Cavs Ground Pelicans, Stay Focused on Process

click to enlarge Get That Weak Stuff Outta Here!
Get That Weak Stuff Outta Here!
Life is not a movie, and last night’s 99-84 Cavaliers victory over the New Orleans Pelicans is proof. (And not because it wasn’t pretty, though it wasn’t.)

Movies build toward something in a rising action, while the NBA season's more like the slow grind of life. It may or may not be moving towards something, it’s often hard to tell, and most days you’re just happy to make it through to the next.

That’s the kind of game it was for the Cavaliers the first three quarters before the Wine and Gold turned up the defense, holding the Pelicans to 14 fourth-quarter points.

Prior to that it’d been a grudge match, not dissimilar from any recent Adam Sandler movie. The Cavs would build a double-digit lead and the Pelicans would eat it away at it. By the end of the third quarter, the Pelicans had pulled to within four, their closest point since the first quarter.
The Cavaliers were the better team all night, but in a muddling, jump shot-laden, unattractive basketball kind of way. A night after losing to the Celtics, the home squad looked a step slow and discontinuous on offense. It still had more ball movement than the night before, thankfully, as on the below play freeing J.R. Smith for a three.

Fortunately the Pelicans aren’t a very good team with a clear talent deficit compared to the Cavs even without injured players Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova. New Orleans also owns a 5-20 road record. That was enough to compensate for many sins.

So despite taking an awful lot of threes (41, 16 alone by Smith), managing just 21 assists (on 39 buckets), committing 14 turnovers while only forcing 8, and taking just two free throws through the first three quarters, the Cavaliers were able to put together enough offense to win.

LeBron James went 2-5 from three after missing his previous 18 in a row. James finished with 27 on 11-20 shooting, 3 rebounds and 8 assists. Kyrie Irving also found his three-stroke going 3-9 and 11-21 overall, scoring 29, adding 3 assists and 2 turnovers.

The Pelicans loaded up the lane, dropping defenders into the paint to stop penetration, leaving the Cavs with lots of jumpers. They had just 18 shots at the rim out of 90 shots. But they hit just 39% of their uncontested shots, continuing an intermittent habit of missing lots of open shots.

“Tired legs could have something to do with it,” said Coach Tyronn Lue after the game. “They did a good job of packing the paint and making us kick it out for threes. I thought we did a good job of finding open guys but I don’t think we’re in great shape and we can’t really flow.”

Ain’t A Thing If It Ain’t Wild

It’s hard to take much comfort in the game. The Cavs won without Kevin Love, and the ball movement was better than the night before, but it was far from an actual offense. They won the boards, but still allowed 11 offensive rebounds, and had 6 more turnovers than they created.

The best thing to come out of the game was the return of the Wild Thing, and like the previous Clevelander to wear the moniker, he’s all about winning. He’s been giving the team a spark any time he comes in, but has had a hard time getting court time. He’s only played in 6 of 20 games since the New Year, and just 3 of the 9 games Tyronn Lue’s coached.

With Love’s leg bruise, and the elevation of Mozgov to the starting lineup, Varejao was pretty much guaranteed some burn. But nobody necessarily expected 28 minutes like he gave. It’s easy for people to forget that before his Achilles injury, Varejao was the starting center and had showcased strong chemistry with both James and Irving. In that sense he’s sort of the missing link.

He brings an infectious energy not unlike Matthew Dellavedova every time he’s on the floor, which perhaps isn’t news to longtime Cavs fans, but maybe wasn’t front of mind for Tyronn Lue before last night.

In 28 minutes Varejao had 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 3 assists and 2 points. The latter is the purest expression of how much Andy can bring to a team without having to score, making him (like Tristan Thompson) a good companion for LeBron James.

Perhaps the best thing about Varejao’s presence is his ability to move away from the ball and his high understanding of where to be. There have been stretches where he’s looked too slow to guard quicker 4s, but we’re not sure how much of that is lost physical skill and how much is rust/lack of playing time.

We’ll get a chance to see, since Lue admitted he’d have to find rotation time for Andy after that performance. It’s hard for a guy used to starting to find himself not even getting onto the court.

“It’s not easy but with our team I know we are a very deep team. We have a lot of talent here. We have a lot of players that can play and I was just trying to stay ready and wait for my chance,” Varejao said, smiling after being informed of Lue’s comments about playing time.

“I am happy to her that,” he said. “I want to play of course, but I understand it’s his job to figure out who’s going to play every night and figure out what’s best for us. I’m just here trying to help this team.”

“He came in and gave us great energy,” said Lue. “I thought he did a great job on Anthony Davis. Just being a pest bothering him a lot, rebounding the basketball. He was just great for us tonight.”

Other guys caught some extra minutes as well. Mo Williams followed up last night’s six minutes performance with a 16 minute night, scoring 7, making 1 assist and committing 2 turnovers while posting the team’s only negative plus/minus at -3.

Shumpert’s shaky jumper reappeared (2-7, 1-6 from 3, 4 boards, 2 blocks) while Timofey Mozgov made decent use of his return to the starting lineup with 6 points, 6 boards, 2 blocks and only one turnover in 22 minutes. With Varejao getting extended run, Richard Jefferson played just under ten minutes after nearly twenty the night before.

Overall, the bench showed some continuity even without Delly to lead it which is a good sign. On the flipside, it’s hard not to be discouraged by MoGotti’s continued net-minus while on the floor.

Most Encouraging Cavaliers Sign

It’s easy to get the feeling that this job is a bit big on Tyronn Lue for the moment. We ask anyone to consider their first two weeks on the job, even if they were groomed for the position. Lue seems like an even-tempered, good-natured fellow.

