Cavs Slow But Can’t Stop Warriors Roll

It wasn’t their night. The Cavaliers brought all the attitude and moxie they needed to bludgeon the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, only to wind up more rope-a-dope than stinger.

The Cavaliers grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, nine more than the Warriors. The Cavs forced them into 16 turnovers while only making 11 of their own. This gave the Wine and Gold 17 more shots than the Warriors (with roughly the same number of free throws). Yet at the end of the night Cleveland had two less buckets.

“We defended at a high level an outstanding offensive team and we gave ourselves a chance because of that,” Blatt said after the game. “Look at the stats, we took 95 shots. You need to knock down some shots to beat a team like that.”

It was that kind of a night. The Cavaliers had 45 shots at the rim, more than twice Golden State’s tally, but only hit 15 of them. (The Warriors hit 13 of theirs.) Take nothing away from the Warriors, who were fierce defenders at the rim, blocking 10 shots.

It wasn’t pretty in the least, as the Cavaliers reprised many of the slow down tactics witnessed in June’s Finals matchup. Indeed, if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love hadn’t been out there, it’d be hard to convince anyone this wasn’t Game 7 in Oakland. It was just a gritty slugfest like something out of Roadhouse or Black Swan.

The Cavs shot like bad guy extras in a Hollywood blockbuster, missing even clear shots. They were an epic 5-30 from the arc en route to their worst FG% of the year. Take away J.R. Smith and they were 1-22 from the circle. It follows a 5-22 performance 3-point shooting performance against the Knicks. The Cavaliers have now made a season-low threes in consecutive games.

During Marlon Brando’s famous On the Waterfront scene, he sputters at the brother who sold him out, “You remember that? ‘This ain't your night’? My night, I coulda taken Wilson apart.” On their night, with a healthy, rust-free Kyrie Irving, the Cavs could take the Warriors apart. Probably.

What about when it isn’t their night? Tip your hat and wait for next time?

Troubles Down Under

The seldom discussed downside of small-ball is that you can get crushed like a bug on the glass. The Cavaliers posted season-highs in rebounds (55) and offensive boards (17). Kevin Love was particularly disruptive, creating 29 rebounding opportunities for 18 boards. Tristan Thompson contributed 10 boards and was +9 in his nearly 27 minutes.

Saying Mozgov had a difficult time is like saying Moses and the Jews went for a walk. The stat sheet’s five misses, three fouls and one turnover in 14 minutes only hint at struggles that would’ve made Job weep.

His play against Golden State suggested the back-end of those optical trails one gets (without enough sleep or with too many years of hallucinogenic use), arriving after everything’s happened and the ball’s either gone through the hoop or off his hands and out-of-bounds. You want to text Ziggy to Quantum Leap Mozgov back into his own body and get Scott Bakula back into NCIS: New Orleans where he belongs.

Mozgov actually did a good job defending the rim on several plays, but mostly found himself pulled out on the perimeter, as the Warriors style is designed to do. Mozgov held his own against a Brandon Rush drive, but his relentless inability to knock down 2’ bunnies set by brilliant teammate passes is just too demoralizing to watch for more than a few possessions in a row.

Timo’s turned into such a Clevelander, he’s playing like a Brown.

We joke, but the beauty of Mozgov is that there’s no quit in that kid. He makes a bad play, he doesn’t scream at the ref while his mates get back on defense. He doesn’t hang his head while moping back on defense. That guy runs back down to the other end. Unfortunately that’s where the list of good things to say about last night ends.

The list’s only a bit longer for Shumpert. If there’s anything that provided a summer déjà vu it was with the sweet and sour sauce that is flat-top rapping swingman Iman Shumpert. One of the finest wing defenders in the game, Shumpert’s jump shot is less reliable than a hormonal teen. (Shump was 0-6.)

