cavs who continued to beat back the Bulls. Then with half the third quarter gone and the Bulls down by a half-dozen, Thibodeau went small, a move that changed the course of the game.

He replaced Pau Gasol, whose hamstring tightened up on him during halftime, with Taj Gibson after Gasol tested it to start the third quarter. Then Nikola Mirotic replaced Joachim Noah a minute later. Mirotic had played well in the first half teaming with Mike Dunleavy to score 21 of the Bulls 28 points in the quarter.

The Cavaliers’ inability to check those two Bulls stands out as a tremendous lost opportunity, especially since the rest of the Bulls were 4-15 in the quarter. The squandered opportunity is even more painful in light of Kyrie Irving’s foot injury which he’s been nursing since game #2 of the Boston series.

As the game wound on, Kyrie found it more and more difficult to have a positive impact on the game. Though he hit 3 of 4 from behind the arc, he was 0-9 otherwise. Meanwhile LeBron was 8-25, including 1-7 from three, including one simply ridiculous shot from 25’ with two guys on him, the exact LAST kind of shot to take down three with the offense looking stagnant and 15 seconds still left on the shot clock.

James commended Irving for gutting his way through his injury, though Irving was adamant that there were no excuses for his performance. Blatt did mention the injury during his presser, saying “”hr’s been giving us all he has and will continue to do that.”

But Irving was having no part of it.

“For me I don’t make any excuses. I go out there and play thorugh it as best I can and I am still going to continue to do that,” said Irving after the game,” he offered. “As I said before there are no excuses. I know Coach was doing that to protect me but 3-13 it’s not like me but as far as tonight, I’m not going to hang that on having a bad foot.”
LeBron pointed to his turnovers and shooting, shouldering the blame himself, despite the fact that Kyrie Irving had zero assists for the first time since he was remonstrated by James for doing the same thing in a game in November. (Nice catch by ESPN’s Mark Schwartz.)

“It is what it is. Right now No one is going to feel sorry for me or feel sorry for Kyrie,” James said. “We’re not going to make excuses. If he’s on the floor he has to make plays… But the situation is the situation.

“None of us get passes tonight,” he continued. “We have to be better. I have to be better. I had 7 turnovers maybe if I had 4 we don’t put ourselves in that position. Also shot 8-25. maybe if I’m 11-25 we put our selves in better position. I also shot 1-7 from three point line and only had one steal. It’s not about Kyrie, put it on me.”

There’s obviously a fine line between making excuses and explaining why things went South. Injuries are a part of the game and afflict both sides (see, Gasol) so it’s important not to hang the loss on that, anymore than it is to hang a loss on the absence of Kevin Love.

Yet the facts are also what they are: This isn’t the team that raced to the best record in basketball since January. So expecting them to meet that standard seems equally unfair. But then children die of cancer. In that light logging any complain whatsoever is cowardly. Good luck enforcing that.

To their credit, the Cavaliers came into Chicago and put on a good performance. They didn’t blame the fact they arrived at the arena late because of traffic – though reporters certainly tried to tempt them into doing so. They played hard-nosed D pretty much the entire way.

The offense ran some nice sets, including one using Tristan Thompson, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James on a set of revolving screens near the middle of the floor. It feature Kyrie screening LeBron then flaring across a Thompson screen, as James moves in the other direction and Thompson tries to jump in front of his man. It produced a couple baskets in the second quarter.

The biggest problem for the Cavaliers was the number of missed open jump shots. According to the NBA’s player tracking stats, half of the Cavaliers shots were “uncontested,” but they only shot 6.8% better, 35.7% (15-42) to 42.5% (17-40). The worse culprits were James (3-12) and Shumpert (1-6). The rest of the team was 13-22.

LeBron’s shot chart was not pretty. In Gane #2, James got 18 of his 29 shots at the rim and made 11 of them. Last night only 11 of James 25 shots were in the lane with an even split of threes (1-7) and jumpers (2-7). In Game 2 he only took two threes.

To James’ credit, the only two jumpers he hit were in the fourth quarter when the team had to have them. For the series, James is 6-23 on jumpers outside the lane and 1-12 on three pointers. The team has trouble scoring, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a better shot out there than the jumpers James had had to settle for sometimes. There certainly is no excuse for 7 threes in a close game after taking just five combined the previous two.

It’s sad to say this but Irving looked so disabled by the injury that he was almost useless. In the second half Irving shot 1-11 unable to create any lift or drive to the basket. Check out Irving’s usually powerful Eurostep which suddenly looked a lot more like a move from the YMCA Rec League. Check out Kyrie’s body language after the second clip and the elevation he (doesn’t) get against Gibson in the replay.

Thibodeau had nothing but kind words for Irving and his grit in playing and said the Bulls didn’t do anything different in their coverages to take advantage of his obvious physical struggles. That seems a bit credulous, though decorum probably would’ve prevented Thibs from saying, “Hell yeah we exploited that. We wanted to win the game you know.”

Instead we got this. “I’ve been around Kyrie and I know the type of competitor he is,” said Thibodeau., “So in terms of what we were doing, we were not going to change because he has the ability to make tough shots. He can make something out of nothing.”

Of course, Thibs didn’t necessarily have to say anything for the coverage to change on its own as players respond to the “hotness” in the game. It wasn’t Irving. On the below drive you can see him beat three guys and Dunleavy is in position to step in front of him, but instead goes back to his man to prevent the 3.

It’s almost an unnatural move to NOT go toward the ball as the guy drives it to the hole, especially as Dunleavy could have gotten to Irving and helped defend the shot.

