Cavs Ground Hawks With Big Fourth

click to enlarge Watchu Talkin' Bout Tony Brothers?
Watchu Talkin' Bout Tony Brothers?
“When the law break in, how you gonna go, shot down on the pavement or waiting in death row,” asks Clash bassist Paul Simonon in the song “Guns of Brixton.” It’s similar to the options the Cavaliers are offering their opponents: Dennis Hassert or Jerry Sandusky? Sparkler enema or a shit sandwich? Frontal lobotomy or 24 straight hours of “Uptown Funk”?

Suggesting the Cavs have put the Hawks in a no-win situation is hardly revelatory after beating them for the ninth consecutive time (eleven strictly in the postseason) to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. They did it with a 121-108 win in Atlanta, outscoring the Hawks 36-17 during the final frame. In the process the Cavaliers became the first team in NBA history to make 20 or more threes in consecutive games (playoffs or regular season).

This has prompted some journalists and TV sports personalities to describe the Cavalier as a three-point shooting team, like the Warriors. LeBron took this particular line of thought apart after Wednesday’s record-setting 25 threes, as we noted in Thursday’s postgame piece, saying, “Obviously we got guys that can knock down shots from the perimeter, and it’s been key to our success, but we need to continue to understand, that we have to be very balanced offensively. Tonight was just a byproduct.”

The same could be said of Friday night’s performance. Though the Cavs made the same number of threes as two-pointers (21), James got to the line nine times for the second consecutive game. While the Cavaliers are stroking the long one like a horny teenager, as James notes, it’s simply a byproduct of taking what the defense gives you, which in the Hawks case have been three-pointers.

Many, including Kyrie Irving, expected to find the Hawks determined to run the Cavaliers off the three. That’s really not what happened. Instead Atlanta redoubled its efforts to get the ball out of Kyrie’s hands by blitzing the Irving on the pick-and-roll. (And J.R. Smith to a lesser degree.) You may recall the Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer had great success with a similar tactic in their last regular season matchup last year.

“The first possession that we had, we had a play we wanted to run, I see that they’re blitzing me and coming to the bench was kind of looking for answers for myself,” Irving said. “They took me out of a rhythm I’m usually in coming into games especially in the first half.”

The Hawks' plan was to let Tristan Thompson try to make plays in space, and squelch Irving, who finished the first half 2-8 for four points with one assist and one turnover.
The Cavaliers answered by running with PnR for Kevin Love instead, helping him to score 13 of the team’s first 15 points.
He wasn’t just scoring because guys were finding him out of the PnR. Love hit the boards aggressively, getting a couple putbacks and seven of his 15 rebounds in the first six minutes of the game. Here are the offensive boards and a great feed from J.R. Smith off the dribble handoff.

As you can see on the latter play, the Hawks also hedged Smith hard coming off the handoff. Kent Bazemore shadowed him keenly, and sort of as a result, Smith ended the game with nearly as many assists (3) as shots (4). (For his part, Bazemore was 1-5 with three points and a -23 plus/minus.)

But this wasn’t a problem, because the Cavaliers have many threats, and did a decent job of finding them.

The Cavaliers didn’t do a great job. The Hawks defense was indeed tighter than Meatloaf’s spandex, and forced 20 turnovers which they turned into 27 points. The Cavs didn’t force as many turnovers, but thanks to their great transition offense were able to redeem 14 Hawks turnovers for 22 points (a much higher exchange rate).

“We had some uncharacteristic turnovers 20 TO for 27 pts which is not what we’ve been doing in the playoffs so far,” James said. “But we were able to get 26 assists. We have some great shooters and the reason we have great shooters is the ball is popping and the ball has great energy behind it.”

Indeed, it’s almost as if Mr. Hyde moved out leaving the whole flat to Dr. Jekyll. For all we worried about the Cavaliers willingness to move the ball during the year, such worries hardly seem justified given their play so far in the playoffs.

