Cavaliers’ Second Half D Shows Celtics Who’s the Boss.

The best thing about banging your head against the wall (or watching Tony Danza "act") is the sweet relief when you stop. It’s a lot like second halves for the Cavaliers. Last night they ended the first half down by six to the Boston Celtics, 46-40.

It’s the eighth time in the last 15 games the Wine and Gold has been down at halftime. They’ve turned their defense up the way they have the past month, and did so again last night, outscoring the Celtics by 18 in the second half to register their sixteenth victory, 89-77.

The Wine and Gold pickled the leprechaun’s mojo, holding the Celtics to 26% shooting in the second half, while shooting 51% themselves.

“Even though we didn’t play well in the first half we didn’t lose our way,” said Blatt after the win. “We were calm. We came in at halftime talked about a few things in terms of needing to pick up our defensive intensity and start moving the ball like we normally do.”

The Cavs got balanced scoring in the second half, led by LeBron James 10. Four other players (J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Timofey Mozgov and Mo Williams) contributed 3 buckets apiece, as Cleveland added their sixth road win against six losses. James finished with 24 and Love had 20 as they held an opponent below 80 points for the second straight game and third time this season (all on the road).

They’re going to need road performances like that as they enter the most perilous part of their schedule. Beginning with their Christmas Day rematch against the Warriors in Oakland, the Cavaliers play 10 of 12 on the road, before returning for another game against Golden State on January 18. That includes the difficult Texas run, offering three games in four nights. They’ll need to bring their best intensity.

So far that’s been lacking during first halves. For those who haven’t tuned in much, the issue for the team has been the second quarter. They have the fifth-worst defensive efficiency in the league during the second over the last month, allowing 108.6 points per 100 possessions (PPP).

This is in due in part (often) to Blatt’s rotations which put a more limited offensive team out there, while Love and James sit. The squad’s trouble getting good shots often means jumpers late in the clock or turnovers which mean transition points. Mo Williams move to the second team has diminished the defense as well.

And it’s ugly. They allow a 54.5% eFG% (29th) and seventh highest opponent free throw rate in that quarter. Blatt just doesn’t seem to have found the right mix of players rotations yet in the first half.

But whatever the Cavaliers are doing defensively in the second half they want to keep it up. Over the last 15 games they have the best second-half defense in the league, holding teams to 92.9 PPP, ahead of possible Finals foe, San Antonio (96.4). (The inconsistency of their offense, fifteenth in the second half over that stretch, keeps them a few portions of a point behind the Spurs and Pacers in net differential.)

End of the Russian Winter?

The unspoken key in holding opponents below 80 points these past two road games was the return of the lovable giant, Timofey Mozgov. One of the hardest workers on the team, and a person who perhaps gets too down on himself, Mozgov has been struggling all year after getting knee surgery in the off-season.

Speaking to the Scene after the Orlando game, Mozgov admitted the knee remains painful. It seems hard to believe a medical staff that has been so cautious with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert would take risks with the seven-footer. The soreness is likely scar tissue than needs to break up, and part of the process.

Add to that the complication that T-Mo wasn’t able to workout like he normally would because of the surgery and didn’t come to camp in good shape. So it’s been a process, and Blatt’s suggested it’s one that’s as much mental as physical.

No need to rehash rehab lore about needing to play without thinking about it, but there’s probably a nugget of truth in that for Mozgov as well.

Recently people have gotten pretty down on Mozgov, who had a terrible time against the Wizards, accumulating a season-high four turnovers in under nine minutes. Then last Tuesday Mozgov put up his “seven trillion” line, seven minutes of play followed by a squadron of zeroes.

In the locker room after that game you have not seen a more disconsolate fellow if he’d ignored Old Yeller’s unending yapping, and subsequently arrived too late to rescue Timmy from the well.

Given the big man’s pride, there was a certain inevitability about his return, but sooner is definitely preferable to later. Mozgov gathered up 10 rebounds, blocked three shots and made four out of five from the field for nine points, in addition to being +11 in +/-.

One thing that seems to have helped is NOT getting Mozgov the ball. They had been setting him up early in the game, but when he made turnovers it seemed to snowball for him and take him right out of the game. Against the Celtics, Mozgov played the almost the entire first quarter (10:40) and didn’t take a shot (or get a turnover).

Iman Shumpert is also a big addition to the defensive equation. Since moving Mo back to the second team where he doesn’t have to guard top-line point guards, the perimeter defense has tightened. Delly’s been a huge part of that, but J.R. has done his part too. Against the Magic on Friday, Shumpert played his first game since his right wrist injury and his energy made that defense even more suffocating.

