Nobody likes a challenge more than the Cavaliers. Blessed with more talent than anyone in the Eastern Conference, they’ve treated the regular season like their senior year in high school, with sporadic attendance and attentiveness. There were injuries, new players, not enough practices, irregular rotations and a grueling March travel schedule to share the blame for their inconsistent and indifferent effort, particular on defense. It often seemed they enjoyed playing offense so much they could barely be bothered to get back on defense, and whenever the offense tanked, the defense followed suit.
Then yesterday morning, dispiriting news emerged: Tristan Thompson had sprained his thumb and would miss at least the next two games. Those who’ve noted Thompson’s faltering rebounding and defensive numbers worried that the heavy load had worn him down, saw a mixed blessing: At least Thompson would get some rest. Lue admitted in a recent postgame that last season’s insertion of Mozgov into the starting lineup in March was to ease the load on Thompson, a luxury he hasn’t had this season at least since Chris “Birdman” Anderson’s injury (though as luxuries go he was pretty much a pocket protector).
Naturally, with the best big man tied behind their back, the Cavaliers played one of their best games of the season. Even on the back-end of a back-to-back on the road – circumstances under which the Wine and Gold have gone lost nine of ten this year – they brought the intensity and energy all game long.
To whit: Every starter made it into double figures. Love posted a double-double with 15 points and 16 boards, and Kyrie added 19 points and five assist. JR Smith continued to rediscover his stroke (12.4 ppg, 53% FG/3pt, 4.2 3pt/gm, last five games) scoring 12, and Thompson’s replacement Channing Frye had 10 points and eight boards (three offensive!) in just 17 minutes of play.
But the hero was obviously LeBron, who took over after both teams endured a lackluster, poor shooting that ended with the Celtics up 20-19. James scored 15 (7-9 FGA) of his 36 points in the second to go with three assists (six on the night) as the Cavs crushed the Celts with a 22-4 run to open the quarter and never truly looked back.
This was in some sense the evening’s greatest accomplishment. We all knew the Cavs could go on white-hot runs, it was their inability to maintain their defensive focus through those lulls that had many observers worried. Last night the defensive intensity held, and though Boston crawled back within nine in the fourth, the Cavaliers didn’t falter. They regrouped and pushed the lead back out, showing the kind of killer instinct they frequently lacked during the regular season.
Last night, the light came on just like they said it would. The switch was flipped (at least for one night). Who dare question the King?
The King’s Favored Cast
James had 12 of his 15 second quarter points leading the second squad as it’s putative center/point guard on the floor with Deron “Overdue Bills” Williams, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson. It’s essentially the same lineup that LeBron lead with great success before Overdue Bills’ arrival replaced Derrick “Due Bills” Williams.
Taking a quick look at the team’s most successful five- and three-man lineups, we see that born out. Indeed, Overdue Bills has also been successful running the point with Kyrie as the off-guard, and in this lineup with Korver. We’ll give Lue credit for sticking with his guns. While we’d love to join a Free Derrick campaign, last night’s game suggested Lue’s intuition on that second quarter lineup may be right.
Shumpert is not shooting well, and hasn’t since late December other than a white-hot two-week stretch when he first got the starting job back from Liggins. His defense was never as good as his reputation and has fallen off steadily.
He fast. pic.twitter.com/79D2LQZLue— Chris Manning (@cwmwrites) April 6, 2017
He’s okay guarding one-on-one off-guards especially in the post, but hates contact and is a nightmare going through screens, negotiating them like a tsetse fly, and constantly exaggerating contact to draw fouls rather than attempting to keep up with his man. We’d love to see Shumpert fall out of Lue’s rotation but he seems as comfortably ensconced (primarily for that aforementioned defensive reason) as Maggie Simpson’s pacifier. Liggins would be preferable, but the key to that second quarter lineup is having the shooters to spread the floor.
We got a taste of this to open the game with Frye replacing Thompson. With shooters in spreading the floor, it would be awfully hard to recover and defend James if he were just a locomotive, and not a locomotive able to bend space and time. Below he somehow avoids a decent Amir Johnson contest (as he flees Channing) to defend the lane, but it’s simply hard to get there in time.
Time and again the Celtics found themselves unable to match up with James who added to his tally with a nearly as sharp second half in which he scored another 17 points before sitting the final four minutes and change.
In Frye’s Defense
We noted a couple weeks ago the odd fact that Channing Frye – who frequently looks outmatched physically and quickness-wise on defense – has been one of the team’s best defenders since the break. That’s changed in the past two weeks. Now Frye is THE best Cavaliers defender with regards to defensively efficiency, i.e. how many points opponents score per 100 possessions (pCp) since the all-star break.
Deron often seems to be surrendering points when he’s on the floor, though, again this could be the benefit of playing in the aforementioned wrecking ball second quarter lineup. Also, as that squad scores a lot, they don’t have to play as much in transition, arguably the Cavs’ biggest Achilles heel.
Yet Frye played well enough defensively as a starter last night for the Cavaliers to wonder if this has changed from an early season weakness to something of a strength. There’s no doubt he helps stretch the floor. The Celtics aren’t a great match for him as they’re a worse rebounding team than the Cavaliers and lack the kind of interior players to exploit Frye’s pliable Gumby-esque frame. So the verdict is still out, but at the very least it’s time for people to reconsider their kneejerk disparagement of Frye’s unorthodox but apparently pretty effective defense. At least embrace the possiblity.
