Cavs Gore the Bulls, Showcase Growing Unity

Bad habits don’t disappear overnight, but having the best player in the NBA healthy and engaged can go a long way in righting a listing ship. LeBron James demonstrated this en route to 26 points last night during a 108-94 pasting of the Chicago Bulls, in which the Cavs jumped out to an early lead they never relinquished.

James paced a balanced attack as the team moved the ball, played with pace and displayed their best defense since before Anderson Varejao’s season-ending Achilles injury. After allowing the Clippers 33 points on 20 turnovers Friday, the Cavaliers played EASILY their best transition defense of the season, yielding but five points on twelve turnovers.

Of course, a stretch of clear sailing doesn’t inoculate one against trouble, either. Witness the Chicago Bulls who in 2014 looked like the East Conference cream winning 13 of 15 going into the first week of the year. Since peaking at 25-10 they’ve lost 6 of 8, and last night Derrick Rose ripped his teammates for not “competing.” It’s worth noting everyone has these kinds of stretches, usually sparked by injuries. (Joachim Noah sat out last night with a bad wheel.)

It’s important to maintain context in basketball because the season truly ebbs and flows. If you had spent three weeks out of the country beginning just before Christmas and ending a week and a half into the new year, you might’ve wondered how it was David Blatt was on the hot seat. After a 5-7 start, they’d won 12 of 15 and looked pretty good even without inspired defense, ball movement or consistency.

The hope is that spending a couple weeks being embarrassed taught Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (and really, mostly the former) that they couldn’t do it alone. Love has been battling and showed steady if incremental defense improvement for the last six weeks and is now appears almost an average defender in many facets of the game.

Meanwhile, Love’s reacquainted himself with the dirty stuff, diving into the lane for more offensive rebounds than his floor positioning, physical health and inclination had previous brought him. (He’s averaging 3 offensive rebounds/48 minutes for season, but 5 ORB/48 min. the last 5 games.)

Surprisingly, the Cavaliers are 12th in offensive rebounding, but since Varejao’s injury they’re 4th (behind Bulls and Pistons). Grabbing ORBs is big for this team because it punishes teams trying to get out and run on them (which also plays a small role in the team’s shoddy transition D).

Kyrie, too, continues to show progress producing another fine performance against one of the league’s best point guards in Derrick Rose. After improving opponents FG% by 3.2% over the season, the last 3 games he’s shrunk it by the same amount, an almost 7% swing showcasing the better effort we’re seeing from Kyrie in all facets of defense. His energy was apparent in challenging shots and fighting through picks to effectively funneling drivers into the big man, Timofey Mozgov, aka T-Mo.

As a point of contrast, watch Kyrie’s defense on these plays – from not fighting picks to not getting hands up to going over the top of picks 5+ ft past the 3-point line when obviously you should go under. Just stupid, uninspired D.

That was not the case last night. Kyrie’s energetic, dialed-in D helped hold Derrick Rose scoreless until the final minute of the first half when the Cavs lead was already 15. Rose missed his first seven shots and the Cavs held the Bulls to 30% shooting in the first half.

Kyrie’s play was a big part, but he had a lot of help in seven-footer Timofey Mozgov. His size and ability to move his feet causes ballhandlers pause and presents a defensive threat Kyrie’s lacked, as you can see on these plays where Mozgov prevents penetrators from finishing.

But everyone was putting in the effort. Returning from his back spasm-laden play against the Lakers, Kevin Love was moving well showing similar defensive moxie as Kyrie on this pick and roll defense.

The team played a dominating first half showcasing not only the offensive skill we’ve come to expect from them but the defensive moxie we’ve too rarely seen. They could’ve stopped there – they have played incomplete games before – but in a sign of perhaps growing collaborative commitment, they pushed lead out to 23 in the first two minutes of the third and even a 10-2 fourth quarter couldn’t bring them any closer than 12.

As we’ve noted before, the challenges of this many new bodies are immense. None of the starting five have ever played together. Has there ever been a team like that trying to pull it together during the season? The challenge is harder than is credited especially on the defensive end which requires split-second decision to cover for someone else. That means not only watching out for your brother but trusting that he’ll cover for you.

Last night it was happening in spades and that energy and commitment fed into every part of the game, as Kevin Love noted afterwards. “It’s a little more us trusting each other,” he said. “The energy especially the last three games has been really great for us and when we do that there is a sense of togetherness and continuity and playing for one another that you saw more than anything tonight.”

It was an energy and focus that was apparent on offense – where they pushed the ball up court, not necessarily to score, but to get into the offense quicker. We saw a few more appearances of Blatt’s “Figure 8” pick-and-handoff offense he cribbed from his legendary Princeton Head Coach Pete Carril, and more defensive wrinkles as the arrival of Mozgov has allowed the Cavs to be less aggressive pressuring the ballhandlers.

The win is more positive news. Even though LeBron failed to score 30 for the fourth consecutive game since his return, the scoring and scoring opportunities were balanced and for tonight anyway there was very little in the way of forced offense.

We’ve been calling it a process and that’s really the only description. When someone asked Kyrie after the game if this represented a turning point for the team, he just chuckled lightly, shook his head and tried to explain that nothing is given or can be taken for granted. They’d just need to go back out there and win again, game by game, day by day.

They not only seem to understand the challenge before them but have begun to take the steps necessary to achieve their lofty goals. Not let’s see how long it lasts – do they have the consistency and toughness to stick it out?

“If you have a good does of heart, head and legs working for you , you can become a good defensive player, “ wrote Coach Carril in his book, The Smart Take from the Strong. “If your legs tire, your heart surrenders and you won’t move your legs, when you’re tired do you have the courage to fight through sscreens?”

That’s the test that lies ahead. The Cavs are a great frontrunning team, but still need to prove they battle their way back on a consistent basis and not just fold under adversity, play down to the level of their opponents, or fail to finish teams off when they have them down. This comes with time and will be the next step for this still budding team. At least we finally have something pretty to look at.

I’ll be live tweeting with video on Wednesday from the game at the Q against the Utah Jazz. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my column the day after the game on the Cleveland Scene blog.
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