One moment he’s saving a puppy, the next he’s parked the car in the living room. It’s only missing a laugh track. One moment a brilliant assist, the other a harebrained shot that leads to a three the other way.
Because the summer is long, we’d forgotten how many times during the finals we muttered, “Man if this guy only had a jump shot (and sometimes a handle), he’d be one of the best wings in the NBA.” We’re still hopeful he can find offensive consistency, but we also keep hoping “Red Leader” won’t flinch right before squeezing off that shot at the Death Star exhaust duct.

Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were supposed to make a difference instead they were building an outdoor firepit. They went 9-31 overall, but turned it around some in the fourth quarter (4-10) producing a third of the team’s 24 points.

Some might note that this offensive issue was the very reason GM David Griffin brought in Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams, two stone cold scorers even in their somewhat advanced age. They’re also about as useful on defense as a screen door in a submarine.

There, as fair Hamlet once noted, lies the rub. Do you take arm against a team of shooters and by opposing end them, or take comfort in the blade expecting you can slash them before they gut your defense. Blatt went one way last year and wound up in the same back alley brawl, reduced to King James plowing through the lane hoping to draw fouls as Warriors tumble like defective Weebles. (Spartans they’re not.)

“We wanted to play a certain way in this gym against this particular team,” Blatt explained. “What we didn’t want to have here was a track meet… We executed the game plan. We just need to make more shots.”

La Plus Ca Change, La Plus Ca Meme they say in France, and it’s as true of life as basketball: The more things change, the more they are the same.

It’s not just about technological progress. It’s a knowing nod to the unforgiving stubbornness of human nature. This was Blatt’s impulse last year and it worked, to some extent, leaving him less willing to trade some of that defensive intensity for a little more scoring. Would it even have helped? Maybe it was just one of those nights.

The Cavs got the same percentage of open/uncontested shots as the Warriors but made 32% compared to the Warriors 39%. On their 51 contested shots, they shot 31%. If you’re not making shots, you aren’t going to win, and whichever hoop the Cavs shot at instantly became “Carnival Midway” size.

Jet Lag

The Cavaliers played pretty well most of the game, but they started off quite poorly with a number of type of boneheaded/low-intensity/awareness plays that drive fans crazy.

Ninety seconds into the game, the Cavs trapped Curry against the baseline under the basket. However Kevin Love was sharpening his mustache when Andrew Bogut took a walkabout down the lane for a slam.
A couple possessions later, Kyrie doesn’t react to/cover for LeBron switching/trapping Curry just over halfcourt. Whether this was a blown communication or Love’s fault, Kryie makes no motion toward Draymond Green as he drives a good 20 feet straight to the basket. (Mozgov eventually steps over stop Green, allowing the Warrior to lob it over him to Mozgov’s man, Bogut, for a dunk.)
It wasn’t a great start, and the Cavs ended the first down by nine, a hole they’d be digging out from for nearly the entire game. (The team did take a brief lead in the second quarter but soon lost it, and found themselves always battling back from a few points down.) There was a stupid Shumpert midrange jump shot in transition that led directly to a three by Draymond Green in transition the other direction. It was part of the 15-3 run that gave the Warriors its initial lead.

“We had a couple breakdowns throughout the game, and that team will cause that at times,” James said after the game. “But for most of the 48 minutes we followed the gameplan and made it tough on them. Offensively we just need to be a lot better. “

The Cavs tied it up at 33 in the second quarter with a 9-2 run featuring points from each all of their Big Three, Love, Irving and James. After going in to the half with a 45-42 lead, Golden State opened the third on a 9-2 run to push the lead to 10. The Cavaliers got it to within three a couple times but went into the third down five.

No Curry, No Problem

The Cavaliers had their big opportunity to start the fourth when Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both sat. But the reserves got a couple buckets from Shaun Livingston (8-9, 16 pts), and a third after Thompson came back.

Meanwhile the Cavs failed to take advantage as nothing offensively went their way. A great cut to the basket after blocking Ian Clark’s layup try went off. Shump appeared to be fouled on a drive, but rebounded his miss and fed Kyrie a wide-open straight-on three that went down and came back out. (There must’ve been at least three Cavaliers shots that did this during the evening.) Irving missed a layup to his left.