Coach Tyronn Lue, who has vindicated GM David Griffin’s decision to replace David Blatt (so far) with what he’s gotten out of the team of late, explained what’s different: “I just think in terms of moving the basketball, not playing so much ISO basketball, not as much one-on-one, moving bodies, moving the ball, playing faster, paying with a pace.”

It wasn’t really a sentence there, but it’s hard to argue with the sentiments. Lue preached playing right from the moment he took over (picking up a theme from Blatt) and now that the postseason’s started, it’s happening.

Of course, it’s a lot easier when your team has more nifty weapons than James Bond. In the end the Cavaliers proved their resilience and challenged an inflammatory accusation by Kent Bazemore who called the Cavaliers “front-runners.”

“Everyone knows how they play,” he said, after Game 2. “They get out in front and they're a totally different team. It is what it is. We'll see them again. That wasn't Game 4.”

While there was a time when Bazemore’s assertion rang true, last night’s game blew that apart. The Cavaliers battled back from a double-digit deficit in the third, and a six-point margin to begin the fourth.

“They got up double digits and we just had to keep fighting,” said Kevin Love, who finished with 21 points and 15 rebounds.

“They have a good team,” said Lue. “I knew it was going to be a tough game. Our team knew that and we were able to weather the storm and come down with a win.”

The Lineup of Death

A wealth of options is part of what makes the Cavaliers so dangerous. They can score going the rack with Irving and James, who Lue called “two of the best one-on-one players in the world.” Love gives them an inside/out threat, and J.R. Smith is the ultimate no fear safety valve. Where some guys might tighten up late in the clock with a guy flying at them, Smith actually prefers it to a wide-open shot.

(And the numbers bear this out. Smith has taken a fifth of his playoff shots in the final 4 seconds of the clock, after just 11% in the regular season. While in the regular season he shot better when open, in the playoffs Smith is 14-22 on tight (2’-4’) contests while shooting 16-35 on the rest. He’s only 5-12 on wide-open shots with defenders at least 6’ away.)

While the Big Three all topped twenty, the game’s leading scorer only played nine minutes of the first half, though Channing Frye was a perfect 3-3 for 8 points. He played 19 second half minutes and scored 18 points. Oddly, Irving scored even more second half points, recovering from his aforementioned “lost rhythm” and going 7-11 in the second half including a perfect 4-4 from three.
In the final 12 minutes, Irving, Frye and James scored 33 of the team’s 36 points on 11-15. The rest of the squad was 1-7. A Love three was the only other basket as the Cavs went 7-13 from behind the line in the fourth quarter.

“In the middle of the third [when he left the game] I said I don’t care what happened up to this point, just hit the reset button,” LeBron James said. “We need you to lead us and from that point on, from the four minute mark in the third quarter to all the way through the fourth, he just did what Kyrie does.”

Some of the reason Kyrie was able to go off was that the Hawks were (more or less) forced to abandon their aggressive coverage of the pick-and-roll. Some of it was forced – Lue told Kyrie at the start of the fourth to “be aggressive and look to play fast and early. Try to play without the screen at times if you can get to the basket because they were trapping and double-teaming him.”

For his part, Coach Budenholzer felt compelled to abandon the strategy because Kyrie came back with Channing Frye and Kevin Love, while the team’s worst three-point shooter (outside Timofey Mozgov & Thompson), LeBron James, sat.

“Maybe we could’ve or should’ve stayed more aggressive. But they had an awful lot of shooting on the court for most of the fourth Q sometimes that dictates you have to do something different,” Budenholzer said. “Obviously Frye had a heckuva night. They played Frye and Love together some, er, a lot in the fourth quarter.”

The Cavaliers were a team best +28 when Channing was on the floor, while Thompson had the team’s only negative (-14), demonstrating both how well the Hawks did at disrupting the offense when Thompson was in the game, and what an enormous difference Frye made. He hit a Pipe-like 7 of 9 from 3 and finished with not just 27 points but also 7 boards and a steal.

