Cavs Mount Bucks, Clear Space for Playoff Foes

click to enlarge "Special Delivery For Mongo"
"Special Delivery For Mongo"
In a season as long and anxiety-inducing as a Clearblue wait, the Cavaliers finally had their Dirk Diggler moment, letting the heavy hammer fall on Milwaukee with a jaw dropping swing. The Wine and Gold moved the ball like they had stock in Ryder, and scored more easily than a porn casting agent.

The 29-point gutting of the Bucks glistened as the culmination to a frustrating season of ups and downs, the blue balled trumpet solo after a never-ending movie montage that birthed these Mighty Bad News Hoosiers. We’ve lost count of how many sides of beef they'd hit, stairs they climbed and or refrains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” we heard.

Somewhere along the way, the Cavaliers finally found their Schwing! While most of the year they’ve boxed the clown more than they’ve played team ball, for at least one shimmering moment they dominated from start to finish like Christian Grey.

There was none of their infamous third quarter dolor like they ate too much turkey and stuffing then popped a couple Ambien. This was full-on, unselfish, let-your-buddy-get-some basketball, and we daresay it was the most beautiful basketball the team’s played all year.
After last year’s season ending blitz where the Big Three lost but three times, fans have been waiting for the return engagement. Over the last two weeks we’ve seen it in the long awaited appearance of the team’s dominant defense.

“I thought we shot the ball well. I thought this was one of our most complete games of the season as far as offense and defense and having both of them for the whole game,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “When we have the right approach coming into the game both offensively and defensively, we run and move the ball, share the ball. I think we’re tough to beat.”

They were fifth in defensive rating (per 100 possessions) when David Blatt was fired at 99.7, but have fallen to 11th during Lue’s time at 104.1. However over the last eight games the team’s dropped that to 100.3. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but a sign of how the defense is finally rounding into form – and without sacrificing pace either (96.62 in this stretch, 95.99 since Lue took over).

Further, over the last dozen games, the Cavaliers have the best first half differential (+20) of any team, including Oklahoma City (+16), San Antonio (+14.5), Golden State (+10) and the Clippers (+10.1). They also have the fourth best defense, allowing 97.5 pts/100 possessions.

We’re not trying to suggest the Cavaliers are now better than the Spurs and Warriors, or what not, just that the team’s finally peaking defensively, and their focus seems to have clicked into playoff mode. They look ready.

The Game

After a season with more stops and starts than a teenager learning to drive a stick, the Cavaliers finally put it all together. They shot 66% from the field in the first half and actually shot better from behind the arc (12-18) than inside of it (13-20), scoring 67 points and holding a 24-point lead.

Irving didn’t even shoot in the first quarter, as Love and Smith were given every opportunity to get it going. (James also only took 3 shots.) We’re not sure if this is the plan going forward, but we’d love it.

James and Irving can score whenever they really need to, at least in the first, why not give the secondary players some face time with the leather. Kevin Love continued his hot streak. Over the last dozen games, Love's shooting 48% FG, 41% 3pt, averaging 9.5 rebounds and 17.8 points in just 29 minutes a game.
“There’s a rhythm factor and trust factor,” said Kevin Love. “When guys are stepping up and making plays, making big shots, you know miss or make, we’re getting great looks.”

There have been a rash of suggestions to move J.R. Smith out of the starting lineup. His defense fell off dramatically last month, perhaps impacted by the high number of back-to-backs. (For more on this read Sunday’s column.) We even suggested that Delly might be a decent replacement, though truth be told, we would rather leave the first half rotations in place – Lue seems to have nailed them.

Smith’s big night is an illustration. He’s sorta a Trojan horse in that he doesn’t really move a lot, just holds down the boundary line. As the opponent races across the court to defend the “immediate threats” defenders have a hard time hanging close to Smith especially given he’s usually on the weakside so when penetration happens, it’s his side help comes from.
Give him a couple wide open jumpers, and you’ll turn off the arena lights before J.R. shoots, Iman Shumpert just doesn’t have that explosiveness. Smith gets nearly as unconscious as Stephen Curry, but doesn’t need the ball until it’s time to close the deal (which for Smith is like A.B.C. – always be closing.)

His seven threes helped him break the Cavaliers record for three-pointers in a season, currently with 197 on 492 attempts (40%).

“We were putting people into spots where they needed to be to be successful,” said Irving. “Guys were filling the lanes and coming off pick-and-rolls and we’re just adjusting to the defensive schemes other teams are throwing at us. So obviously they’re going to pay a lot of attention to us – me and LeBron. They are going to pre-rotate, so guys just need to be ready to shoot it on the weakside.”

