“The ball movement,” said LeBron James after the game. “This is great karma to the game when you’re moving the ball and everyone is feeling great about it and everyone knows they are going to be a recipient of a pass. Tonight the way we moved the ball and the way we shared the ball, it’s key to our success. it was key to everyone feeling involved and we can be a very dangerous team if we continue to do that.”
It was a sight to behold, and those are great words to hear coming from him because he truly is the leader of this team. The last few days he’s put off his heroics until the end of the game, the way Michael Jordan used to do, then took over the game. It’s been amazing the way he did that against the Pacers and then again against the Bucks. The other great thing about that has been that the first three quarters everyone else has gotten involved and had a chance to solo within the flow of the first 36 minutes.
At times during the season that dribble-heavy pace-deadening ball play was something we could see from James multiple times during the game. He’s very good at it, but it also tends to create a lot of offensive stagnation. Guys don’t move, just stand and await the pass, and when they get it, they’ve maybe not challenged the closing defender or moved the ball to the next guy around the arc. Since the break we’ve begun to see them do just that, and it reached an apogee last night in the third quarter.
The Cavs had just put up 33 points against a very good Grizzlies team, much of it right in their mug. They only made four first half threes, instead moving the ball and looking for even better shots. Timofey Mozgov grabbed three offensive rebounds, each time getting a basket out of the extra possession, including this terrific feed to Love for midrange jumper (misidentified by me in haste as a 3).
You knew the Grizzlies would come out with energy to defend their homecourt to begin the second half, but found their intensity more than matched. The Cavs came out like Rocky disposing of Ivan Drago and avenging Apollo Creed. The Cavaliers made 10 consecutive shots from the ten-minute mark to the three-minute mark in the third. By then they were up 28 after outscoring the Grizzlies 29-10 during this time. Everyone of those shots featured an assist. Five different guys scored, and it could’ve been even worse had the Cavs not committed three turnovers in the stretch.
This was no pushover. This is arguably the best defensive team in the league over the course of the full-season. They have size no one else has. No matter. The Cavs iced them like bubbly. There wasn’t any facet of the game that wasn’t working and you could see very easily how difficult this team will be to defend. Mozgov plays very hard, and showed tonight he can be a good passer as well, finishing with four assists. Smith is an unconscious three-point shooter, capable of drilling catch & shoots as well as almost anyone in the league, but more than that, he’s got a good handle and can create the separation to get his own threes off, which not many off-guards (these days) can do. Even Cleveland’s personal Where’s Waldo? – Kevin Love – had it working. Indeed his play seemed to key the team’s first half energy.
We remember well how the Cavaliers used to start the game by feeding Kevin Love, but they’ve gotten away from that of late. Last night it came back like Lazarus and Love’s offensive aggression seemed to fire up the club. The team has shown a tendency to not bring their defensive intensity until maybe the six minute mark of the first quarter at times in the past few weeks. Not last night. Love got a couple quick buckets where he decisively took shots. He hit his first two and would make 10-13 with 10 rebounds, four assists a steal and two blocks. Here are those first two hoops.
But it wasn’t just the offense. Indeed, the defensive energy as it has so much during the last two months seemed to spark the offense and the good feelings from sharing the ball only encouraged more sharing which meant more easy shots which they felt so good, they couldn’t help but knock down.
“We don’t want to get too high or too low on it, we just want to continue to get better,” said Irving, echoing what you’re supposed to say. However, this team really has played to a very even keel fro the last two months and has not gotten drunk on their own fumes. As we watch the frontrunners stumble and fall away, it’s nice to know the team knows better than to get to caught up in the clippings. There are bigger things on the horizon, and they haven’t lost sight of that.
One thing that shouldn’t go unremarked is Coach David Blatt’s odd/brilliant substitution in the first half. Tristan Thompson did not play at all in the first quarter while Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and J.R. Smith played the whole frame. Iman Shumpert and Kendrick Perkins got James and Mozgov with four and change left in the first. This allowed him to come back with a fresh Tristan, TMo, Shumpert, James and Matthew Dellavedova to start the second. ;Bron’s second squad mates pushed the lead out to ten, though it was down to six when the Cavs brought back Love and Irving back, six minutes gone. Not a bad showing at all for the reserves, and the refreshed Irving scored ten of the team’s last 19 points as they closed out the quarter on a 19-12 run, pushing the lead to 13.
Perkins looked stiff and immobile when he first got here moving with all the quickness of a tectonic plate. But he looked a lot more settled in Memphis and proved that he can be an asset against teams with size. Given the team’s glaring weakness in the middle just three months ago, that’s comforting news. Meanwhile the backup point guard whose weaknesses many Cavs fan overly fixate on, Matthew Dellavedoca, gave the haters humble cupcakes (from Caroline’s, natch) with a sterling performance which included three long-distance ring-ups and four dimes. He’s been el fuego the last four games, shooting 12-21, including 9-14 (!!!) from three-point land, with 16 assists to just two turnovers, averaging eight points and 19 minutes/game.
This was an impressive win by any metric and serves notice to anyone not already quaking in their boots about these Cavs. With nine games left the team might enter a kind of Chill Mode, though they haven’t lost their intensity for long in the last couple months and it might not be smart to let it lapse too long. There are still games left with Chicago, Miami, Washington and a couple games against a Boston team fighting for the last two playoff spots. It might get interesting, but nothing as challenging as we’ve witnessed the past month they’ve spent mostly on the road dispatching all comers.
It’s hard to believe with essentially one move, GM David Griffin has changed the complexion of this team, but I can’t think of a single in-season NBA trade that has had the same impact. Love it up Cavs fans, it doesn’t get any better than this until playoff time.
As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my columns now daily in the Cleveland Scene blog.