Cavaliers Zap Hornets in High Voltage Attack

click to enlarge You can't stop J.R.'s bum rush.
You can't stop J.R.'s bum rush.
Those moments when LeBron James blitzes by three “set” transition defenders, Kyrie Irving carves the lane as if on skates and J.R. Smith lays pipe while nearly blind to his bearings, it’s possible to faintly hear the distant trilling stormy strings and triumphant horns of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”

Last night perhaps you could even smell the acrid stink of singed wings as the Hornets went down by ten in the second period and never recovered. They bellied through a thicket of third quarter Cavalier threes that snapped their burning wings before imploding like Shia LaBeouf in a manner more impressive than the 114-103 wreckage suggests.

Yes it smelled like victory at the Q, made sweet by new addition Channing Frye’s 10 second-half points, and greater defensive intensity than they mustered Monday night against the Pistons.

Some excused the debacle with Detroit as a schedule loss, which seems too forgiving, even given their fine play Sunday against the Thunder. Championship teams don’t take games off.

That banner-bound crew showed up last night, rebounding from a lackluster first quarter to play 32 minutes of fine basketball. (They did let off the gas during the final four minutes after pushing the lead past 20.) Smith, James and Irving set the tone in the first half by going 16-24 and 42 of Cleveland’s 63 points.

After scoring 53 the last two games, Love scored just eight against the Hornets. It was Love’s eighth single-digit scoring game of the season, though it wasn’t for lack of opportunities.

Love led the team at half with 10 shots but only converted three and didn’t get to the line all game. He had one second half bucket, as the reserves pushed out the lead to open the fourth and there was no reason for Love to come back in, finishing with 26 minutes.

Some of those minutes went to Frye who looked like a guy who had made a career running pick-and-flare/pop plays to feed his 40% career three-stroke. His picks were good, sturdy and well-placed enough to remind this viewer how lame most of Love’s picks at freeing the ballhandler to make a move. Below Matthew Dellavedova turns the corner to open up Frye for his first Cavalier three.
It seemed clear on several occasions that Delly’s injured hamstring was bothering him as he struggled more than usual to get over screens and limit penetration. He just doesn’t look the same on defense. However on offense, he’s super glue. The guy just makes things happen out there by actually running the offense and opening things up for other guys.

Indeed, Dellavedova’s nearly even with James in assists per 36 minutes, 6.5 to 6.6. For a guy that didn’t look like he belonged on the court early last season, he may be the purest point guard LeBron has ever played with. Between his defensive intensity and his offensive facilitation, he’s part of the team’s two best two-man teams, with Kevin Love (+17.6) and LeBron James (+17.7).

The Game

So it’s no surprise that Delly was on the floor when the Cavaliers took control of the game in the second quarter. It began with an 8-0 run that erased the Hornets’ 24-23 lead at the end of the first, and featured the aforementioned Frye three, an Irving “and 1”, and a Frye bank shot just outside the paint from 7’.

The Hornets’ Jeremy Lin looked like he had an EZ Pass as he went around a Kevin Love hard show that was more like a soft peek to drive the heart of the lane of a layup that cut the Cavs lead to 37-34. J.R. Smith replaced Irving, joining Delly, Love, James and Mozgov as the Cavs went on an 11-3 run to take an 11-point lead off a Delly weakside triple feed from James.

The Hornets would get no closer than seven the rest of the way. A 13-5 run to open the fourth quarter pushed the lead to 20, and there was no coming back from that for the Hornets. This run also featured Delly for most of it, feeding Mozgov for a couple plays at the rim and the first of Frye’s three fourth-quarter threes.
The Cavaliers pushed the pace for much of the night, producing 28 fastbreak points more than twice their season average (12.4). Only 21 of their shots were pullups (23% vs 30% since Lue’s took over), and just 7% of their shots came off touches than exceeded 6 seconds and 5.5% off plays with 7+ dribble.. They’ve been averaging 20% and 16%, respectively, under Lue (17% and 13% under Blatt).

Suffice to say that’s how the Cavaliers want to play offense. It obviously didn’t hurt that they were playing a team in Charlotte that also likes to maintain a high pace. The Wine and Gold weren’t so fortunate with the Pistons on Monday, who wanted and got a much slower game.

On defense they got their hands up and created some deflections and steals, something they’ve not done a lot this season. They’re 21st in the league in creating turnovers, but had 11 last night. Five of those occurred in the third quarter providing 10 fastbreak points.

“It was the defensive stops. We were very tuned about what they wanted to do in the sets they were in,” said LeBron, hinting that the Hornets predictability did them in. “We got our hands on a lot of loose balls. We were in the passing lanes a couple times and got on the break.”

They augmented their case by not committing a turnover of their own in that third quarter, just two in the second half, and nine for the game. Indeed the difference in points off turnovers (22-10) was the difference in the game. That’s because while the Cavaliers created more turnovers, they didn’t necessarily play great defense, particularly in the second half.

The Hornets shot just 43% in the first half, while the Cavaliers shot 54%. In the second half those numbers reversed, as the Hornets shot 56% and the Cavaliers only shot 44%. But thanks to offensive rebounds and the turnover edge, they took enough shots to counteract the poor shooting. For the game the Hornets finished at 48.7% and the Cavaliers with 49.5%.

Same Ship, Different Channel

This inconsistent defensive effort is nothing new, and as the Cavs were able to create a 22-point fourth quarter lead in spite of it is reason enough to push this thought to the outer ring suburbs of the mind.

