Cavs Game 4 Recap: Defense Finally Checks In, But Still Underemployed

Call it a moral victory, even though that means jack shit. The Cavaliers may have lost to the Utah Jazz last night 102-100 on a last-second Gordon Hayward shot, but at least the Wine and Gold fought back after 30 minutes of defense that made Ed FitzGerald’s gubernatorial campaign seem inspiring by comparison.

Over the last half of the third and fourth quarters, the Cavs – led by LeBron James (31 pts) and Kyrie Irving (34 pts) – closed a 16-point deficit. They would’ve forced overtime had Hayward not hit a very tough fall away jumper over the outstretched arms of Tristan Thompson as time expired after LeBron drew a questionable foul from somewhere near half court on a three-point attempt, hitting all three free throws, just seconds before.

The loss was just desserts to James after the Cavs’ second straight lethargic defensive performance to open their 3-game Western road trip.

“We dug ourselves a hole and didn’t defend the way we did in the second half,” he told reporters after the game. “You dig yourself a hole and it’s kind of like this is the karma of the game.”

Much will be made of the team’s franchise record-low of six assists, which had only been previously notched in the Cavs' first season in existence and during the 2010 season where the Cavs once lost 26 games in a row. But the decision to pull out the classic New York Knicks’ isolation offense playbook was a tactical one, not necessarily borne of ball-centric narcissism.

“The way we felt we had to attack them was single pick and roll and post-iso situations,” said Coach David Blatt in his postgame press conference. “A lot of time that doesn’t lead to a great deal of assists but we certainly got to good spots and got good shots.”

There were probably only half-a-dozen times in the last quarter that LeBron or Kyrie passed the ball to someone else. Mostly they just drove to the basket. Their ability to erase the Jazz lead is testimony to the plan’s success. A lot of it came down to Irving’s acrobatic ability to finish around the basket, such as this shot around two defenders that brought the Cavs to within two with just under a minute left.

One of the interesting sidelights of the game was Dion Waiters’ exile from the starting lineup in favor of Shawn Marion. Waiters played only 13 minutes off the bench. While Marion was listed as the starting shooting guard (0 points, incidentally), on defense he usually matched up with Jazz small forward Hayward. Meanwhile LeBron often initiated the offense, essentially shunting Irving to the off-guard position.

While the ostensible reason for the lineup move was related to the loss of Matthew Dellavedova, who injured his knee in last night’s game — Delly was the back-up point guard, a role Waiters now picks up forcing him to the bench to fit substitution patterns — the truth is that Waiters’ bad defense, relentless dribbling and remorseless shot-chucking has Blatt examining all his options.

Mike Miller played 22 minutes last night after playing 29 minutes combined in the first three games. Marion played 24 minutes. Marion’s hustle, smarts and still striking athletic ability (see: his block of Kanter) created better chemistry and cohesion, but not enough to prevent the Jazz from shooting 69% two-thirds of the way through the first quarter

“It didn’t work,” was Blatt’s frank assessment.

Blatt also shortened his rotation to eight players for the game, presumably hoping less moving parts might speed the team’s pilgrim’s progress. But a lot of their defensive issues right now are related to effort and decisively making the next rotation, trusting their teammates to get their back. There’s really no other way to win.

“If you don’t play defense,” Marion said, “you don’t give yourself a chance. You have to do that.”
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