The Cavs hardly needed LeBron’s offense though he was a key part of the first half ball movement. Not only was he facilitating but he continually got open in the lane collapsing the defense and creating offense for other players, as on this Mozzy dunk. 
“I love when the ball is moving I could care how many shots I can get,” said James who finished with 17 points on just 9 shots. “When the ball is moving and everyone is in good rhythm, you got to feel good about the offensive end.”

Love and Smith scored 27 of the teams 33 first quarter points. With a fourteen point lead to start the second, Lue ran out a unit absent any of the Big Three, and it didn’t implode lasting almost four minutes into the second, even adding to the lead.

The lineup featured the team’s three best defenders, the Minor Third (Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson) along with the two best bench scorers, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye.

It’s a little light offensively without Kyrie Irving, who usually runs the squad, but the defense is so good, they can get away with it, especially given the good offensive chemistry of Thompson and Delly. If opponents take away the roll man, Frye and Jefferson are both reliable perimeter shooters.

We liked that in the first half Lue used a 10-man rotation, slipping Richard Jefferson back into the lineup after a couple games watching. We’re fans both because we’d like to see the team get some rest, but we also like Jefferson’s fit at the backup 3 better than Shumpert, who seems more suited to playing backcourt players where his speed and physicality can have more impact.

When the starters returned, they put the finishing move on the Bucks, making 11-14 from the field (4-6 from 3) to close the quarter. The Bucks, who didn’t like what the Cavaliers were serving, frowned their way through the cafeteria line, dutifully paid and suffered in silence. Irving who’s taken heat for his passing (or lack thereof) had five assist and just four shots at half. He finished with 16 points on 9 shots and 6 assists.

The Bucks came out the third with better energy, and the Cavaliers lost the thread for a short stretch in the third, making four turnovers during the first half of the quarter. However they finished strongly enough for the reserves to play out the entire fourth.

“We just continued to attack,” said Lue. “A lot of times [when] we get big leads, we tend in the second half to take bad shots or jump shots. I thought the ball continued to move. I don’t think it ever got bogged down.”

The Cavs finished 41 of 75 (54.7) making half their threes (18-36), while producing assists on 30 of the 41 baskets. The Bucks did crush Cleveland in the paint 54-28, but that’s the Bucks game, and it’s testament to the Cavaliers’ gameplan (and shooting) that they could lose points-in-the-paint by 26 and win by 29.

Even though Milwaukee got a lot of points in the paint, they didn’t shoot well. The Cavs held them below 40%. Not that the Bucks are a great team – they didn’t have a lot to play for and gave extra time to a couple young projects (surprise starters PF Johnny O’Bryant and SG Rashad Vaughn). But it was still a good, complete win for a team that known to play down to their competition.

“Our physicality was great,” Lue said. “I thought the bigs did a great job of keeping the ball in front and not letting their bigs get behind us on the rolls. We just overall had a great standard defensively.”

Ball Hogging

There’s been a lot of noise around the Cavaliers the past week regarding Kyrie Irving’s fit on the team. We find it strange that last year nobody was worried if Irving fit, or if he could be a facilitator during the 34-3 streak. He gets injured, the coach changes, his role changes and suddenly there are all these questions. Hmmm.

As we’ve discussed and many other before us, Kyrie is not maybe a natural point guard, but he’s very much of the present generation of point guards, like Russell Westbrook, Damian Lilliard, Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker, guys who are expected to score as much as distribute.

So in some sense, the role that people are asking Irving to fulfill – of being more of a distributor than scorer - is one that’s slowly passing out of existence with the present focus on Pick-and-Roll play, which makes it much more incumbent on the ballhandler to score, or at least pose a serious threat to. Further, we have tried to remind people that Coach Tyronn Lue actually said he wanted Love and James to be facilitators and for Kyrie to attack. Of course, that was a couple months ago….

We have noticed, like probably everyone else, that LeBron as part of his playoff mode has turned into a “band aid”. He’s making sure everyone gets theirs and often taking his out of the flow of the offense rather than attacking to score. We can see this in the steady drop of LeBron James’ percentage of unassisted baskets. It’s dropped from 61% to 52% over the last dozen games.

What’s interesting is that Kyrie has experienced an even greater drop in the number of unassisted field goals, yet everyone is slamming on Irving as a ball hog. This just goes to show how memes can be created based on biased observations, often unmoored to facts. (Makes for better clickbait that way.) Not that Irving doesn't have that predilection, but we feel it's being overstated to generate drama.

While it may seem like Irving is terribly selfish, at the very least it’s hard to convincingly argue that he isn’t making a concerted effort to improve. He's allowing more of his points to come in the flow of the offense and not as part of random shot-clock emptying dribbling exhibitions. Irving’s dropped his unassisted baskets by more than 20% from 75% of his hoops to 58.5%.

Blatt’s Mea Culpa

You might think David Blatt had gone into witness relocation, so completely did he disappear after his dismissal. We caught wind of a recent interview through the forums on the excellent fan site,, or the RCF as it’s sometimes known. One of the posters was kind enough to translate an interview in an Israeli publication with an executive of Google-Israel.