Here are five of the triples we posted during the course of play. (Sorry, no interest in digging through game film for other two.)
Tristan Thompson got a taste of Timofey Mozgov’s former life when he sat nearly  the entire fourth. Most of this was Frye’s outstanding play, but we suspect some of it was also a response to the Hawks decision during the game to intentionally foul Thompson at a variety of junctures (he was 5-12 from the line). However, that just makes this next part even weirder.

As the sole Hawks player represented at the postgame presser, Horford (24 points, two steals, three blocks, but just one rebound) let it be known that Coach Bud hadn’t prepped them for the Love/Frye lineup. “We didn't prepare for that,” Horford said. “They took advantage.”

If true, this borders on malpractice. How can a coach intentionally foul Tristan and not expect that Lue might replace him, especially in the fourth. What, they were expecting Mozgov? There is a notable cadre of Cavs fans that have been calling for Frye like he’s a radio contest offering tickets to Hawaii. (Better that than Disneyland!)

How could Cavs fans pick up on this and the Hawks Coach didn't? Should this smarter segment of the fanbase put their name in for the Knicks job? How much worse could they be?

“I just tried to be aggressive when they put two people on the ball,” Frye said. “In the first half I saw that they were going to pull rotate to me and there was some space, I figured I was seven-foot so they’re not going to block it.”

What’s curious about it is that Lue seemed to suggest that this might have been the plan all along. The idea that he was holding this in the back pocket for the fourth quarter makes us wonder how much he was sandbagging this lineup during the regular season.

“We stuck with it the first three quarters knowing the way the game was going that if we could get to the fourth quarter in striking distance we’d be able to adjust and we did,” Lue said, implying he had the adjustment planned. “I thought the lineup with Love and Frye really gave them problems because it opened up the floor for Kyrie and LeBron to get to the basket. We knew if their bigs helped, Kevin and Channing would be wide-open.”

Statistical Oddities

While Channing Frye justifiably received the lion’s share of the credit, Thompson’s role shouldn’t be diminished. Sure, his offensive liabilities became the focus of the Hawks defense, forcing Cleveland away from TT-screened PnRs (and we wonder if other teams might copy the approach).

However, you can’t say enough about the pressure he put on the Hawks on the glass. The Cavaliers missed 43, and retrieved more than 40% of them with 18 offensive rebounds compared to just 22 defensive rebounds by the Hawks. Thompson had half of them. This went a long way in compensating for the team’s ballhandling issues, ensuring more possessions.

Yet despite that and a total 55-28 advantage on the boards, Budenholzer sounded non-plussed, and made a great point about rebounding statistics.

“It’s an interesting sport,” he said in preface. “At halftime we were being outrebounded 30-14 and we were up 8. Obviously you don’t want to be outrebounded. You don’t go into the game saying, ‘Go take it,’ but I think we had lots of chances and lots of opportunities with the groups we were playing. We won the rebounding battle in the first game and lost.”

Budenholzer finished with a Popovich-worthy flourish, suggesting it was more important to be “who scores the most.” Super insightful.

We noted after Game 2 that the Hawks efforts to close off the rim had borne fruit, holding the Cavaliers to 9-33 (27%) within 3’ to the hole. The Cavaliers only improved marginally in that aspect (11-29, 38%), and the fact they won anyway by double digits (again) is another indication of what we said from the jump – this team has so many offensive options it’s difficult to stop enough things without handing them a bat to beat you with. (Introducing Louisville Slugger, Channing Frye.)

For the seventh time in seven playoff games, the Cavaliers had more open shots than contested ones, and by a good margin (48-37). That was important because they had trouble when well-covered, shooting 12-37 on contested shots. They were 30-48 (63%) on uncontested ones, with a lot of that courtesy of Frye and Irving, who were a collective 16-20 (80%) on contested shots, while the rest of the team shot 50%.

For his part, Lue didn’t really have an issue with the Hack-a-Tristan, though we aren’t convinced sitting him the entire fourth was so much choice as something forced upon him by the success of the move and concern the Hawks might return to it. We can pretty much expect the next two opponents to try this as well.

