There are many things to be gleaned from the Cavaliers 122-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors Monday night. Foremost was a reminder of the value of good help. Where would Butch be without Sundance? Leiber without Stoller? Jack without Coke?
Like a prodigal son returning home (okay, maybe you’ve heard this story before), the Cavaliers witnessed the second coming of Kyrie Irving last night, as he put on his greatest demonstration of on-court health since his return from this summer’s knee injury six games ago. Irving scored 25 on 10-16 shooting with two threes and eight assists against one turnover.
Irving scored nine of the 25 in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, after Toronto had pulled within eight. It was part of a 16-5 run that put the game out of reach. He also handed out two assists during the run. The play Irving and J.R. Smith – who got hot enough by game’s end to make Kathy Ireland look like the Church Lady – allowed LeBron to enjoy the passenger side much of the game.
LeBron had 11 points as part of a balanced first-half attack by the Cavaliers. He was joined in double figures at the midway point by J.R. (12 on 4 threes), Kyrie (11) and Tristan Thompson (10). LeBron took seven shots in the first half, the same as Smith and Love. (Irving took eight.)\
That halftime balance is reflective of the team’s ball movement all night. There was plenty of driving and kicking, finding the open man, and knocking down the shot. The Cavaliers hit 59% of their open shots during the game and overall posted a meter-pegging 138 offensive efficiency (as in 138 pts per 100 possessions (ppp), like making 69% of your two pointers all game long).
“We got open looks tonight and we made them. We made them in bunches,” Coach David Blatt said after the game. “It’s not realistic to expect you’re going to hit 17-33 from 3. But there have been a lot of nights I have come in here bemoaning the fact that we got open looks and we didn’t make them.”
(Indeed, over the last 7 games Cleveland’s made just 41.5% (47.8% eFG) of their wide-open shots, 27th (25th) in the league over that stretch.)
The fact that the Cavaliers only had a modest 25 assists on 41 baskets is not indicative of the way the ball moved, and perhaps is due to the number of times Irving was able to slice through the lane for baskets. He made 8 of his 12 contested shots, hinting that one of his elite skills (finishing amongst the trees) is rounding into form.
While the Cavaliers were playing world-class offense, their defense was not getting the job done in the first half against Toronto. This is not a surprise, as the Raptors backcourt has given the team fits the past two years. You may remember Lou Williams putting a crooked number on the Cavs last year, and at halftime Kyle Lowry and DeMarr DeRozan had combined for 28 points on 11-18 shooting.
The game was tied at 9 when the Cavaliers went on a 14-2 run, featuring baskets by each member of the starting team. Toronto answered with a 14-5 run of their own. The Cavaliers went into the half with a two-point lead. Toronto shot 60% for the half, the Cavaliers 54%.
There were a number of culprits. The Cavaliers committed seven first half turnovers good for eight Toronto points. They also got the ball into the lane a lot in the first half, scoring 26 of their 56 first half points in the paint. (The Cavaliers had 20.) They were also hurt on the pick and roll and off-ball screens.
The Cavaliers were “icing” the pick-and-roll and loading up the lane, which is to say that their big men were laying back on the pick and sagging into the lane. While this typically is done to limit layups and force midrange jumpers, Toronto made both in the first half.
On this play we can see how the team sags on the pick set for Cory Joseph. Three Cavs have a foot in the lane. The problem is that Toronto guards Lowry and DeRozan are great midrange jump shooters, so if you give them room, they’ll take the shot and make you pay.
During a break right around the midway part of the third the Cavaliers seemed to adjust their pick and roll coverage. It was right around the time the Raptors tied the score at 69. Cleveland went on a 17-7 run, and took a lead they’d never relinquish.
It appears the Cavaliers chose to blitz some of the pick-and-rolls, particularly those with DeRozan, trapping him on the perimeter or at the baseline, forcing him to give up the ball. Over the final 18 minutes of the game, Lowry and DeRozan managed a single bucket and only 7 points, while being outscored 50-31. Overall the Cavs held Toronto to 44 second half points and 39% shooting after allowing them to shoot 60% in the first.
LeBron finished with 20, while Smith had 24 and Irving 25.
