Cavaliers, Stung by Their Bad Habits, Fall Before Hornets

click to enlarge Pied Piper & Robin Do the Safety Dance
Pied Piper & Robin Do the Safety Dance
Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t call a timeout when the team struggled in Monday’s overtime win over the Pacers, hoping the team would take the challenge to right themselves. After last night’s even uglier 106-97 loss to the Hornets, we wondered if the Cavs might next be forced to launder their own fouled sheets.

We’d take anything that introduces greater accountability to a team that’s proven on ball movement and defensive effort they’re better talking the talk than walking the walk. It’s like the difference between wanting to believe and having faith. The Cavs’ resolve these days is insufficient to withstand the Butterfly Effect, let alone a home team enjoying the benefit of home-cooking refs.

The Cavs can’t really complain when their entire second half offensive plan was Meals For One. The Cavaliers have five assists on 15 second half baskets, even worse than the 11 assists on 23 first-half buckets. Just as we noted on Tuesday, some of that is by Lue’s design.

He’s noted that Irving/James pick-and-rolls are very hard to stop and wants to make them the team’s fourth quarter bread and butter. However Lue seems to have underestimated the negative impact of empowering the team’s two greatest ballhogs to do their thing.

In the first half Irving and James took 14 of 43 shots, roughly a third of the team’s attempts. They kept it in check (somewhat), and in the second the Cavs put up 35 points, as 9 different players had buckets (nobody more than two), they made 12 of 18 shots and had seven assists.

In the second half, the pair took 24 of 40, or three-fifths of the team’s shots. They often did this off the bounce, mostly driving and not passing until the very butt-end of the clock, if at all, limiting their teammates to innocent bystanders.

None more so the perennially second-half milk carton candidate, Kevin Love. Mo Williams In his 4:44 of second half play took as many shots (three) as Love got in his 17 second-half minutes. Did Lue go and talk to him again like he did Monday, and explain how he kinda wished Love got more shots, because that’s gonna get old quick at this rate.

Irving and James’ one-on-one abilities are prodigious and part of what makes them successful offensively, but can become stagnant, predictable and less effective with frequent use. Lue’s plan of saving it for the fourth quarter is a good one, but he’d seems hard-pressed to get them to consistently play any other way, despite their solid postgame messaging.

“Things that are working, we have to stick to it and continue to move the basketball,” said Irving. “Obviously we have the talent to go one-on-one but we want to get away from that and save it for the fourth quarter when we need to be in that mindset.”

What Happened

The Cavalier came out with good energy on both ends. Since Tyronn Lue’s come on the team’s been much stronger opening the games. Through the first seven minutes the Cavs jumped out to a 17-12 lead while forcing five Hornets turnovers, but Charlotte closed the quarter on an 11-6 run, which featured five offensive rebounds (four on one possession).

It was less of a problem as the game went on, but the Hornets still secured 11 offensive boards, beat the Cavaliers 13-5 on second chance points, and outscored them 44-34 on Points in the Paint.

When the Pacers beat the Cavaliers on the offensive boards it wasn’t surprising, because they’d done the same thing at the Q in November. (They are however, 18th in the NBA in offensive rebound rate.) Lue credited the Pacers’ physicality and athleticism, not the failure to box out. This time, it was the Hornets, the NBA's 27th ranked offensive rebounding team. Lue made no excuses.

“They were crashing on us and we weren’t getting bodies,” said Lue in his blink-you-missed-it postgame presser. “When they missed a shot their bigs crashed.”

It wasn’t just their bigs, six different Hornets secured boards. Perhaps the Cavs are too anxious to run, and enough guys aren’t hitting the boards.
Here you can see Love not boxing out, as the Hornets sent two (soft) seven-footers to the boards. Just as in Indiana, size seems to be part of the issue, but Lue doesn’t want to play bigger. (Mozgov played just 7 minutes.)

While the ball movement improved for the Cavs in the second quarter, the Hornets took better care of the ball and shot 53%, making it hard for the Cavaliers to pull away. Then with three minutes to go in the half, Cleveland closed the quarter on a 13-1 run to take a 58-49 lead.