There were a couple juicy acknowledgements, and you have to hand it to Blatt, he doesn’t sound bitter and truly seems like someone welcoming the opportunity to learn from his mistakes.

“I have learned in the transition from the European basketball to the states and to the NBA, how much I needed to learn; how much I wasn't realizing what I am about to go through, how much I didn't know about that style of play, the game itself, the structure of the season, how the league is structured, the intensity of the schedule, the players personalities; and without going through that first year in the NBA, which gladly was very successful, I don't think I could have understood it,” Blatt said. “I needed this trial by fire, to be in it, to get the slaps and the punches to realize just how much I didn't understand, in order to be better in the future.”

It isn’t that basketball or coaching is different but there are so many other factors he hadn’t accounted for.

“The coaching part is not really different, but the league itself, the duration of the game, which is 48 minutes in oppose to 40 minutes, 82 games in just 5.5 months, how you keep your players fresh, it's totally different,” he says. “In Europe you have 2 matches a week while in the NBA you sometimes have 4-5 matches in a week with totally different pace. Also everything around the NBA is totally different and crazy. The game outside the game itself.”

If you ever doubted the graciousness of the man, he doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment for those left behind, quite the opposite. He’s thrilled by their success. (It’s a bit of a vindication of Lue’s assertion he had nothing to do with the firing and hadn’t lobbied for the job as some have suggested.)

“It wasn't exactly like I have planned it to be, but sometimes these things are part of life. Sometimes you start somewhere, you go up, you go down, sometimes you stay, sometimes you vanished, but as long as you enjoy the ride and find a way to enrich yourself with new experiences - the future is bright,” he said.

“I was fortunate enough to be a part of many successes during my coaching career. When people ask me what is the greatest thing you have done, I always give the same answer - that the people who worked with me,” he continued. “Particularly my assistants who helped me to reach these amazing peaks, who are now working and succeeding on their own at organizations and teams which are just as good as teams I have coached. I feel proud and get real satisfaction to watch them surpass me. It's a great joy.”

He added that his least favorite sound was, of course, “journalists.”

Mozgov’s Knee

We reported around a month or so back that Mozgov’s knee had continued to bother him all season. The surgery didn’t heal and he’s been struggling with it until, it appears, very recently. This is something that can also be found translated on RCF from a Russian blog Mozgov contributed to.

It noted an interesting positive development – the knee’s finally feeling better. It’s something we had noticed in his better play the last couple weeks, which we noted in Sunday's column. Over the last ten games his Net rating (per 100 possessions) is +15.6. We didn't think anyone would believe us without proof, so here it is.
His positive report on his current situation bodes well for this improvement proving more lasting than previous upturns in Timo's rollercoaster season.

“It's been the biggest disappointment of the current season! A lot of time and energy was spent and many resources have been used in order to make sure everything would be well on time,” he wrote. “But in reality the recovery process did not go as expected. In theory, it should have taken me about to months. What actually happened is that I haven’t been experiencing tangible discomfort only during the last month and a half. I can finally work at my full potential and so I'm slowly reaching my full fighting form.

“Obviously, coexisting with this issue has taken a moral toll on me. But alas, such is reality. It really was impossible to do more than me and the team did together,” he writes. “Let me put it this way: I finally feel like I can play basketball again! And it's an awesome feeling!!!”

We’ll inquire some more about this of Mozzy at tonight’s game.

Final Analysis

What a sight that game was to see. This is the kind of game the Cavaliers have been building toward for weeks. It was the first reminder of how good the Cavaliers were last year, and hinted, with all the shooting they’ve added since the off-season, they might even be better.

“Slowly but surely everybody is getting comfortable with what everybody does and the more important each possession becomes going into the playoffs the better we’re becoming,” said Iman Shumpert. “As long as we continue to play well defensively, get out and run, and share the ball, I don’t think anybody can beat us.”

This game was a reinforcement of what the team promised us at the beginning of the season. It’s almost like fans should be chastised for not “respecting the process.”

They seem to have secured the number one seed in the East. They’re healthy, and finally look to be on a roll. The defense is catching up to the offense. The ball is moving and they played with pace in both halves. LeBron looks as good as he has at any point in the last two years, and says he feels healthier than he has in the past few years.

It’s still a long trip, but team’s taxiing down the runway just like they said they would and their gathering speed for take-off. It’s a relief because we’re tired of sitting on the tarmac. Bring on the playoffs and games that count!

Speaking of games that count, we’ll be in Indianapolis for tonight’s road game against the Pacers. The Pacers are fighting for a playoff berth and could very well meet the Cavaliers when the playoffs start a week from Saturday. We’ll be at the game posting video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis here in the Scene & Heard page on Thursday morning.

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