Cavaliers Take Pistons’ Pink Slip, Sweep Series

Some teams they just can’t hang, dying little by little, piece by piece. Some teams show up and buckle down, prove their mettle racing in the streets. In the desperate grab for that last chance power drive, it was the Cavaliers leaving Detroit in its rear view mirror, shutting up and then shutting them down 100-98.

The Cavs didn’t blow them off the line; they didn’t all series. The Pistons have some horses. But they’re a team built for straight-aways. They’ve got some very strong offensive players and a top-notch starting five, but their bench offered little all series outside Stanley Johnson, and the Pistons were unable to get a good handle on the Cavaliers offensively.

“They start two 3 men with Tobias [Harris] and [Marcus] Morris. That’s a touch matchup for any 4 and they both can post the basketball. They both can take you off the dribble, they both can shoot it,” said Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue. “That was a tough matchup for us the whole series and then they have the best offensive rebounder in the game in Drummond and one of the best penetrators in Reggie Jackson. They put you in some tough positions.”

The Pistons shot 48% for the series and 49% last night, also bettering their series three-point shooting percentage (38%) with a 42% (10-24) showing in Game 4. The Cavaliers had a hard time stopping their offense in part because of the combination of weapons. Drummond and Jackson are a good pick-and-roll combo, with Drummond posing a tremendous threat of the alley-oop.

The Cavaliers chose all series to stop Drummond and penetration, which opened up things for Morris and Harris. Matthew Dellavedova suggested the challenge of defending them has helped hone their pick-and-roll defense.

“We had to do a good job in the pick and roll. Jackson & Drummond are really dangerous and the other guys get a little loose off that so that was a big focus of the series,” Dellavedova said. “I think defensively we did a good job of taking that away and continuing to work on our defensive habits.”

Of course by taking that away, Morris and Harris were sprung like George Clooney and John Turturro from the chain gang, allowing them to adventure to the tune of 47 points on a collective 17-26 from the field and 5-8 from 3. They were a terror, particularly Harris who rebounded (literally) from an off-series with 13 boards and played 41 minutes.

“They shot the ball well. Give them credit,” said Lue. “Their backs were against the wall, so they came out and they played great. They shot the ball well, they attacked the basket. They did everything they could do to win this game.”

It was precisely the type of series the Cavaliers needed. The Pistons were scrappy and played hard all game long, they never gave in, a credit to them and their coach. We’ve said it before, and will say it again, Stan Van Gundy is a very good coach, and Detroit is a challenging matchup, with Drummond able to close off the lane. It took away the penetration and forced the Cavaliers to find open jumpers and make them.

“With their defensive schemes, Stan’s teams are always great defensively,” said Lue. “They’ve got a big guy like Drummond in the middle who can block shots. They can switch 1-4 at times. They’re fast enough to recover, and offensively they put you in some tough situations because they do things a lot different.”

They also played the Cavaliers very physically. That’s playoff basketball, and hopefully helped steel the Wine and Gold for the road ahead, lined as it is with Wily Coyote-style snares.

“It was a pretty competitive series for a sweep. I thought our guys competed hard,” said Van Gundy in a rambling comment. “When the games are this meaningful you start to learn how important every possession is throughout a game, and how hard you have to play and how hard you have to concentrate for 48 minutes. And it’s our guys first time through it. That’s what I hope our guys get out of it.”

We think that the Cavaliers might have gotten that out of it. They showed a lot more grit in the face of adversity than they did in the regular season. This comment by Coach Lue was a real head-turner, citing something we’ve railed against incessantly. He was asked what the team could take from the series.

“We were able to take a hit and keep moving forward. We’ve been harping on that all season, not to drop our head, not to have bad body language when teams make runs,” Lue said. “Every game we were down and we kept pushing, kept moving forward and that’s the biggest growth in this team right now. Just staying with it and not giving in when things get tough.”

The Game

We don’t want to get too into the game with the series over and a new set of matchups closing fast like Racer-X or most new restaurants. The fact is that either of the two teams the Cavaliers face next will pose an entirely different set of issues.

That’s not just coach-speak, though Lue did say just that: “Each series is different. You’re going to have defensive schemes that are different from how we played Detroit.”