Meanwhile the Hornets were 12-19 (63%) in the second, including 5-8 from three as they continually exploited the Cavs slow rotations. Below Mo Williams is left guarding two guys because of the slow rotations of bigs Anderson Varejao and Thompson. Williams can hardly guard one, so that necessarily yielded a three.
In the second half, the energy and ball movement went AWOL again and the Hornets blew them out 33-17 in the quarter. LeBron and J.R. played the whole quarter, but neither got much going. The team had one assist in the entire quarter despite making 7 shots. That says just about everything you need to know.

“The third quarter was ugly for us,” said Love. “We missed so many box outs and they had so many rebounds and kick outs, set up for new plays and new possessions. There were a number of things that were uncharacteristic for us tonight but that kind of happened through the entire game.”

One of the particular things to watch is the weakside wing players who hurt them. This is the area J.R. Smith gets many of his points when LeBron hits paint then kicks it out. The Cavs got a taste of for this themselves as their guards gave up entirely too much penetration (Matthew Dellavedova sat with a hamstring injury), and the rotations were slow.
Sometimes it was that the team fell asleep in transition. While the Cavs are much better at this than last year, the issue has seemed to crop back up in the past week or so. Here you see repeat-offender Kyrie Irving watching the ball and almost utterly neglecting to check where his man is until it is too late.
Though Cleveland tightened up the fourth quarter defense, it was hardly impregnable (CHA, 8-18, 44%). The Cavs forced four turnovers, but made five of their own. (THREE! by Iman Shumpert.) The Hornets closed the third on a 15-6 run to take a seven point lead into the fourth. The Cavs could get no closer than six.

It’s a doubly damning effort in that the Hornets were not only missing Al Jefferson, out for the past several weeks, but also starting point Kemba Walker. Even with the Hornets missing their difference makers, the Cavaliers couldn’t get it done.

Second Half Coaching

In the end the Cavs finished with 39 second half points. This follows a 36-point second half against the Pacers. The Cavaliers are having trouble with second halves in general since Lue’s took the coaching reins.
Lue’s warned them about being a front-running team and that’s what they literally resemble, putting up +14 net in the first half on some epic offense and below average defense. In the second half they’re playing terrible offense and even worse defense. The assists drop by 25% and the shooting percentage (eFG%) drops by almost 8 points. They also make three more turnovers.

This seems to suggest that the team is getting a little tired, and completely abandoning the offense. Maybe Lue’s not being forceful enough. Maybe he’s not making good halftime adjustments or not responding to other teams’ adjustment.

Maybe he just isn’t noticing, though that seems hard to believe. The difference is night and day between +14 net and a -9 second-half. What team has a 23-point difference between their halves?

Work-in-progress may not be sufficient to encompass what may be an endemic team problem. We kinda doubt that though. We think it’s a personality issue, as in someone needs to come down on these guys and make life unpleasant enough for them that they feel compelled to comply. Oh, wait, we tried that and now we’re on the ultra-accommodating coach. Well, let’s hope not.

While it is undoubtedly a small sample size, we thought we’d take a look at the two coaches so far. The difference in the defense is shocking given that Lue was COACHING the defense up until recently. How can there be so much regression when the defensive coach becomes head coach. (Maybe the former head coach was doing more than he was given credit for…?)
While Lue’s gotten a better humming offense and even reduced the number of threes taken (yeah!) he’s also seen a marked decline in the defensive rebounding. (More on that in a moment.) They’re giving up nearly 2.5 more second chance points than before even as they’re getting more points in the paint. This suggests a particularly nettlesome issue on the offensive boards.

Rim protection is worse and so is the defense field goal percentage. There is just no stat which finds the Cavs playing defense remotely better. How does a team give up 9 more offensive points while playing games with 1.5 less possessions? Yes the offense is better but the defensive regression is greater.

Tristan Thompson Shouldn’t Start

We don’t see much hope of this changing and this may be the singular most damning entry in our “Reasons Why Tyronn Lue Won’t Win ’16 Championship.” It’s that he doesn’t have enough appreciation for what Mozgov does for this team, or perhaps he’s just too in love with Tristan.