“I like the fouls, at least it’s going to give us 1 or 2 every time because Tristan is going to make 1 or 2 every time,” Lue said rather hopefully. “I like that – coming out of the timeout it gives us at least one point.”

Hawks Answers

Atlanta better steal the test because they’ve got less answers than a job posting for the opportunity to become Johnny Manziel’s agent. Not that Coach Budenholzer isn’t trying. He started Thabo Sefolosha in place of Kyle Korver, which worked pretty well.

Sefolosha hit a couple threes and did a good job on LeBron James all game, though that still meant James scored 24 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and 8 assists. He helped force 5 James turnovers.

Coming off the bench, Kyle Korver found it easier to get free. J.R. Smith wasn’t glued to him from the start, and it proved a bit more challenging for the Cavs bench players to stay attached to him. Korver made 5 threes and scored 18 points in 32 minutes posting a -2 plus/minus.

Kris Humphries actually posted +12 in his almost 20 minutes, much of it in the second and third quarters. He finished with 9 points, 4 rebounds, a steal and two blocks. We should see more of him in Game 4.

The Hawks were 25-41 in the middle quarters and 11-18 from 3, 61% shooting in both cases. (They were also outrebounded 11 ORB to 10 DRB.) They were 16-43 (37%) in the bun quarters. Some fans complained at the time that the Cavaliers weren’t closing out the 3-shooters well or giving them too much space.

Lue somewhat agreed.

“At times, but then sometimes it was guys we wanted shooting the ball,” he said. “We wanted to take away something and guys that were shooting the ball, give them credit they made it. You never want to leave Korver and stay on his body and have awareness. I just thought in that fourth quarter the adjustments we made, the guys really bought into it, and they did it well and we were able to hold them to 17 points.”

Final Analysis

For the first time since the Golden State Warriors started the season without a loss for six weeks, we’re more confident than concerned about who the Wine and Gold might face should they make it to the Finals. (We say it like that to sidestep the jinx.)

They may not have the most devastating offense in the league, but we don’t believe the Warriors are appreciably better, particularly with a nicked up Stephen Curry.

The question remains what it has all season: Can this team play good enough defense when it counts to stop their competition? The jury’s still out, and there’s still time (and room) for improvement. However, if they can replicate the intensity they brought into the fourth quarter last night against the Hawks for 48 minutes, even the Warriors offense would be hard-pressed to perform.

The Cavaliers hole card is LeBron James’ next gear. Just watching the game’s progression, we haven’t seen James really try to take over the game (except mostly in spurts on the defensive end). He’s picking his spots, but frequently deferring and working primarily to free up other players more than himself (except in transition where he’s been attacking like a Japanese Zero pilot).

We feel James is holding back something, and when that card’s played, the Cavs should have a chance to run the table. The fact that they have up until now only reinforces this promise.

It was another challenging game that tested the Cavs yet never truly imperiled them. James Jones agreed it was their most challenging game of the playoffs, and that these games are helping to hone the team’s execution, spirit and intensity.

“Every situation you need to get better, develop better habits, grow, and you gotta take a step back. They’re pushing us, they’re stretching us, and we’re responding,” said Jones. “They’re forcing us to make adjustments. They’re forcing us to stick to our gameplan and do it better, to be more efficient. But also to be decisive in making the right play and not try to force things to make things happen.”

We suggested after the last game that the Hawks might start Dennis Schroder. Indeed James also said he anticipated a move that the Hawks didn’t make, and he didn’t want to say what it was because he didn’t want to give them any ideas. We can’t imagine there is anyone else who the Hawks might start.

Schroder’s ability to penetrate would help the Hawks, and while Bazemore is a good defender who locked down J.R. Smith, we wonder if they wouldn’t be better served getting downhill better with Teague and Schroder to force rotations and dish out to perimeter shooters. That’s pretty much the final adjustment we can expect from the Hawks, it's a little desperate, and we don’t think it will be enough.

The Cavs look to close the series on Sunday afternoon. We’ll be at Philips Arena in Atlanta, posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and you can read our postgame analysis sometime around midnight Sunday.
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