The same probably goes for the team’s lack of free throws. We’ve been harping on the Cavs tendency to settle for jump shots and not get into the paint and to the rim to draw the fouls that are the bread and butter of playoff basketball.

Only three times in the Cavaliers playoff run did they shoot less than 20 free throws (19 each time) and they lost every one of them. One once in their last eight games did they shoot more than 19 (27 versus the Thunder). They had 17 last night, and only hit 11. That’s the fourth time in the last eight games they’ve made more three-pointers than free throws.

We suspect that could be trouble in the long run. The rim tends to get small on threes during the playoffs, and given the typically slower pace, free throws will sustain teams through the rough spots. Now given that James and Irving drive so much it might be reasonable to expect they’ll receive more calls and finish more takes come playoff time. But it bears watching.

While the continuing tendency to yield high shooting percentages to opponents and the infrequent visits to the charity stripe concern us, along with the lapses in defensive attention/intensity, we are happy to report greater effort last night on the boards.

The team’s been having surprising trouble corralling defensive boards given how much more dominant they should be on the glass. Last night they seemed much more focused on keep the Hornets off the glass, both because of their recent issues and the Hornets win three weeks ago when they clobbered the Cavs on the glass 49-28. Nice to see they learn some lessons.

The Cavaliers perform better when they have something to prove, as when they’re avenging or bouncing back from a loss. Last night it was both and the Wine and Gold stepped up.

Irving seems close to playoff form, only lacking one of those sick three-point shooting exhibitions that inevitably lead to 40+ scoring games. James’ jump shot’s still iffier than Donald Trump’s modesty, though he dropped a pair of triples in the first quarter and was even wise enough to stop after an errant fourth “heat-check” three shot. It’s like LeBron remembers, “Oh yeah, forgot how bad those shots are in the offense.”

He had six first half assists, seven for the game, and really picked and chose his spots on his way to 23 points off 13 shots. Kyrie had 23 off 17 shots and finished with five assists. Smith finished with 16, all but two of those points in the first half, while Delly (10 pts, 7 assists) and Channing Frye (16 pts) rounded out those in double figures.

Final Analysis

Frye basically showed himself last night to be a better version of the non-post-up Love, and even outrebounded Love last night 6-2. This generated so much comment from the beat writing pool, you'd think they'd never seen Kevin Love do the same thing. (Well, certainly not consistently, but still....)

While we hardly feel like Love is about to be replaced, Tristan Thompson is looking much less likely to play 30 minutes/game going forward. Frye’s spacing and ability to shoot frontcourt 3s better than most players shoot corner 3s makes him a great backup to Love, while providing spacing Thompson doesn't.

That likely winnow down those Thompson minutes at the 4. And it’s not only Frye. Richard Jefferson played the 4 in a well-performing lineup featuring Kyrie and Delly in the backcourt with JR Smith at small forward and Mozgov at center. Last night Thompson only played the “5” and actually played fewer minutes than Mozgov for the first time since Lue took over.

We noted Monday that Mozgov has been one of the team’s best defensive players since Lue’s ascension. On Tuesday we pointed out that Thompson’s rim protection since Lue took over has been 54.7% while Mozgov has been at 43.5%. So it only makes sense that Lue try to downshift Thompson’s minutes.

As hard as he plays we’ve wondered about Thompson’s stamina to play 32-35 minutes/game. He’s looked gassed to us in the fourth and his net efficiency has been 20 points better off the bench (+14.3 off bench, -6.0 as starter).

So we take this Lue change as a positive change. Richard Jefferson, who’s performed well with Shumpert injured will probably need to surrender some of his 20 or so minutes/night he’s averaged lately, but otherwise Lue seems to be settling into a comfortable rotation that uses his deep bench.

He’s done a much better job juggling his rotations so that there is one of the Cavs’ three best players (Love, Irving, James) is on the floor to buoy the second squad. Of course, the way he’s played this year, Delly’s been nearly as good as any starter, so having him leading the second squad is hardly a step down. Considering how much more often they run the offense when he’s on the floor, in some circumstances it’s a decided step up like Al Bundy finding a Modern Family.

“I thought for the most part all the guys played good,” Lue said during the postgame. “The thing I like the most is we went up by 14-15, they made a run and we didn’t hang our heads and get mad and we built the lead back up again.”

If this were an action film this would be the lovable moment when the team’s loading up – taping their magazines together, perusing the ordinance, shouldering the rocket launcher. This seems to be the montage the Wine and Gold are enjoying this moment. With just 27 games remaining, we’re down to the final third of the season, and the urgency is starting to take hold.

The Hornets are no creampuffs. Not only did they beat the Cavaliers in Charlotte after the Cavs’ overtime victory in Indiana, but they had won five in a row and 10 of 13 coming into the game. They’ve also gotten big Al Jefferson back recently. This was a legitimate victory and a nice prelude to Friday’s big game against the second place Toronto Raptors, who trail the Cavaliers by three games in the race of the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed.

Toronto’s been nearly as good as the Cavaliers at home (20-6 vs. Wine & Gold’s 24-5), making them one of only six teams in the NBA with 20 home victories. They’ve won seven of their last ten and their last three in a row. They have a deadly backcourt and with Shumpert injured, it will require max effort from the remaining guards to rein them in.

It should be a great matchup. We’ll be following along with you on television, posting analysis, snark and video via Twitter. You can follow us @CRS_1ne and read our analysis on Saturday here in the Scene and Heard blog.
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