Cavs Commandeer Clippers, Make ’Em Walk the Plank

click to enlarge "Popeye's got nothing on me!"
"Popeye's got nothing on me!"
Over the last couple weeks the Cavaliers have trickled into the rehearsal room. They’ve fiddled with the knobs, banged out a few chords, checked their levels, went outside and futzed around while someone miked the drums. It’s a process we’re told, and like hot dogs, parts of it are particularly unappetizing.

Yet with this road trip, the Cavaliers finally seem to be in the same room, on the same page, staring at the same sheet music. When they plugged in yesterday to play the Clippers, the floor quaked, rims rattled and the roar that emerged was “We Will Rock You.”

Appearing every bit the East Coast terror expected all season, the Cavaliers overcame a shaky first period to outscore the Clippers 70-49 in the middle periods. During that 24-minute stretch, they shot over 60% from the field and from three (12-20), forcing seven turnovers while only committing two.

The Clippers shot 49%, and 49 points is not shabby – so yes, the defense needs to improve – but the offense is finally starting to round into the form they showed during that last half of last year’s regular season. Kyrie Irving credited the team’s energy and play to the approaching playoffs.

“Knowing what we’re gearing up for is in the back of our minds. We have a goal in mind and especially now is the time where we want to come together collectively as a group,” he said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, had games where we haven’t played well and lost back-to-back games. People are just going to continue to write us off no matter what. When we have a good streak, now it’s questions like – what’s changed for you guys and it’s literally nothing. We’re just being more aggressive and being more definitive in our decisions out there with the basketball and guys are making shots.” [Emphasis added.]

If playing more aggressively and being quicker and more decisive with passes and drives are literally nothing, it might’ve been nice if they’d just humored us more before now. Yet however you get there, all that really matters is that they arrive while maintaining the Eastern Conference’s top seed, and last night they finally looked the part.

They finished with 23 assists – they’re 28-2 when they get at least 23 – on 41 baskets and had 10 secondary assists, a high percentage for that many assists. LeBron had four secondary assists himself, a sign of how well the ball moved. Here J.R. Smith benefits after Kyrie and Love gave up the ball on drives.

Even attempts to get Love the ball in the post were done with great alacrity and deftness.
It wasn’t so much a change in how they played – it's still drive and dish – but the ball movement and shot selection showcased a strong team outlook, and guys responded: The Cavaliers made 54% of their open shots, many of them threes. For the game, they made a season-high 18 three on 37 shots, the second game in a row with at least 16.

“The style of play we play with LeBron and Kyrie pretty much making all the plays for us, guys are going to get open shots and open threes. We have got to make them,” said Lue. “That’s the way we’ve been playing, guys have to step up and make shots.”

The Game

The Clippers came out much hotter than the Cavaliers, but unlike many occasions when the Wine and Gold are outscored in the first quarter, it wasn’t for lack of effort. They were playing hard and moving the ball pretty well early on, but just weren’t knocking their shots down. Both the Clippers and the Cavaliers finished the first quarter shooting 33%.

J.J. Redick was the Cavaliers main menace scoring 9 of the Clippers first 14 points. It pretty much took him sitting down with just under five minutes left for the Cavaliers to mount a 14-2 rally to take the lead 21-19 at the end of the first.

“When he [Redick] comes out and gives them movement it puts your defense into disarray,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “When he checked out of the game we were able to settle down defensively, get stops and run in transition.”

The Minor Third, our moniker for the defensive triumvirate of Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson came in just about the time Redick checked out (all about a minute apart). They helped bring even greater defensive intensity to bear.

This is becoming a recurrent theme since Thompson moved to the bench. Those three are so good defensively, particularly compared to opponents’ second teams that they smother them. The trio finished the game +22 or better in plus/minus, to lead the team. Thompson in particular has played very well and demonstrated great defensive and offensive positioning.

Mozgov on the other hand was terrible. He fumbled a pass from Kyrie that would’ve been a dunk, and missed a dunk off the back iron off a James feed. Another fumbled feed turned into a fastbreak the other way (with James getting the turnover, adding insult to injury). He was -12 in plus/minus, to go with -7 in the Lakers game. After several good games, Mozgov’s back on the down slope.

Fortunately for the Cavaliers, they have a seven-footer with a soft touch to replace him. Channing Frye had his second straight terrific game in Los Angeles, dropping more threes like he’s opening a door. Hardly any motion is wasted, barely looks like any effort at all. WHOOSH!
Frye nailed three triples in the first and early second period to help the Cavaliers climb back into the lead. You’ll notice he’s a safety valve for James at the top of the key, gets one off a pick-and-pop and in transition. The fact that it takes hardly anything at all to get him open makes him a stark contrast to Kevin Love.

Joining the Minor Third (can’t you just hear the menacing minor chord when they enter the game?), Frye offers a solid scoring threat that easily meshes with either LeBron or Kyrie.

“Channing coming out and making those threes, it kind of got contagious,” said Lue. “It opened it up for everyone else and everyone else got confident.”

Love Is More Than a Feeling

Love started out well and finished the first half with 12 points on 5-9 shooting and 6 boards. He’d disappear in the second half with only 2 shots and 3 boards, but it hardly mattered because others stepped up. That’s what makes the worrying about Love a little overwrought, even on our part. Sure, his shot looks like it spent a lost weekend on Skid Row, but there appear to be enough shooters to take up the slack.

This is especially true now that Irving’s found his rhythm. Over the last ten games he’s shooting 49% from the field, 37% from three (2.2/gm), 5.3 assists to 2.8 turnovers, a steal and 22.4 points. He had a nice pocket pass to Love for a basket early, and found J.R. Smith nicely on the break off a center pick and roll. He says he’s finally feeling right.