That’s almost required now in the player-friendly NBA, though we wonder why it is in the NFL it’s the hardasses that seem most often to excel. We’re reminded of Machiavelli’s famous leadership edict that it’s better to be feared than loved. Given the circumstances of his ascendance, that could’ve been a strike against him.

Instead he’s proven uncommonly forthright in his own peculiar manner. We were struck by this yesterday, as he expressed a level of befuddlement about his team that was as refreshing as it was – at a lower, deeper level – disturbing.

In the pregame we pressed him about the three-pointers we talked about in yesterday’s column. We knew that we saw bad shots, and in that sense journalism is often another form of trolling, but in his response to this and several other questions during the day, Lue revealed himself to be in some sense a lot more forthright than Blatt, whose responses were often shrouded in more mystery than the identity of Who’s So Vain?

“We definitely want to take better 3's but Kyrie has shown in those situations he can make those shots so you don’t want to take that away from him but just showing them film and recognizing situations of time and score,” Lue said, before turning to the four separate bad James 3's I noted, including switches that had him on Sullinger and Jerebko but ended with 3's.

“I think LeBron in that fourth quarter was attacking a lot so he may have been tired and not wanting to go to the basket,” Lue said. “But in the fourth quarter he did put his head down and get to the basket a lot and draw a lot of contact and hitting guys for open shots so he could’ve been worn down. But overall we do want to get better shots when we can.”

After the game he returned to this theme of getting his team to play right, first by noting how badly they’d played defense the past two weeks. Since taking over, the Cavs are allowing the highest FG% in the NBA from 0’-5’ and 15’-19’ (at least it was true prior to last night’s game).
“We need a lot of time to work on what we need to work on, like defensively,” said Lue, naming the elephant in the room, we’re not particularly close. “I thought we slipped a few games. We were really bad. And because we were trying to push the tempo I’m not sure if it’s because we’re not in shape, and so we’re not able to do it on both ends.

“It’s going to be a process and we just got to be patient with it we got to understand it,” he continued.

This was sandwiched in-between two postgame comments that must have sounded to tuned-in fans like Preparation H applied directly to that smelly, no offense-running offense. Yup, Lue’s been watching the same thing as us.

It began by Lue admitting his team couldn’t run his playcalls. No shit?

“I tried to call ‘slice’ a few times tonight and we couldn’t run it right. Tried to call ‘punch’, we couldn’t run it right, ” Lue said. “What’s happening after makes is we’re kind of drifting into random and we’re just playing random basketball.”

We’re not exactly sure what “random basketball” is but it if looks like it sounds, he really nailed the whole directionless, dribble-heavy, pick-and-roll-forever morass.

“When we hold the ball and the ball sticks, it’s because we’re in random and we don’t know what we want to run, because we don’t have anything to flow into,” Lue explained.

The idea clearly is to push the ball, and if not getting into transition, then getting into the offense. James gets it, though as we pointed out a few days ago, understanding is about emotional as well as intellectual acceptance.

“It’s an ongoing process, he wants us to play with tempo but when we don’t have it he wants us to execute and get to our secondary and our thirdary [sic] and get side-to-side,” James said. “If we don’t have anything, just get it moving and try to execute on the other side as well.”

Lue tied it all together in his final, telling comments on the subject.

“I talked to the guys about it after the game tonight, just telling them we had to get better and get flowing into different things and pick up our offense,” Lue said, noting how hamstrung he’s been by the lack of practices (2) since taking over. “It’s not good, our offensive flow. We get into random, so we just need to continue to harp on flowing into our offensive set and then running stuff out of that.”

Of course, we know that was something former coach David Blatt was preaching right up until they took his whistle away.

Final Analysis

It wasn’t a great win, though the Cavs did a fine job in the fourth quarter of finally turning up the defense and playing hard. That they can get away with playing hard one quarter a night is a blessing and a curse in the truest sense.

James went so far as to acknowledge the issue, noting the need to “be playing with more of a sense of urgency for 48 minutes as much as possible.” As a team, they also need to bridge the presently wide gap between “the talk” and “the walk.”

After the game, Kyrie sounded like he wants to be receptive (sorta how Fox Moulder wants to believe). Not that we’re super excited to hear how much Lue wants Irving to turn loose his offensive demon. (We’re loathe to clean up all that pea soup.)

“There is a mental block some times where I want to play in-between where I come off pick-and-rolls and he wants me to attack every single time,” Irving said. “I’m coming off just trying to make plays and I think I find that in-between game and find that rhythm between us two as PG and coach we’re still getting there and we’re still developing.

“I try to come to the sideline as much as possible,” he continues. “Ask what he wants from me and he keeps telling me ‘be aggressive, be aggressive,’ and if I want to get off the ball there are certain plays I can run for other guys.”

Now if we could just be sure that option B doesn’t get lost in the rush for Option A.

Overall, it’s about what it was yesterday and the day before that. Indeed, some are shocked to discover that this team isn’t very significantly different than it was under its last coach.

The Cavs are an exceptionally gifted team, featuring several players that perhaps don’t fully appreciate the sacrifices required to win on the biggest stage, or perhaps aren’t mature enough to make them consistently.

The entire team suffers from concentration lapses ranging from poor shot selection to not getting back in transition. The talent’s there but the everyday execution, discipline and focus are yet to arrive. But no one should forget when they needed to get there in the playoffs they did.

For teams to whom the Conference’s top seed is practically a birthright, the regular season is as much a formality as dinner with Bret Michaels, and arguably even less important.

So if they’re not going to sweat it, why should we? Just inhale: “It’s a Process. It’s a Process. It’s a Process.” Focus on that deserted space on the trophy shelf.

The Cavaliers take on the Sacramento Kings on Monday at the Q. We’ll be there posting video, analysis and bon mots. Follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne.
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