He did some of that last night as well, but left after only 13 minutes of play with a groin injury. The team has already indicated that he will sit out Thursday’s home game against the Thunder, as a precaution. Groin injuries are tricky and can linger so the Cavs will play it safe. That’s even easier knowing Kyrie Irving will be back soon, maybe against Russell Westbrook. That’d be a helluva challenging first game back, but if he’s ready, why not?

Blatt complemented both Shumpert and Mozgov for their defensive contributions after the game, as keying the team’s strong defensive showings the last couple games: “Shump came back that adds a defensive element. I also think Timo has really picked it up. You’ve seen his effect and his efficiency on the defensive end in particular in the last few games.”

Tale of Two Halves

The Celtics are mostly a jump-shooting team. They shoot the most threes in the Eastern Conference, just behind the Warriors and the Rockets, but have the eighth worst 3pt shooting percentage in the NBA.

They counteract that by being a very pesky defensive team. They’re second in the league in steals and lead the league in points off turnovers. Because of their poor shooting, they need those fastbreak and transition points. However, despite 16 turnovers (9 in the first half), the Cavaliers only allowed 11 points off turnovers and got 14 of their own.

Though the Celtics only made 38% of their first half shots, they took 6 more by virtue of those turnovers and a 6-2 advantage on the offensive boards. (Thompson was rather absent for the second consecutive game.) Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas were able to get open looks and knock them down, accounting for nine of their 17 first half hoops on 19 shots. The rest of the team was 8-26.

After missing their first two shots, the Celtics made their next five in a row. The Cavs closed it up going inside, then the Celtics Avery Bradley got loose for 8 points in the last half of the quarter using a series of clever screens, taking advantage of the Cavs attempts not to switch their guards on screens.

You can see that the Cavaliers tried to go under the pick the first two times and Bradley nailed threes. The third time Shumpert tried to go over the pick and follow him, only to had Bradley break to the rim for a layup.

“In the first half we allowed them to get to some of their spots,” said James. “In the second half we just locked down, they stopped moving the ball and we kept them off-base.”

Late Risers

In the second half the team started pressing the Celtics guards more, fighting over the picks with more persistence and doing a better job on their pick and roll. Mozgov provided backline support, snuffing out this Sullinger reverse layup.

On offense they went back inside using it as a way to open up the outside game. The Celtics lack a shotblocker in the middle, and so the Cavs worked hard to get the ball inside where guys could score.

It’s not surprising then that the Cavs worked the ball into Mozgov a couple times to start the second. He repaid them with the first five points of the third period, including this “and 1” on a feed from Delly.

Later the team would work it into LeBron, who was doubled by Love’s man, Amir Johnson. Though he couldn’t get the ball to Love directly, James got it to Delly who moved it along to Love for the open 3.

“We wanted to get the ball into the paint,” James said. “We were 1-10 at one point from the three point line so we wanted to work ourselves in then out. Once we go the ball in the paint we started to crash their defense, then we started to maker our threes.”

The Love three was the start of a 22-7 run that crushed the Celtics. The Cavs made 9 of 13 during the seven-minute stretch, and 4 of 7 threes. Six different players scored and though those were Love’s only points, he had three assists, including this pretty feed to James with inside position under the hoop (out of a timeout, we’ll note).

“I thought in the second half we moved the ball well or played certain schemes that were effective for us and we went to them and we were consistent in what we were doing,” Blatt said. “We made it difficult for Bradley as far as catching the ball and getting to his spots in terms of being able to lift easily for shots.”

Thomas, Bradley and Crowder shot a collective 3-21 in the second half, as the Cavaliers Bobbitted the Celtics’ three leading first-half scorers. Ten of those shots were threes, as the Cavaliers baited them into bad or contested shots.

By the end of the run the Cavs had a ten-point lead. Though the Celtics would close the lead to six to open the fourth a couple Shumpert threes a Mo Williams pullup and this pretty LeBron drive pushed the lead back out to double digits and the Celtics wouldn’t get appreciably closer.

While we’d all like to see the Cavaliers better match opponents energy and show better ball movement and offensive efficiency in the second half, it’s moving in the right direction.

This is a team that really hasn’t played or practiced much together as a whole unit. They really can’t indulge the whole playbook or develop proper chemistry. At one point the team had five players down and couldn’t even properly scrimmage. Under the circumstances the team’s rounding into shape nicely.

It’d be nicer to have your championship contender play with more consistency and intelligence. They’ve been saying their identity was ball movement and defense since the start of the season, it’s just taken them a while to find the roll. Maybe they’re method actors.

We’ll be at the Q on Thursday for the game against the Thunder. We’ll be posting live video and tweeting during the contest. Follow us @CRS_1ne and read our analysis on Friday morning in the Scene Blog.

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