“I’m just feeling a lot better. I’m getting a step on defenders. My handle and shot are just catching up with me, just feeling that rhythm again and being able to create off the dribble not only for myself but for my teammates,” says Irving. “I feel like a couple months back guys were able to stay with me. I didn’t have that necessary step, but now that I’m feeling better going into the end of the season, coming into the playoffs, my legs are starting to feel really really good.”

While Love may not have kept scoring all game, his presence on the court in Coach Lue’s small ball lineups made a big difference, especially in the second quarter. Love came in and the Cavaliers made 8 of their next 11 shots, including four James layups/dunks and two Love baskets. It gave the Wine and Gold a 58-41 lead the Clippers couldn’t dent. (The Clippers did hit 6-11 so it's not the small-ball D we're trumpeting.)

“I think that opened the game up for us a lot because we were able to open the floor and DeAndre wasn’t able to help and protect the paint like he’s used to,” Lue said. “With Kevin being the five and spacing him out, it opened up the paint a lot more.”

Forcing Jordan to cover Love kept him out of the lane, as you can see in the above photos. You can see how differently Jordan plays Thompson in the photo to the right. This is why even when Love doesn’t seem to be doing shit, he can still make a big difference in the game.

We’ve talked about just about everyone except LeBron James, who had another efficient night, scoring 27 on 15 shots, making three treys for the first time since before the all-star break, while handing out 5 assists and making just 2 turnovers. He’s shooting 35% from three since the break, his usage has dropped slightly from 31.4% to 30.9%, and his EFG has jumped from 53.2% before to 55% in the 13 games since.

“I thought LeBron set the pace, getting rebounds and pushing it,” Lue said. “It wasn’t all the time for himself, but he got other guys involved open shots and we were able to drive and penetrate the basketball. I thought our pace really opened up the game for us.”

Lue Leads an Upswing

We withheld our judgments on Lue to wait and see what developed. We’re still concerned about his ability to adjust, though his adjustments against the Clippers looked pretty solid. As we mentioned in Friday’s Column, the team’s been playing with much better pace of late.

As you can see the team’s averaging two more possessions a game since the break (not including last night’s game). But it goes beyond that. Look at the two sides, most of the starters were playing at LESS than the team’s average pace before the break, all of them are now playing at better than the average pace, and it’s the reserves that are slowing the team’s pace down.
The improvement since the break is not only apparent to the eyes, but appears dramatically in the numbers as well. One thing we notice is Lue’s adoption of an analytics-based approach.

The Cavaliers have cut down on 15’-19’ midrange jumpshots (12% to 9%), turning almost all of them into short (20’-24’, corner) threes. The threes at closer ranges are 1% more and those shorter threes are up 4.2% (with long twos of 20’-24’ down from 6.6% to 4.4%).
This is all terrific news for the analytics/efficiency minded, and demonstrates the real changes going on in the Cavaliers offense. In the third chart you can see that their Net Rating is up 2.6 points/100 possessions, and a big key seems to be taking quicker shots and finally really drilling the wide-open ones.

What’s more we got an indication from Kyrie Irving what’s motivating them to push the ball.

“It becomes second nature when you have your coach yelling at you every time ‘Pace pace pace, aggressive aggressive aggressive,’ and we need that,” Irving said. “We need that from our coach and he drills us and it makes us get up the floor.”

Final Analysis

It didn’t happen quickly, and certainly not in any kind of linear fashion, but the Cavaliers are slowly rounding into a playoff team. They said they wanted to make this road trip a demonstration of their dedication and they have so far, particularly on offense.

The addition of Channing Frye to J.R. Smith (who had 14 third quarter points including 4 threes) has given the Cavaliers their own version of Golden State’s ‘Death Lineup’ and with Kyrie and Love on the floor an even stronger three-point attack. Frye and Smith’s catch-and-shoot skills are the perfect complement to James and Irving’s drives, and neither requires the ball on offense, or even more than a second or two to shoot.

While the Cavs reliance on the three can be troubling at times, they also put up 98 free throws over a three-game stretch just five games ago. So they’re clearly capable of responding with what's necessary in the proper situation. And when you make 34 threes over two games, it’s not super necessary.

That reflects the flexibility of an offense that’s finally starting to hum, and really move the ball all over the floor. Gone, apparently, are the ego battles over the ball as the playoffs draw close.

“We’re not thinking about it anymore, who’s getting the shot or anything like that,” Irving said. “We’re not just a one-sided team anymore. We’re driving closeouts. We’re getting the ball to the weakside. We’re driving second side pick and roll. We’re getting to our secondary actions. That will be very very important for us going forward.”

Given the manner in which the offense has slowly rounded into form in fits and starts, perhaps the defense should be given more patience. Remember, the offense was Lue’s first effort, and even as he was working on getting the passing and secondary actions honored (there’s movement weakside on ISOs now!), he mentioned his concern about their defensive backsliding.

Hopefully defense is the next thing on Lue’s list.

“We’re getting into form right now,” James said. “We’ve got a great rotation going right now. The guys are healthy and we’re just trying to play the game the right way.”

The Cavaliers wrap up the West Coast road trip with a visit to the Utah Jazz who beat Sacramento last night. They always give the Cavaliers trouble and offer another big shotblocker like Jordan in Rudy Gobert. Look for small-ball lineups to make another appearance.

We’ll be watching the broadcast, offering analysis, video and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame report on Tuesday morning. You can also hear us Monday morning on the Defend Cleveland Show at 11 a.m. on WRUW, 91.1. 
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