That’s particularly true of the Hawks and Celtics in that neither has a dominating center to clog up the paint. Both teams will welcome the opportunity to go small. So as we say, an entirely different set of issues.

Another reason not to go to far into the minutiae of the game is that it very much resembled the prior three contests. They were all tough, hardnosed games, toe-to-toe battles fought in the trenches, though obviously assisted by long-range artillery (13-36, 36%, 41.3% for the series).

The Pistons shot well as they have all series. They kept the Cavs away from the rim (16-34 within 5’) and pushed in transition whenever they had the chance to take advantage of the Cavs sometimes/often lax effort getting back.

It’s one of the team’s true Achilles heels and an odd one since it’s really a question of effort. We saw some improvement last night and it will be something to watch for going forward.

Though the Pistons shot better than the Cavaliers in FG% (48-46) for the series, the Cavaliers had a 54.6 eFG%, better than the Pistons’ 53.7, and trailing only the Spurs (55.4%) and the Heat (55.2%). (Effective field goal factors in additional point for threes.)

The Cavs won in large part by doing the little things. Last night the Cavs only had five turnovers while forcing nine, which they turned into a 13-10 advantage in points off turnovers. The Cavs also won Pts off TO in the series (16.8 per/gm to 8.8). The Cavs won the second chance points 10-9 last night and 13-9 for the series. They also won fastbreak points 12-4, and 10.5-7.5 for the series.

They also won the out-of-bounds plays. We counted five times that the Cavs had to in-bounds with less than three seconds left and they made the shot. They had another last night. The great thing is that the Pistons stopped the lob play to LeBron cutting hard to the basket after a screen from Smith, but sorta ignored Smith who somehow drilled a 35 foot prayer like he was Touchdown Jesus.
We want to revel, for just a moment in the improbable rise of J.R. Smith, rivaled perhaps only by Lazarus. Once also given up for dead – or as near to dead as a hot shooting cancer gets – Smith has been a terrific team player and a source of constant amusement from forcing NBA rules about hoverboards to his dances and photobombing to his sense of humor:

He was asked about Kevin Love’s stinger (occurred in first quarter), and if he worried seeing it. (There seems to be a weird reporter thing that tries to bring out the den mother in teammates. We don’t get it. But JR perfectly punctures this by answering the way the question sickly begs to be answered.)

“I was worried at first but then I realized I would probably get more shots so I kinda calmed down,” Smith cracked, before returning to PC status. “I was definitely worried. Kevin is my guy.”

Aside from those unique and irreplaceable skills, Smith was a quiet monster, like the thing that eats stuff out of the back of your closet. Very efficient and hard to catch. Smith scored 13.5 points per game on just under 10 shots/game for the series. Eighty-five percent of them were threes, which he sunk at a semi-ridiculous 51.5% rate. Smoke on that Pipe, Stephen Curry! What’s more he even shot better on the road (47/53) than at home (46/50). (Small sample size, but still.)

One thing we need to note is how big Delly was. LeBron left the game in the third quarter having helped build an eleven-point lead. It was a six-point lead when he left with four minutes left, and the Cavs didn’t score for two minutes. Finally Delly put together six straight points to keep the offense afloat and then Kyrie hit a circus shot from half court. That’s worth five points, right Gregg?
Delly then scored five more to open the fourth and give the Cavs an eight-point lead. The Pistons would pull within one, but could never could get over the hill.

We’d also like to note that LeBron and Kyrie both played over forty minutes. This was apparently one of the reasons for the Hack-Andre. Drummond sunk half of them, neutralizing the effort, but Lue said it was as much to buy some rest for his guys and to upset the Pistons’ offensive rhythm.

This is the same reasoning for the slow-down, ISO-heavy offense the Cavs ran at the end of the game. It seemed like it went on for half the fourth quarter, though it really appears to have begun with the aforementioned Smith three. As the offense stagnated, the Pistons went on a 7-2 run, that Kyrie ended with a big three to give the Cavs a four point lead. But hey, it let most of them rest up for defense, and that sorta worked.

Lue-a Culpa?

We were never down on Lue, and felt we had to withhold judgment until we’d seen him on the premier level that the playoffs offer. Other however were quicker to judge.

Now some of the results are in and they’re surprisingly positive. Not because Lue had set a low bar during the regular season, but because playoff basketball is a true battle of wits, and we weren’t sure how quickly Lue would adapt to the high-stakes table.

