Sports hold a unique place in our heart because it possesses justice the real world lacks. We watch politicians, bankers and sometimes our neighbors prove little more than every day grifters, going along to get along and following the path of least resistance to undeserved success. Karma’s even more backlogged than our judicial system. But that’s not how basketball operates.
In basketball, if you cheat – say looking for steals in the passing lanes – sooner or later you’ll pay, or your team will, as opponents backdoor you to death. Ball-hogging ego-laden superstars that rarely share the ball, seldom make it far in the playoffs. If there’s one place on our planet where (for the most part), the best, deepest, hardest-working most selfless individuals working together get to share in the glory, it’s between the lines.
Sports is the ultimate meritocracy. Just being there on that stage is an opportunity typically earned with over a decade of dues-paying. But the blunt simplicity of it is beautiful – if you aren’t good, and don’t play right you will be exposed and will lose.
That’s kind of how it’s been for the Cavaliers outside the supportive environs at home, and perhaps that’s how it has to be. The Cavaliers talent towers like Goliath over most of their opponents. But like the God-like character Dr. Manhattan near the center of the comic book universe of The Watchmen, their bursts of brilliance go to their head and slowly become disengaged from the task at hand.
An unstoppable juggernaut one moment, the Cavaliers slide into disinterest too quickly these days, and fail to keep doing the things that made them successful. The offense comes so easily when they move the ball that they almost seem to grow bored, and start making lazy passes, stop boxing or failing to get back on defense. It’s a game of details, but at times they want to drop their resume on the desk and be shown their new office.
They either don’t respect their opponents or the process, but whichever is the case, they’re not good enough to win on the road if they don’t play hard, physical, focused basketball, and that’s why they lost to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.
Yes, sure, the team was very shorthanded as they’ve been all season. Sure, if they had everybody in the stable, they’d crush the Raptors. Even one or two particular players would’ve made the difference, but that’s a game playing in fantasyland.
The simple truth is the Cavaliers can and should beat teams like the Raptors on the road most nights if they execute at even the average level they do at home. It’s not an easy thing by any stretch, that’s why there’s a durable home advantage in the NBA. (Typically about 60% though that has changed recently.)
So yeah, the team could’ve used Timofey Mozgov or Matthew Dellavedova, who both sat out with injuries. And sure they’d love to have Iman Shumpert or Kyrie Irving, both likely out until the middle or end of December. But if you aren’t capable of succeeding when things are tough, how do you expect to excel in the playoffs, where you’re battling great teams and adversity simultaneously, even as they adjust to your adjustments.
Winning the fourth quarter on the road requires mental and physical toughness the Cavs have not regularly demonstrated. There’s still plenty of time for it to develop, and they seem to sense the problem, but recognizing it is like saying the influence of money has corrupted our government. “Yeah, so?”
The Cavaliers have been talking about playing tougher, talking about moving the ball, talking about making good rotations on defense, and now we’re left to talk amongst ourselves because all that talk’s looked pretty empty the last three road games, all losses.
It is what it is. Hopefully the team will improve their intensity. They did last year when Love and Irving went down, but the regular season can be a grind, and with that pace it’s simple to have nights when it’s not there.
That’s why Blatt and James have been harping on the team even in the blowouts. The idea’s to create such dedication to the process and the way they want to play that momentary success or failure won’t keep them from “playing right.” As is, too often when the offense starts to falter, so does the defense. When they don’t get the calls, they get frustrated and focus wanders.
The King himself can get so worried about the refs that he neglects his defensive responsibilities so he can work the ref. Is that the best look for your teammates playing 4-on-5 at the other end? Not to single him out. As we noted in Tuesday’s column, he’s playing better D than anybody in the league. But he’s also the leader.
Last night in the second half and particularly in the fourth quarter as the game slipped from the Cavaliers grasp, James turned the game into his one-man show, only he shot 3-10 in the half. He only had 3 assists as ball movement ground to a halt. We’ve been following the team’s passes/touches – well last night they had their worst night of the season (68% v. 74%), and it all happened in the last three periods.
The Cavaliers started off well. They had assists on nine of their 11 first quarter buckets. In the second half they’d have nine assists on 19 buckets. Kevin Love who had 21 points through three periods, only got two shots through the first nine minutes of the fourth while the team went 3-15. LeBron was 0-4 as he reprised the bullish rim attacks of the Golden State series down the stretch with a similar success rate.
It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s that for some reason they just don’t. But that’s why the season is a growing process. Sure Golden State is 16-0 right now. Does anyone remember that Atlanta went 33-2 after Thanksgiving before faltering down the stretch?
The idea is to peak at the right time. The regular season isn’t exactly practice for the Cavaliers (certainly not in the Allen Iverson sense of the word) but it doesn’t have to be life or death. They just need to be able to play like it is when necessary. Right now they can only do that at home, so hopefully this is teaching moment.
It was a game of runs all night long. The Cavaliers would get it going and the Raptors would answer by exploiting the wine and gold’s biggest weaknesses – transition defense and dribble penetration.
Trailing 16-15 early in the first, the Cavaliers went on an 8-0 run which the Raptors answer with a 19-2 over the next six minutes. This was mostly against the Cavaliers second team whose defense only compares favorably to the Browns. The triumvirate of Richard Jefferson, James Jones and Mo Williams played many of those minutes adding to that lineup’s inauspicious results.
