It was an All-Star Game atmosphere at the Coliseum in Los Angeles last night, from the much-hyped final matchup of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to the Teflon (no-stick) play on both ends of the court. Duck and Cover’s a more effective defense than anything we witnessed last night.
That’s fine with the Cavaliers, who even (??) missing Kevin Love possess enough firepower to sink a Lakers team last in defensive efficiency. Like its many vainglorious residents, Los Angeles doesn’t have much interest in low glamour pursuits like defending, conceding the Cavs just about anything they wanted, with the unspoken expectation they do the same. For the most part the Cavs obliged.
While both teams shot 53%, the Cavaliers made better use of their long-range artillery, raining 16 threes down on Los Angeles until it resembled Dresden. A night after making less than 40% of their uncontested shots, they hit 51%. They got open either utilizing the pick and roll or even something as mundane as skip passing from one spot behind the three line to another, a-steal-waiting-to-happen against more vigilant teams.
On the other end, the Cavaliers continue to show a fundamental inability to stop ballhandlers from going by them like the house-hopping martial artists of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Leave it to the Cavs to turn slow white rookie Brazilian point guard Marcelo Huertas into Steve Nash. Heurtas scored 13 with 5 assists causing constant headaches along with rookie Ohio State star DeAngelo Russell (24 pts, 5 assists).
The Lakers kept it close for most of the first half, but a 13-7 run by the Cavs in the final three minutes of the second helped build a nine-point halftime lead the Cavaliers would never relinquish. They pushed it into double digits during the third and never let up enough on the gas for Los Angeles to really climb back in it.
The big key for Cleveland was luring the Lakers into shooting 22 threes. (They are the worst three-point shooting team in the league, a fact obviously tied to their low offensive efficiency.) The Lakers shot 7-22 from 3, and 35-58 (60%) inside the arc.
It was a win on the road on the second night of a back-to-back. It was also the third time in four nights that the Cavaliers have scored 120 points, and the fifth time under Tyronn Lue. He’s definitely had a positive impact on the team’s offense, which is scoring 5.5 more points a game, and only surrendering 4.9 more points/game, as the Cavs have picked up almost a possession and a half per game, thanks to the higher pace.
“Anytime you win is great no matter how you do it,” Lue said afterwards. “You go to Sacramento, we knew that was going to be a high-paced game and they were waiting for us. Guys came out and we fought our way back and battled. Tonight we were up the majority of the game, so it gave us more opportunity to mess around.”
The Cavaliers shot out to a big first quarter lead, got ahead by 10, 29-19, with just under four minutes left. Then they gave up their first quarter lead during the last half of the quarter as has been their penchant the last couple weeks. Russell (5) and Heurtas (7) led a 12-2 run to tie the game at 31 before a couple LeBron James free throws gave the Cavs a two-point margin to end the quarter.
Channing Frye was a big revelation in the quarter. The trading deadline acquisition from Orlando stepped in for Kevin Love, who sat with a knee sprain suffered in the Kings game on Wednesday night. Frye started alongside Tristan Thompson, but also played center in some small ball lineups with James. Frye drained all four of his first quarter shots including three treys for 11 of his season high 21 points.
It’s interesting to watch Frye score since his offensive strengths are so different from Love. Frye is a true Stretch 4, in that his main weapon is a very consistent long jumper. You’ll notice watching the above plays how much more quickly he’s able to launch his shots than Love, and that his manner is more like J.R. Smith – he’s a spot-up shooter.
“They bullied me a little into shooting and I shot when I was open and made them,” Frye said. “I knew I was feeling good. I knew I was shooting when I was open, I kept trying to get open and they kept finding me. It was all them. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. Make shots and play a little D.”
If he’s not open Frye surrenders the ball quickly. There’s little of the offensive stagnation that occurs trying to get Love the ball in the post. That obviously has its place but it’s interesting to see how much better the offense flows with two ball-dominant types and two spot-up shooters alongside Tristan.
While Love can do that, it’s just not something he’s naturally comfortable with.
“That’s something I’ve learned to accept, that’s where half my shots are going to come from,” said Love of his Stretch Four role after the Kings game. “I’m not particularly used to that but that’s what’s needed on this team so that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
The ball movement was pretty good in spurts throughout the game. The Lakers lackluster defensive effort invited both Irving and James to beat their individual defenders off the bounce, reducing the number of assists (a somewhat poor 22 on 45 baskets). Tristan was also a demon on the class, snaring four of the team’s nine offensive rebounds which resulted in 17 second chance points. The shot chart’s so good it looks like St. Patrick’s Day.
Kyrie Irving continues to shake the rust off his complete game. While his scoring and finishing haven’t been in doubt for weeks, last night Irving had his second-best assist night since returning, dropping nine dimes against just two turnovers. It included a beautiful low pass to Thompson that showcased Irving’s evolving passing skills.
“I feel this is the perfect time to be finding my rhythm especially on this road trip,” Irving said. “During the last few games just trying to be aggressive, living off the confidence my teammates are exuding to me, you know, just enjoying the game and getting a lot of extra reps.”