Back on the Chain Gang
The Cavs have struggled all year to bottle up quick point guards one-on-one defensively, and spent some time trapping Thomas on the pick-and-roll or hedging hard in the middle of the floor, trying to keep him off his primary (left) hand. Below you can see while the coverage by Frye and Love is not flawless, it’s good enough and the rotations are pretty quick, particularly compared to the middle of March
Note that’s Kyrie Irving flying toward the corner to defense that open Jaylen Brown three. He played one of his best defensive games of the year even though he didn’t really have it going offensively. (Celtics shooting guard Avery Bradley plays Irving as well as anyone in the league.)
He was also going hard after 50-50 balls and competing hard. Both of his steals are somewhat extraordinary, capped by the last one, where he fights over two screens and then dives to the floor to recover the loose ball after reaching low and deflecting a Brown pocket pass.
Kyrie led the team with 3 deflections on the night (he’s also the team leader with 2.5 deflections/game, with LeBron second at 2.2). Cavs had 12 on the night, two less than the Celtics. For the year Boston’s averaging 15.2 deflections (18th) while the Cavs make 13.9 (26th).
The Cavaliers did a fine job of defending the Celtics series of screens and backdoor cuts, really extending themselves to bottle up the passing lanes. Irving, J.R. Smith and Frye all had two steals apiece.
While the Cavaliers energy and competitiveness was great, don’t let it be said that the Celtics didn’t have open shots. Just over half the Celtics shots were uncontested (58% of the Cavs shots were), but they made just 24% of those shots including 1-15 between Bradley, Brown and Marcus Smart. Cleveland made 43% of their uncontested shots.
It was quite clear from the game that the Celtics, for all their impassioned energy simply don’t have the weapons the Cavs do, particularly when Thomas wasn’t on the floor. Nor did Boston have anybody to match up with James when in full-effect. He was +32 in 38 and-a-half minutes. (We’re going to ignore the fact that James has played 128 minutes in these three wins the past four nights, and simply enjoy the victory.)
Overall the ball movement wasn’t as good as the night before in Orlando when they had 30 assists. They only managed 19 against the Celtics on 43 shots. That’s not many, though in part it was just favorable matchups that led to a fair amount of one-on-one play. James was unguardable off-the-bounce for good stretches of the game, and they pushed the ball on fastbreaks (19 FBP to 11 for Boston) as well as hitting the boards very hard (13 offensive rebounds, 13 second chance points) outrebounding Boston 51-38.
James took it upon himself to make a statement, and it’s hard to imagine the Celtics not being humbled by it. (Worth noting, James also went 7-7 from the line, showcasing the seriousness of his demeanor.) As in prior matchups with the Celts, the Cavaliers had some success posting Kevin Love, who made them pay in the paint on multiple occasions, though he had a couple close-ones roll out (5-15 FG, 1-5 3pt).
He worked the boards very hard and benefit from the spread floor which often left him with only one or two Celtics to battle. Love’s phsyicality and movement was good all night (fingers crossed, he's over knee injury after moving well on back-to-back), and we particularly liked this play, breaking down the D with the post-up (after the LBJ's man switched onto Love) rather than a penetration, to kick it to the open guy in the corner. It also looks like James could cut to the weakside or dive to the basket from the weakside on the give-and-go after delaying a beat as the defense rotates.
The team definitely covered for Thompson’s absence with team rebounding, as guards Shumpert, Smith and Deron Williams grabbed 10 between them, while Frye, Love and James combined for 24 defensive boards and 10 offensive ones. James is a load for any team but especially one like the Celtics that lacks athleticism and size up front.
While the Celtics are the number one seed, they aren’t necessarily the most talented contender. The Wizards have overcome two years of underwhelming under new coach Scott Brooks, and appear to be peaking at the right time, as the 127-115 victory at the Q two weeks ago indicates. Last night the Raptors got Kyle Lowry back. During his time away fellow backcourt threat DeMar DeRozan stepped up his game, which seemed to carry over as he matched Lowry with 10 assists, as they beat the Pistons 105-102.
All three threaten to pose a more serious threat than last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, though the Cavaliers served notice that they have the most explosive player in the NBA (sorry, Russ and James), a top three offense, and the capability to play much much harder on defense than they’ve shown most of the year. They certainly waited long enough to reach for the switch but given how hard they played on the back-end of the back-to-back it’s hard to doubt them.
Of course, they are still riding the emotional boost of Thompson’s absence. Injuries are always a big part of the postseason, and it’s not like the Cavaliers have avoided that jinx. (Bogut and Birdman say hello!) While Cleveland has also been very conservative resting players with minor issues, they’ve also run up the mileage on their main pieces which aside from LeBron have had their injury issues. The one guy that hasn’t – Tristan – looks rundown and is now on the shelf.
So any optimism must be tempered with the knowledge, everything can change tomorrow. However it’s curmudgeonly not to be enthused with how they played and showed up for the entire game. On top of that, the potential GOAT showed the reason for the fuss, reiterating what we all know: While other guys may get press and attention, if you had to assemble a lineup to beat the Moonstars tomorrow, Who You Gonna Call?
I’ll bet it ain’t Blake Griffin.
You can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and as promised earlier, we will be returning to postgame writeups the morning after every playoff game. That’s sorta my gift to you for the last two years. There is no payment for these long write-ups other than the positive feedback. It did provide the opportunity to write my first book, a chronicle of last summer’s championship called King James Brings The Land a Crown.
We’ll be signing copies today (Thursday) at Case-Western’s campus bookstore from 1 to 3pm, and tonight at Last Exit Books in Kent from 6 to 8pm. Then on Saturday we’ll be at Appletree Books from 3 to 5pm in Cleveland Heights along with NEO Insider writer Matthew Medley who will join me in talking Cavs with anyone that shows up (even if you don’t buy a book). Finally, we’re on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James on WRUW-91.1 every Monday at 11 a.m.