The other reserves during that run Jared Cunningham and Anderson Varejao are all part of some of the worst three man teams (alongside the aforementioned offenders). Interestingly there are some matchups that work quite well.
Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova is even better than Delly and LeBron. LeBron happens to work well with James Jones where most other teamings are terrible. Jones & Varejao is incredibly bad, but Varejao and Thompson is incredibly great. When Cunningham plays with LeBron things go much better. Mo Williams is fine if you play him with Matthew Dellavedova (which makes sense as Mo isn’t nearly as bad off the ball when Delly relieves him of shadowing PGs).
All of this kind points to Coach David Blatt’s issues with rotations. This is not to blame the man – he’s sort of fishing around with all the injuries. But it seems apparent that sitting Love and LeBron for long periods is like playing with an open net, we guess with the thought that the juggernaut lineup will make it up. Well, last night they didn’t.
Love actually played during almost a third of that Toronto 19-2 run, but didn’t take a short. Tristan played for almost half the run and didn’t take a shot or get a rebound.
When LeBron returned the Cavs had their own 19-2 run in just over 4 minutes featuring 5
threes by four different players. That’s only possible with ball movement and indeed four of the five shots were assisted. Again the Cavaliers lost focus as the Raptors launched an 11-0 run. The teams went into halftime tied.
The third quarter was back and forth until LeBron James left the court for rest with 2:47 in the third, with the Cavs leading 75-70. This is when the Raptors just drove it down the Cavaliers throats. They made 11 of their last 12 shots to close the quarter and only a ridiculous Mo Williams 3-pointer from far past halfcourt kept the Cavs within 2 at 82-80.
During this stretch everything was getting to the rim. Ten of those eleven shots were taken from within 5’ of the basket. This is where the game was lost. Though the Cavs tightened up the defense when the starters returned in the fourth, their offensive rhythm was off. James starting bringing up the ball and initiating the offense and things went downhill fast.
It was a lot of drives to the basket that weren’t getting foul calls, while Love was never a part of the offense. JR took a few long jumpers but none were of the 4-passes around the perimeter types that they were getting through most of the first three quarters.
Lowry scored another six to go with his dozen in the third as Mo Williams looked lost trying to keep up and the fourth quarter defensive rotations seem to get even worse as the team grew frustrated with their shooting and the lack of foul calls. This can’t be acceptable, but for now is the way it’s been going. James Jones even remonstrated the team in the huddle to stop looking for calls and start playing, but as we noted earlier, the team’s more talk than action.
Everyone knows that Mo Williams is a poor dribble defender and with the team’s best perimeter defender (Delly) and rim protector (Mozgov) sitting, penetration has become an increasing issue, particularly on the road. Last night it enabled the Raptors to outscore the Cavs 52-28 in the paint, as the Cavs all but stopped going inside in the second half, and opened the lane like they were RE/MAX.
Reggie Jackson ate them up in Detroit, and he’s only a middling point guard. Suffice to say, this kind of effort would only make Stephen Curry laugh, then pump in half-dozen threes.
But the pick-and-roll foibles would perhaps be acceptable if the team weren’t failing in so many other ways. There were terrible transition sequences like this one where the Cavs had three guys back but Lowry took it all the way to the hole and drew a foul.
The rotations were all slow or off, in part because of the issues stopping Lowry. On this play near the end of the game, JR Smith exchanged glances and words over who was supposed to cover Bismack Biyombo as he cut through the lane unmolested for a dunk.
If Mo Williams had switched onto Biyombo or even shadowed him enough to cut into the lane when he made his roll to the basket instead of trailing Lowry by five feet like one of his burka-wearing wives, Smith and James wouldn’t be having that discussion.
Our sense is that it would’ve been an easier play for James to stop than Smith since J.R. was coming from under the basket and would be hard pressed to beat Biyombo to the edge of the restricted circle, while the play is all in front of James and he could cut off the roll man. It’s not like with Lowry trapped by the corner of the basket that he’s going to have a very easy time getting the ball to his three shooters on the weakside.
But it was one of those nights where guys got frustrated and looked to place blame rather than assume responsibility for changing things.
Hopefully this is a step in the evolution toward acceptance of personal responsibility, which includes playing hard and right even when you’re up. That’s not something Cavaliers fan have seen them do on the road this year. Maybe it’s the injuries, maybe it’s all the different lineups.
It’s hard to argue it’s the level of talent since they made the Finals with much less. Right now the Cavaliers seem to be struggling with a sense of entitlement because they’ve got so much talent and potential. But those are just ghosts. The only thing that truly exists is what they put on the floor, and lately, that’s not been deserving of victory. This is one party Karma’s definitely attended.
Charlotte is next up on Friday. They clobbered the Wizards on Wednesday and have been playing some good basketball of late. After being one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, they brought in guys like Nicolas Batum, Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminsky, and Jeremys Lin & Lamb to improve to 11th in the league. That provides a nice counterpoint to Al Jefferson rugged inside play. He will be a challenge for Tristan.
We’ll be following the game with you at home on Friday, commenting and posting highlights/plays on Twitter. You can follow us at @CRS_1ne and read us here following games on the Scene blog.