Kyrie’s success is 1A in Lue’s ledger. When Lue suggested making Kyrie into a basketball wielding Cruise Missile whose primary intent was destroying the hoop, people balked. They worried that there might not be enough passing on the court and that Kevin Love might wilt, turn to dust and blow away without constant watering.

Yet making Irving an attacker really takes advantage of what he does best. Making him attack also removes the tentativeness that comes from the decision-making process of “should I shoot or should I pass.” For Kyrie in most cases it’s take it to the hole, young man. LeBron and Love are better passers and decision-makers with the ball, let them hold the ball, and look for guys, in the post or in James in the PnR.

For Kyrie, it’s attack and if stopped find someone else. Yes he snakes the roll man. (Typically the ballhandler waits for the roll man, but Kyrie just attacks both defenders, challenging them to backpedal faster than he can drive it.) But he’s the rare guy who can beat two defenders and when he can’t, hopefully he will continue to hone his ability to find other guys.

“Everybody knows him as a scorer but he’s such a willing passer,” says J.R. “He makes plays for everyone else and he doesn’t get enough credit for that.”

For the record, Irving finished the series with 19 assists to just 6 turnovers, which isn’t too bad while leading the club in scoring with 27.5 points/game. Lue really deserves credit for setting him loose and letting him use his instincts to be aggressive, rather than shackle him with a role better suited to others. (Like Delly, God bless him.)

“The fact that he was in such a great groove throughout this whole series we rode his coattails and I was able to focus on some other things,” said James. “My rebounding and getting guys involved, defensively try to lock in on my individual matchup. I knew that if I need to score I could’ve.”

This is something we’ve noted. James seems to be putting more energy in on defense and content to let others run the offense for long stretches. It’s also about the fact that Van Gundy paid special attention to LeBron. It’s what opened up Delly for those five points early in the fourth.

“They weren’t leaving LeBron on the roll so I had to be a bit more aggressive,” Delly said.

Love had a horrible game from a stats point of view. He was 3-15 shooting, and though he had 12 boards, he only had 3 after the first quarter. He seemed to blame a stinger he received in the third quarter and which was aggravated twice more during the game in teh postgame presser.

But whatever. He played hard and hustled all night. He dove on the floor and in the fourth forced a jump ball the Cavs won and which James turned into a layup.

Even more, after moping and what not about his arm for a possession or two, he just did what he could and didn’t stop hustling. When Lue talks about the team not getting its head down when thing are going bad, the first person that comes to mind is Kevin Love. Maybe that’s just us.

Suffice to say, we were impressed with the moxie and the fact that he kept shooting and the team kept looking for him. Needless to say, that hasn’t always happened, but signals a kind of commitment to what they’re trying to do, and a focus on the process.

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers got it into third gear against the Pistons and held the pole position most of the way. Sure the Pistons nosed ahead at times, but they were never going to come in first. The mess was always going to land in their lap (or worse).

However Detroit’s agile, pick-and-roll reliant offense tested the Cavaliers sometimes deficient PnR defense. The offense didn’t run particularly smoothly, especially as the series went on, but we credit a lot of that to Van Gundy, and put the onus on the Cavaliers to continue to improve that part of the game.

Lue suggested he was happy with the defense, despite the shooting percentage and we kind of agree.

“To hold this team under 100 three times to 90, 91 and then 98 tonight? I thought our defense was good outside the shooting percentage,” he said. “Overall our guys did a great job. It was a physical series. It was a great series for us and they tested us.”

It’s always about moving forward though, and not looking back. (Not even in anger.)

“It’s a long journey ahead and we know the goals that are in front of us,” said Irving. “It’s going to be one day at a time and we have to take advantage of each day. I think we continue to understand that and we need to continue to prepare and get better as the playoffs go on.”

The Cavaliers got their red plastic poker chip. Now the Cannonball Rally’s onto its next, still undisclosed destination. You should feel good. The team’s in good shape physically, and they’ve beat their next opponent in last year’s playoffs. With as much as a week off until the next series, the Cavaliers are right where they want to be.

We’ll be at the next Cavaliers home game, probably the beginning of next week. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis the morning after every game.
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