James had a solid but unspectacular night (24p, 9-18 FG 1-5 3s, 5r, 7a), other than an astounding dunk off an errant J.R. Smith backboard pass. He looked a little tired and his defense a bit off. But this dunk is spectacular.
One thing that came out during the game that wasn’t very encouraging was that the team STILL hasn’t learned all the plays. Lue complained about this more than two weeks ago, and it hasn’t improved, apparently.
“We’re trying to run plays on the floor and guys not knowing them still. That’s tough to swallow especially when you go over them every day and in shootaround, practices,” Lue said. “We need to start picking stuff up a lot faster.”
To be honest, we’ve all but given up hope for this team’s defense to improve more than incrementally (if at all) in its ability to play consistently. At least until the playoffs.
It’s not even that the team can’t play good defense – we’ve seen it. But they can’t maintain it long enough for us to not wonder if they aren’t implanted memories or something we dreamed.
When we say it’s bad, we’re not sure people appreciate how bad. Over the last 10 games opponents have shot 47.4%, 7th worst in the league during that period. The list of teams behind Cleveland are: Lakers, Magic, Wolves, Nets, Pelicans, Kings and just ahead of the Cavs, the 76ers. Not a playoff team in the bunch.
But hey, they’ll eventually turn it on, right? Right???
Certainly not last night when they continued to have the same problems they’ve had all year bottling up point guards. Obviously, much of this is related to Irving’s defensive difficulties, particularly with screens. On the below play, Irving attempts to go around the pick before Heurtas made his move. Instead he goes the other way, opening up a dunk for Julius Randle.
But Kyrie shouldn’t be singled out. The defensive rotations were slow or indifferent often throughout the night. Here Thompson watches the ball instead of the roll man, and the whole defense allows Tarik Black to stand and wait at the front of the rim for the Heurtas alley-oop. They actually ran this play twice, but Black fumbled away the first wide-open dunk attempt.
This inability to stop even a slow (but Delly-crafty) point guard from slicing them up like Freddie Krueger was responsible for the Lakers 54 points in the paint. That’s the same number of paint points the Wine and Gold allowed the Kings the night before. Suffice to say their interior defense is awful.
Part of the reason against the Kings was the size of DeMarcus Cousins and the absence of Timofey Mozgov, who was sick with some kind of virus. He came back last night, though he didn’t start, and was the only Cavalier who offered any kind of rim protection. His return to form is crucial to the Cavaliers defense, if it’s going to improve.
Lue said that Mozgov will typically start, but because of the absence of Kevin Love, Thompson got the start in a matchup-based decision.
“I want to start Timo but tonight was different because of the matchup and Kevin not playing,” Lue said. “We felt Tristan on Julius Randle was a better matchup than LeBron trying to guard the 4 with anyone else. So that’s what happened tonight.”
The other key to the defense seems to be the second squad. Whenever Iman Shumpert, Dellavedova and Thompson come in, they shut down the opponents. The key is supplying enough offense to that squad so it doesn’t become a scoring war of attrition.
Above you’ll see the individual defense of Cavs defenders last night. Smith, Shump, Mozgov, and Thompson did well, everyone else, not so much. Frye in particular got torched and so did LeBron, though mostly off some really great shots by Kobe, who finished with 26 on 11-18 shooting. Yeah, he was probably a little pumped up.
It’s taken some time, but the Cavaliers offense is really beginning to hit its stride. A lot of that seems to be Kyrie, whose scoring skills returned a lot quicker than others, like his court awareness and passing. Frye looks like he can be a real weapon on offense, though he doesn’t look much better than Love on defense. He’s longer, but not any tougher.
The defense is perhaps a lost cause for now. It was probably prophetic when we heard the Cavs new defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi say “our best defense is better offense.” It’s not complete bunk inasmuch as the more often the opponent has to take the ball out of the basket, the less likely they are to be able to push the ball in transition and take advantage of the team’s sometimes unfocused transition defense.
However, if you can score at will, there’s not much need for defense, and that really seems to be the Cavaliers stance right now. Sure, sure, it’s a work-in-progress, and let’s hope they are committed to that progress, because they won’t cakewalk through the Eastern Conference playoffs if they don’t do an almost complete 180 from how they’re playing defense now.
It’s great the offense is flowing, but come playoff time the defense will toughen. There won’t be so many open threes, and transition opportunities. We are just a little worried that the team will get frustrated when that happens and revert to their worst hero ball tendencies.
But those are all worries for another day. For the time being, the Cavaliers are chugging like an offensive juggernaut with a variety of weapons to make even Iron Man jealous.
They even seem to be having a good time out there, judging from the way the bench went wild for Frye’s shooting display and James’ sick dunk. There are still 18 regular season games left, plenty of time for the Cavs to get there, offensively, defensively and in camaraderie.
When the season ends, all these wins will look alike, and the real work will begin. Might as well enjoy the relative calm before the storm.
The Cavaliers have another road back-to-back Sunday and Monday, facing first the Los Angeles Clippers and then the Utah Jazz. We’ll be watching along with the broadcast, posting commentary, video and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read out postgame analysis on Monday morning. You can also hear us on the Defend Cleveland Show on WRUW-FM, 91.1 at 11 a.m. Monday morning.