Cavaliers Tame Wolves, Teach Them to Roll Over

Tell Yul, the gang’s all here! The Magnificent Seven have moved on from Mexican villages to the bigger game of NBA Championships. Last night they spotted Minnesota Timberwolves by the edge of town and everyone had a good meal.

Maybe it’s not Chuck Bronson, Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Yul Brenner but an assemblage of commensurate firepower as Minnesota quickly discovered. The Cavaliers shot 62% in the first quarter (13-21). While they weren’t able to sustain that (8-24 shooting in 2nd), they were able to produce enough easy baskets (16-0 in fastbreak points at half) to enjoy a 16-point halftime lead.

The second quarter proved the anomaly as the Cavs came out of the locker room and shot 61% in the second half (22-36), while making 13-14 free throws enroute to their third straight game of 120+ points and 50%+ shooting. They haven’t lost a game all season when they’ve shot over 50%.

The Cavaliers are truly weaponized since Kyrie returned and quickly got his groove back. In the previous two games Irving scored 57 points. Last night he only had 13, but nonetheless made a huge difference in the offense. LeBron also only had 13 points on identical 5-12 shooting. (None of the starters took more than 12 shots.) They didn’t need to shoot because the threat they posed was enough.

“The fact that Kyrie is playing really helps because he’s drawing so much attention and floor opens up that,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. "And obviously we’re moving the ball well."

They moved the ball and were able to take advantage of Irving and James’ ability to breakdown defenses. Here Kyrie breaks would-be Cav Andrew Wiggins’ ankles.
When the ball came back out, it found open guys and they pocketed them. Four guys hit at least two threes and the team made 13-27, their fourth straight game with at least 12 triples. Only once all season have they had two such games in a row.

The team is playing with better pace, though to tell the truth you won’t find it in the stats. For the season, the Cavaliers play at the third slowest pace in the NBA, with just 95 possessions/game. (The Warriors have 102, the Celtics 101.) Over the last six games they’re averaging just 94 (though that’s only the sixth-lowest during that stretch).

While that is undoubtedly playing a role, the answer appears to lie elsewhere. Prior to the current six-game win streak the Cavaliers were shooting rather poorly on wide open shots (those where nearest defenders 6’+ away), almost worse then open shots (defender 4’-6’ away).
Over the last six games they’re shooting better on wide open shots and extraordinarily well (even better) on open shots. (Golden State sets the benchmark, shooting 72% on wide open shots this season, more than 10% better than the next closest team.) Simply put, the Cavaliers are getting a few more better looks, but even more they’re knocking them down now.

This has been accompanied but an almost utter lack of hero ball. Everyone’s passing and getting each other involved, something James likes.

“We haven’t had much time to practice but at our shootarounds, we’ve been making the extra pass, and I think it’s helped us offensively get our rhythm back,” James said after the game. “Making extra passes is great for everyone. It doesn’t matter who is scoring the ball. It's about making the right play, and we’ve been doing that the last few games.”

That ethos is how shots were distributed s evenly and six players wound up in double figures.

Pan  &the Magic Pipe

Nobody seems to have benefited more from the increased movement than J.R. Smith, who likes to equate made threes with laying pipe. (We’ll let you draw the inappropriate inferences.) Smith’s mirthful fun-loving spirit suggests to us the Greek God of the Bachanal, Pan, who is also associated with pipes. Of course, Pan never had access to hoverboards, so we’ll never know how completely similar they are, but they’re undoubtedly kindred spirits.

After the first of these three 120-point victories, Smith mentioned that he hadn’t felt comfortable shooting all year. Now he just needs his tweed smoking jacket and fuzzy slippers. Over the last three games, J.R.’s averaging 25 points on 62% shooting including 6 of 10 threes and 1.7 steals. This in just 28 minutes a game.

We suggested earlier this week that with the way that Smith spaces the floor, and the fact that he barely needs the ball to be effective makes him a more appropriate partner for the Big Three than Iman Shumpert.

Despite Shumpert’s defensive prowess, Smith provides a fourth (nuclear?) option that when activated is as deadly as any of the others. This fits with Blatt’s willingness to let the second team sink or swim rather than significantly reduce the time Irving, Love and James spend on the floor together.

The thinking, we suspect, is that an offense with those three will outscore opponents by enough to make up for the second team’s offensive deficiency. (Particularly if the backups feature defensive stoppers like Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert.)

Pan has been making his case, pulling out the flute again last night, making 10-12, including 5-6 from behind the arc. He had 27 points in just 19 minutes and in the postgame interview classically lamented that he didn’t make them all.

“He’s definitely a rhythm player but at the same time our offense is helping him a lot,” said James afterwards. “He has the ability to go for 15-17 in a quarter tonight was one of those instances. Every time he got the ball we wanted him to keep taking them. But he’s been taking great shots. He hasn’t taken many heat check shots this year, and I think that’s helped him stay in a rhythm.”

Smith’s game has a better mix of drives and 3s this year because teams are driving him off the three, but last year was a big anomaly. Two-thirds of Smith’s shots after the trade were 3s, the highest rate of his career. This year it’s dropped down to 57%, which is still the greatest percentage of his shots since Smith was 22.

The Cavs are doing all kinds of things to create open shots, and last night they were flowing Smith’s way. One thing they did took advantage of opponents’ attempts to cheat into the lane off of Tristan Thompson. This just creates an extra screener, which they used to spring J.R. Smith for a wide-open 3.
Jason Lloyd asked the relevant question after the game, whether what Smith provides in spacing matters more than the defensive lift Shumpert might offer.