“We did get them on the backend of a back to back they may have fatigued a little bit,” offered Coach David Blatt after the game. “We struggled defensively. This might be the first game this year we won the game on offense. I didn’t think we were great defensively. The second half we were better, sometimes that is just some of the things we talked about at halftime and in the beginning of the game, but seem to sink in more at half when guys got more physical and aggressive. Certainly we did that.”
Second Half Defense
We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s such a striking stat it bears repeating: the Cavaliers have the best second half defensive efficiency in the NBA. They’re fifth overall, so they’re not slouches, allowing 98.7 ppp game across four quarters, two-tenths of a point below third place Golden State, and 5.6 points behind a scary Spurs team that now leads the league in point differential by more than a point over the Warriors.
But exclude the Cavaliers’ slow first halves and they’re the best at 95.7, by a point more than Miami (96.9), Chicago (97.5) and San Antonio (97.9). Hell if the Cavaliers could just take care of the first quarter where their 104.2 ppp is 23rd in the league, they could be a defensive juggernaut. The hope is with settled rotations and a deeper squad they can improve this issue.
“We’re a team that feels out the game a little bit and we start getting a little rhythm in the late second quarter and it trickles down into the second half,” said James. “I wish we would start off better, but I wouldn’t like it in the reverse way, where we’re the best first half team and in the second half can’t stop nobody. You can’t ask for everything right now, but I’ll definitely take the second half intensity we have right now. And we’ll figure out first half.”
Case for J.R. Keeping His Job
There has been a lot of murmuring about when (not so much if) Shumpert will ascend to the starting lineup. The same questions were raised last year, but when the team was at full-strength Smith during its 33-3 run, he started.
The trade-off is obviously one of defense, and given the team’s first quarter struggles, there are reasons to consider the move. However J.R. Smith’s game last night is an illustration of why that might not be as good in practice as it seems to some on paper. Smith was 8-14 from international waters, with four in each half. Most of his shots were kick outs that found him wide open. He finished 8-12 on uncontested jumpers.
We believe Shumpert’s more limited offensive offerings and sketchier three shot would place an undue burden on the offense giving him far too many open threes. Nobody can afford to give J.R. Smith open threes, because if he gets going like last night, it might not even matter how well you bottle up the Big Three. Having him as your safety valve is like having Roger Craig as you dump-down receiver, you’re sitting pretty no matter what.
Smith’s defense hasn’t been bad. His defensive FG% is +0.6% compared to Shumpert’s -2.4%. The question is whether Shumpert bricking several open jumpers the opponents are daring him to take will hinder the offense more than Smith’s play is hindering the defense. Because we’re pretty sure no team’s going to dare J.R. Smith to beat them with open jumpers.
Finally, we feel a lot more comfortable mixing and matching Shumpert off the bench, where he can potentially fill the “3” spot in a bench lineup with Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova. We’re not sure if we’re as comfortable with Smith and Williams playing together. It’s another of these first world problems, but we also wonder if coming off the bench and potentially finding his minutes more sporadic could have a detrimental affect on that precision rocket launcher of his.
This said, it should be noted that in his brief time Shumpert’s field goal (39.3% vs. 38%) and three point shooting percentage (38.7% vs. 37.1%) has surpassed that of Smith so far this season.
Great Love’s Lost
The third wheel’s always marginalized, so it doesn’t surprise us that the adulation Kevin Love received earlier this season has receded like his role in the offense. Since Kyrie’s returned Love has averaged just 11.8 points, well off his 16.4 seasonal average. He’s also shooting 37% in that time, which is making as much of a difference as the two less shots he’s taking a game.
Conventional wisdom has this being a bad thing because Love offers so little defensively. That was more true when Love first got here, though he did struggle on defense at the beginning of the season. He posted a strong defensive FG% (-2.1%) in December (compared to +6.2%) overall, and over the last 12 games his FG% defending at the rim is 46.8%. That’s a big improvement over last year’s 52.7%. He’s also averaging 1.3 steals/game during that stretch.
Love catches a lot of heat for not raising his arms on shots, though truth be told, at his size he’s not going to intimidate a lot of guys and might be better served poking the ball away than in the potentially vain gesture of raising his arms. We won’t argue that he sometimes misses his help rotations, but just about everyone on the Cavs can be found guilty of that. (Sadly.)
Yet it seems like much of the hate on Love’s defense is just bitterness that he isn’t scoring 20 points/game, even though the offense is in no way geared toward him doing so (and it’s most likely for the best). Come the playoffs, we’re confident Love will be a more integral part of the offense as teams bust their hump to stop James and Irving.