When Dellavedova slid a pass to Love posted up underneath the rim for a hoop to close the lead to 70-67, it was the Cavs big moment. When Thompson was fouled going the other way with 7:07 left, Curry came back in and so did LeBron.

LeBron would drive and be rejected by Festus Ezeli while going the other way he would be exploited on an out-of-bounds play that yielded a layup to Draymond Green.
A bad pass by Dellavedova trying to find Kevin Love in the lane failed to get over the fronting defender and yielded a fastbreak opportunity the other way. Andre Igupodala was fouled and made both free throws pushed the lead to eight.

The Cavs got back within three and if LeBron James had made a few more free throws they could’ve had a better shot at winning the game, but that’s really a quibble. (Keeping Livingston from going off would’ve probably made an even bigger difference in the final outcome.)

Couple Nice Plays

Though he didn’t play all that well, Kryie Irving made a definite difference out there. As he shakes off his offensive rust, he will help this team immeasurably just by making the other team take the ball out of the net. Though Irving shot 4-15 and 0-6 from 3, he did get a couple assists and had three of the team’s fie secondary assists. He was one of the few guys moving the ball consistently all night. It will be interesting to see what Blatt's cooked up for him in the off-season. We got a taste yesterday. 

Here the team designed a double pick with Love and Mozgov to get Timo’s man, seven-foot Aussie Andrew Bogut on Irving, who got himself an open 15’ jumper.
On this play we can see more of James’ work off the ball. He’s such a big body he has no problem pinning his defender and Kevin Love is a good enough passer to get him the ball in the post. (Too bad the same weren’t true more often the other way, but for all his passing gifts, LeBron only intermittently seems to get Love easy layups.)

We were talking the other day how good James is off the ball, and the difficulty doubling him in these situations makes this an interesting strategy going forward. We’ll be looking for more pick-and-rolls between Irving and Love that allow James to swoop through the lane and run the baseline if his man’s eyes wander.

Final Analysis (Courtesy of the King)

LeBron encapsulated it nicely after that game saying, “We play like that defensively we’re going to be a very tough team to beat. Offensively we just didn’t have it. Nobody had it. We just tried to continue to give ourselves an opportunity.”

He cited some of the lineups that didn’t have much offensive continuity.

“We played some lineups that I guess didn’t have many minutes together so far in the season and we just need to do a better job of knowing the packages and the plays that we want to run offensively,” he said. “That will help us move the ball and be more efficient.”

Not that LeBron pounding the ball into the hardwood like Bam-Bam had anything to do with the lack of ball movement. Perish the thought. Or not…

“I wasn’t very good offensively. Inefficient, and it just trickled down to everyone else,” he continued. “We missed a great opportunity but at the same time defensively we improved tonight for sure.”

See? He just wrote a better close than we probably would have. There isn’t anything LeBron can’t do better.

So what does this mean for the future?

“It’s an adjustment period. It’s not going to just happen. You don’t just plug a guy in there or plug two guys in and it automatically happens,” he said. “I told the guys on the bench, ‘Don’t put too much pressure into this one game.’ We want to get better and see what we can play against the best and we know that we can.”

We’re reminded again of On the Waterfront. Terry Malloy wanted his shot at Wilson, and though it might’ve been his night. But what if it wasn’t? If the brother had defied the bosses, bet their money on Brando’s character, and lost, neither would’ve lived through the night.

Sometimes it’s fortunate to live to fight another day. There’s no telling whether the loss to the Warriors is some omen for the future, but we’re going to believe it’s simply fodder for the ghost of Christmas past. In the meantime, there's five more months for the Cavs to bridge the gap between the teams. It's not wide, and now that they can see that, it hopefully refreshes their intensity.

We’ll be watching from home along with you tonight as the Cavaliers take on the Portland Trailblazers in the back-end of this back-to-back. Follow along on Twitter with us @CRS_1ne, then read our analysis the next day on the Scene blog.

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