“Since Shump came back he’s played well, JR’s started and we’ve been winning,” Blatt said. “So no need to mess with it right now.”

Won’t Go Quietly

Blatt may have made his decision but Shumpert is not going to make it easy. Praised by the coach for all the effort he put in during the offseason, an injury on the eve of training camp denied him a chance to showcase it. When he returned in Orlando, Blatt said Shumpert had been working on his left hand while his right wrist recovered.

A talented player who never seemed to progress, in part because of injuries, but whether it was the playoff run or the company he’s now keeping, Shumpert appears as willing as anyone to put the work in. Now we’re beginning to taste the fruits of his work.

Like Tristan, Shumpert’s effort level is typically unimpeachable, it’s the offense where he’s sometimes struggled. Not this year.

Shumpert’s making threes at a 38% clip, above his 34% career mark and the second-best of his career. The same goes with his dramatically reduced turnover rate. His usage rate is the lowest of his career, yet is producing (winshares per 48 minutes) at a career-best rate.

Last night Shumpert served further notice of his improved shooting stroke. He scored 23 on 9-19 from the field including 3-6 from beyond the boundary. He also had half the team’s eight steals.

What’s really noticeable is that he seems under control out there. That’s from his ballhandling to his shooting. At times last year his drives would get helter-skelter and his jumper seemed to suffer from drift when taken off the dribble. Not so this year. Indeed, Blatt praised Shumpert for not trying to do too much.

“He played simple and straight and didn’t get outside himself,” Blatt said. “He knocked down his shots. He made good decisions when to shoot, and he played both ends of the court as he always does.”

Given the circumstances, it seems hard to dispute Blatt’s early argument: If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Still Looking For Love

Visits to Minnesota always provoke soul-searching among the Cavaliers more misanthropic fans. Love’s inability to reproduce his alpha-dog stats in his beta-dog situation will always rankle some, though his value should become more apparent in the playoffs when the game slows down and having a post-up player is even more valuable.

We noticed the Cavaliers doing even more to get Love going last night. They ran several pick-and-rolls/flares between James and Love, including this one. We’ve always wondered why Blatt doesn’t employ this more often and just assumed they didn’t want to provide too much useful video for their playoff opponent.
Besides those options out of their basic sets, they also ran some plays for Love, including this variation on Golden State’s “elevator action.” The Warriors run it around the top of the key, and indeed, the Cavaliers have a flavor like that, but this one ran on the wing. In it the screeners allow Love to pop out before closing the opening like elevator doors.
Though Love missed on both the shown plays, he managed to reach 20 points for the first time since the Knicks game December 23, eight games ago. It’s not necessarily a question of willingness or even the Cavaliers trying to get him the ball. Other teams recognize that Love is one of the most efficient post scorers in the league and act accordingly. (His 1.07 ppp trails guys like Paul Milsap, Kawhi Leonard and Aron Afflalo.) The way the Cavs' offense is balanced, that just mean opportunities for someone else. Fans need to be as okay with that as Love apparently is.

Dr. Zhimozgov

The biggest beneficiary of the Wolves misfortunes was Russian center Timofey Mozgov, who was sprung from his bench exile. He rewarded Blatt’s generosity with 24 strong minutes. He went hard to the hole when he attacked it, though he was a little tentative offensively, passing the ball several times without even considering making an offensive move.

Some might cheer this on the grounds of this year’s offensive futility. (Mozgov is shooting an astounding 16% on shots from 3’-10’ from basket. His career rate is 34%. Surprisingly his turnovers are consistent with career rates.)

However, at some point the team will need to excavate Mozgov’s confidence from it’s underground gulag. The present winning streak is built more on the team’s offensive prowess than their defensive skill with Thompson on the floor. (That said, Mozgov has been a huge negative on offense, so that makes some sense.)

At some point, Mozgov will be needed. Games like this where he has some low pressure time to work on his game-speed and aggression help. He finished with seven points (including a nice 16’ from above the free throw line), nine rebounds, two blocks, and, yes, two turnovers.

It was mostly a promising sigil. If it continues, Blatt might have to change his rotation to the Magnificent Eight.

Final Analysis

The Wolves are really pushovers at 12-25, so it’s hard to read to much into this blowout. However the fact that the Cavaliers have eclipsed 120 points for the third time-in-a-row, after failing to surpass that mark before now, is a promising sign. It’s the result of better ball movement, pace and greater offensive aggression.

The defense continues to be a cause for concern. For now the team’s able to easily outscore their opponents. The entire trip will feature overmatched opponents (next up the Sixers) until it gets to Texas with the Spurs, Mavericks and Rockets. Though they’ve preached the idea of a defensive identity it remains as slippery as string theory. They just can’t wrap their fingers around it.

But as we’ve noted before these are really first world problems. These are worries for the 1%, a club the Cavaliers mean to join, but the application deadline’s still months away. If they can continue to muster even 80% of this offensive firepower and a little better defense, they should be able to punch their ticket to the Finals.

Of course there’s plenty of time to stray from the path, and if there’s one thing this team does, it’s get bored easy and start freelancing. Let’s hope the greater general focus applies not just minute-to-minute but game-to-game.

Next up on Sunday are the Philadelphia 76ers, who’ve gotten significantly better (as in, they’ve won multiple games in the past month) since Mike D’Antoni and Jerry Coangelo were brought on as consultants. They added a real point guard in Ish Smith, which has made a bottom-line difference. (Tank mode now reduced to 75% full speed.)

We’ll be watching along with you, and offering our analysis on Twitter. You can follow us @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame column on Monday.
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