Tristan Answers the Bell
We’ve never been the biggest admirers of Tristan Thompson. We saw him as a limited energy big who can rebound and score within 18” of the basket, much like Ed Davis or Jason Thompson. His youth seemed irrelevant since his game hadn’t progressed much in his first four years.
We underestimated the power of LeBron perhaps.
It’s not that Thompson has really expanded his game that much. He still hasn’t, but what he give you, he give in full. Even though his minutes have increased as a starter, his rebounding rate hasn’t suffered. (It is definitely lower though on the second night of a back-to-back, FYI.)
We were skeptical that he could handle the center position given the experience of last year. But Thompson has played terrific, and within himself. His net rating while on the floor since joining the starters is +17, and he’s scoring over nine points/game since getting the nod. Last night he hit all six of his free throws, after missing six of eight on Saturday.
But there is bad news. While for the season Thompson is defending the rim at a 46.8% defensive FG rate, that number’s ballooned dramatically since becoming the starting center.
It wouldn’t appear to be about the minutes so much as the fact that Thompson is now matched up more frequently on team’s starting centers. Since taking over 7 games ago, Thompson is allowing 60% (3.4 of 5.7) of the shots he’s faced at the rim to go in. (Over that same stretch Kevin Love’s allowed a 41% FG% at the rim.)
This bears watching.
Road and Home Splits
The Cavaliers are about to embark on their most telling stretch of game this season. Finally at full-strength they’re about to embark on a six-game 10-night road trip that should offer some indication where the team stands. They’re only .500 on the road and haven’t played particularly well away from friendly environs.
The hope is that with the team starting to gel and the injured players becoming acclimated to NBA play, the team is in position to show its true colors. Is that inconsistent frontrunners who play down to the level of their competition, or sharpening world-beaters, slowly gathering momentum so that they might peak at the right time?
In order to do so they will certainly have to improve on their road performances.
Everyone on the team shoots significantly worse on the road than at home, with the exception of J.R. Smith, who is 1.5% better. Thompson is a 7.3% worse shooter and grabs two less rebounds in a few less minutes. Delly’s 53% home three-point FG% drops to 33% on the road, similarly Kevin Love’s 40% rate drops to 32.6%.
LeBron James shoots an additional three and makes and even worse percentage but does get one more foul shot/game away from home. Despite shooting better, J.R. has stunning 9.6 spread in +/- (+6.4 vs. -2.2) in his home/away splits. Shumpert’s splits, though in less games, are even more dramatic, +14.3 vs. -.5 on the road. Also interesting is the fact that Love takes almost half as many free throws on the road (5.1 vs. 2.8) despite shooting the same number of field goals either way.
Kyrie’s return has been a dramatic boon for the offense, which moves so much more cleanly having added another ballhandler and reduced the load on LeBron. He’s not only less ball dominant, but can pick his spots even more. He didn’t take a single shot in the first eight minutes of the third quarter, even as the Cavs built a lead.
Kyrie also looked up to the challenge defensively. He fought valiantly over picks and kept his hands active and out on defense much of the time. James made a comment after the game about how sitting out can be a boon for the player because it allows him to really watch the game and see places and situations where they can do things to help.
We’re hoping that means Irving saw the need for better dribble penetration and has taken up the gauntlet. He improved the second half of last year, and hopefully that improvement will hold.
The Cavaliers efforts on defense remain intermittent, and the jury is still out on the Thompson move. It seems hard to believe but the stats suggest Kevin Love’s improved play is masking Thompson’s struggles. But just like the road/home splits, these are very small sample sizes.
Just like it seems Kevin Love needed a month of play to start really playing defense, perhaps Thompson needs some reps in the starting role to truly rise to the challenge. Of course this isn’t necessarily a question of heart. Talent plays a role, and height an even bigger one. It’s still unclear if Thompson’s assets outnumber his deficiencies as a starting center. We suspect Mozgov will be back starting within a couple weeks after the allstar break. No scoop, just a guess.
In the meantime we’ll be watching the road trip like you. Follow along with us on Twitter where we’ll be commenting and posting video. You’ll find us at @CRS_1ne. You’ll find our game analysis on the Scene blog the day after games.