Not that Kyrie would’ve noticed, he likes to drive more than he does pass, hence the decision to make him beat you. In general, Kyrie could use to improve his playmaking skills. He can create for himself, but James hasn’t taught him to create for others and he’s not really super at it on the drives. It seems he’s only looking at the rim, not the floor.

We noted how badly the Cavaliers shot on uncontested shots because of Shumpert and James. The Bulls shot 10% better on uncontested shots but unlike the Cavaliers, for whom they were nearly half their shots, only 30% of Chicago’s attempts were open.

So the Cavaliers were doing the job for the most part on the Bulls offensive sets. The problem was with all the switching the wine and gold was often out of position on the boards. The Bulls outrebounded them 54-39, beat them on the boards 18-8, and in second chance points 18-7.

“We did not do a good job on that area, we forced a lot of misses,” Blatt said. “The missed 56 shots and got 18 offensive rebounds, some 30-odd percent. That’s a high number. Obviously an area that we didn’t do a good job and we have to improve.”

It was just part of the teams’ trouble inside. The Bulls got 48 of their 90 shots at rim, making 40%. The Cavaliers shot 43% up close but only took 30 of 82 shots from that range. Obviously some of that is all the offensive boards, and that’s how they outscored the Cavs 44-28 in the paint

Another issue was fastbreaks, which they won 23-7. The Bulls were able to create opportunities with their defense (9 steals) that the Cavaliers couldn’t. The Bulls had but 7 turnovers – as many as LeBron has on his own. (The rest of the Cavs had only four.)

While the game came down to the final seconds, and the Cavs were outplayed in multiple facets of the game, they brought good enough energy and aggression to almost steal the game. The problem as it often does was possessions.

The Cavs offense wasn’t efficient enough to give away enough turnovers and offensive rebounds to give the Bulls eight more shots and ten more free throw attempts. In a nod to home-cooking the Bulls had as many second half free throw attempts (20) as the Cavaliers did all game.

That’s largely about Derrick Rose he started taking it harder to the basket. The Cavs have been content all series to take jumpers with James even abandoning him at the 3 point line rather than close out. (We’re going to assume that was plan not lazy D.)

It felt like the Bulls were going to make LeBron and Irving work for their points but try to limit their ability to find others. James had 7 assists in the first quarter. He had 7 the rest of the way along with 5 of the turnovers.

Going forward we’d like to see more of Dellavedova. He’s looked better finishing the last couple months, he’s a pretty good 3-point shooter, and handles the ball extremely well while creating for others. How is it Delly got an alley-oop in just 15 minutes of play and 4 assists while Irving lays a goose egg on both.

Mozgov also had a great feed to LeBron James off a pick-and-roll when they turned LeBron into a cutter. We’d REALLY like to see more of this as it removes the need for LeBron to back his way into the paint and gets him going to the rack full-speed where nobody wants to stop him lest they get posterized like Mirotic.

James and Irving’s supporting cast showed up last night with the bench outscoring the Bulls 32-23. Can you even remember a recent game against a contender where our bench outscored them by almost ten?

Obviously getting J.R. Smith back made some difference. He had 14 off the bench including nine in the final frame when he and LeBron accounted for 19 of the team’s 23 points.

With Irving injured/ineffective, Smith seemed to handle the ball MUCH more frequently in the last quarter, with Irving behaving more like the off-guard. (Indeed after hitting 3-4 from the arc it’s disappointing they didn’t do more to get him more spot-up threes.

He didn’t initiate the offense but he ran several pick-and-roll plays while Irving hung in the corner as a “spacer.” Then on the final play, LeBron credited the coach drew something up that worked really well to get J.R. Smith the game-tying basket, using LeBron and a nifty dribble hand-off. Overtime looked appealing with both Mitotic and Butler with 5 fouls.

If it seems like James should’ve been able to exploit Butler’s foul troubles more down the stretch, you must also know that one of the referees for the game was Tony Brothers. You might remember him from Cavaliers-Celtics Game #4. You’ll find information here suggesting Brothers’ long home-team bias.

Mozgov also put up a good game and led the Cavs in +/- with +2, yet he only played 22 minutes, 10 in the second half. We would like to see more of the Moz-erati, especially when the Bulls go small.

After stubbornly resisting the first two games of the series, Thibodeau unleashed Mirotic in a small lineup featuring Taj Gibson at center. After the first game, Gasol’s been pretty ineffective and Noah is a non-factor in just about every aspect of the game other than rebounding, and even that’s fallen off.

The Bulls have resisted pulling him but in the second half they did what they had to do to win, including playing Gasol and Noah a combined 11 second-half minutes. Unfortunately Rose and Butler combined for 41 second half points. With James and Irving (19 combined) unable to answer – and perhaps trying to do too much themselves – that proved the difference makers

The onus is on the Cavaliers. A win is not a must, but we’d rather not see them forced to win three-straight, even if they potentially could. A lot will depend on Irving’s health. He’s receiving treatment for the injury and though he reinjured it during the game, the fact that this is the first we’ve heard of it in four games seems to suggest – unless last night’s reaggravation worsens it – that they’ve been able to manage it without too much trouble.

The Cavaliers played hard – despite losing in the hustle categories (blocks, steals, rebounds) – and had a chance to steal a win. While Kyrie is hampered, so it Gasol, and with Sunday’s day game, they’ll have even less chance to recover. The margin was so small for the Bulls that we question weather they’ll be able to outperform the Cavs enough to win another game without a ridonkulous bank shot from somewhere South of Peoria.

We will be tweeting and posting video for Sunday’s game. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read Sunday’s game breakdown in Monday’s Scene Blog.
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