Tristan is a fine player, but he’s an energy player. We’ve long noticed that his play in the fourth is not nearly so incendiary when he’s a starter and this year's stats bear this out. His rebounding in particular takes a hit in the fourth. This is even more problematic because he’s not a great defensive rebounder. He’s actually averaging less defensive rebounds as a starter (5.9 v. 6.0 rebounds) despite playing almost nine more minutes a game.

Those extra game minutes seem to make all the difference. His fourth quarter rebounding and net ratings are significantly better coming off the bench than his overall ratings, while as a starter his fourth quarter stats are much much worse (-5.3 net v. +14.3 off bench) than his overall numbers.

We think this is a clear sign that Thompson doesn’t have the gas to play this tempo as a starter, indeed, there’s reason to believe that the marginal returns of starting are actually little to no different than coming off the bench where Thompson’s use becomes much more efficient. But we have no indication this will change, which is disconcerting.

Indeed, if anything Lue’s rotations are getting more restrictive. Despite playing an overtime game just two days ago which had every starter crossing the 40-minute mark, Lue had the starters up over 36 minutes/apiece last night. This even while they expend more energy playing at this higher pace. Or allegedly high energy. Someone’s recent analysis found the team moving faster/more on offense, slower/less on defense.

This seems a very bad approach. The idea is to have a fresh team for the playoffs. The regular season is the appetizer, no sense in gorging on bread. Even LeBron understands what the proper approach is.

“It’s not about wins and loses for our team,” said James. “It’s about how we play. We took a step forward [ed.: really????] in the Indy game, I think we took a step backwards today in our approach, so we have to pick up steam before Friday.”

Final Analysis

This game was the natural culmination of backsliding that’s been evident for almost a week. Even the Spurs game saw second half regression into one-on-one ball. While there was more passing (71% of touches) last night than in the most stagnant effort of the year against the Pacers (only 68% of touches ended in passes), it wasn’t an enormous improvement.

The team is making less turnovers, but the greater pace has had an even more dramatic impact on the defense. The team’s gotten much worse on defense than its gotten better on offense.

The effort spent on offense seems to be wearing them down. If we can see it, we wonder how it is Lue can’t. Or if he can see it, what’s leading him to be even more restrictive with his bench. Shumpert’s playing a minute and a half less than he was under Blatt, and the bench outside Shumpert played 34 minutes. That’s not much relief for the starters.

Does Lue even remember how tired the team was by Game #4 of the NBA Finals? How can he in good conscience keep his foot on the bench’s neck like this? It’s disturbing giving the task of picking up the pace, and the all-too-obvious side-effect of reducing the quality and effort of the defensive play.

Dare we suggest there was a reason David Blatt played slower with this team, and that Lue’s plan to get into the open court might be more negative than positive, despite the nature of Irving and James’ skill set?

There’s still plenty of time for Lue to work this out, but it begins by getting this team to take ownership and accountability for their ball-stopping momentum-killing offensive play and sometimes inattentive defense. They need to understand that Love is the canary in the coal mine of ball movement. If he’s not scoring the team’s probably not doing it right.

So Lue’s regular season education continues. While the inclination of most Clevelanders is to take this the worst way, we find some hope in the fact that this was a pretty predictable loss that unfolded how many of them do. When the team doesn’t move the ball and their bodies the offense stagnates. When the offense stagnates, guys start going one-on-one, this leads to turnovers and fastbreaks the other way. Offense struggles and defensive effort flags.

Poor rotations and ineffective/inattentive penetration defense allows other teams to get to the rim, where the team presently has little protection, especially with Mozgov seemingly occupying remote part of the coach’s attention akin to Siberia. Meanwhile everyone the Cavs play seems to bring more energy and intensity, which the Cavaliers overcome mainly on the strength of their talent. That can't continue indefinitely

Does this sounds like a championship team? Don’t answer yet. There’s still time for them to change their spots.

The Cavaliers face the Celtics on Friday. We’ll be at the Q posting video, analysis and snark. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our postgame analysis Saturday morning.
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