Cavs Struggle To Break Bad Habits, Pacers' Will

click to enlarge LeBron cashes a turnover with authority that was sometimes missing from Cavs' efforts.
LeBron cashes a turnover with authority that was sometimes missing from Cavs' efforts.
The footlights came up at the NBA Playoffs and Cleveland did its act, but it didn’t slay. The Cavs ran through their best material and it scored to design, but the Cavalier defensive nonchalance showed up as well like nose hair-wilting halitosis. Those weren’t tears of joy streaming down the faces of Cavalier fans after Saturday’s 109-108 victory over the Pacers.

The much-lauded playoff switch more resembled the step-up of a three-way lamp than The Fast and The Furious nitrous shots. There was greater effort and intensity on defense, but also that familiar languor as the Wine and Gold blew a 9-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. The Big Three had posted 62 points and Cleveland shot 60% from the field through three quarters, but then shot went 6-19 in the last stanza including 3-15 by the starters.

Meanwhile Lance Stephenson was in the process of outscoring everyone in the fourth quarter (eight points) before clanking a perhaps ill-considered three-pointer with 1:38 left. Up three, the Cavs proceeded to miss a free throw (3-6 from the line in fourth, 14-27 for the game), turn the ball over and have a layup blocked before a George three-pointer pulled Indiana within one.

In a near exact replay of Detroit last year, James took an ill-advised fall-away three, only to miss and provide the Pacers with an opportunity to steal a win. However, unlike in Utah where Joe Johnson pushed the ball and Quinn Snyder took a timeout, Pacers coach Nate McMillan took a timeout to set up a final play.

The Cavs trapped Paul George deep in the frontcourt – which ne noted was weird in the postgame presser because there were still 20 seconds on the clock. CJ Miles, who is a great standstill, catch & shoot guy (41%, 43 on 3s) received the ball with the Cavs sort of playing a three-deep zone.

Oddly, George threw to his left rather than to the side with two offensive players (center Myles and point guard Jeff Teague) with Thompson guarding them. James had left that side, but Jefferson slid over to cover for him, and George just threw to the side the double was coming from rather than actually surveying the scene. While George ran toward Miles to get the ball back, he’d already pump-faked Richard Jefferson and secured a pull-up 14’ jumper which he short-armed.

It was an open shot, but George was frustrated after the game that he didn’t get the final shot clearly failing to realize he threw the (bounce!) pass to Miles with 5 seconds on the clock. How was he supposed to confidently return it after catching it with 4.5 seconds left? (George, incidentally, is 0-15 on go-ahead shots the past six years. Guess he felt due.)

Miles (2-6, 5 pts) only shoots 37% on pull-up jumpers (48% on twos) but 44% when he takes two dribbles. Oddly, Miles is shooting 44% when tightly guarded (defender 2’-4’ away) only 26% when open (defender 4’-6’ away). During the season he was 9-18 from that spot on the floor.

Suffice to say, by any objective measure, Pacers had a decent shot (37%-45% likelihood?) at stealing a win from Cleveland on their home court. But the defending champs were typically nonplussed. “It is what it is,” LeBron James told the media. “The coaches gave us a great gameplan: Take the ball out of PG's hands and live with the results.”

Of course, as he told Rachel Nichols after the game, “a win is a win,” there aren’t any style points involved. He promised they’d improve on the missed assignments and bad communication that clearly plagued the defense at times, suggesting that they would continue to improve as the playoffs rolled along. The Pacers were undoubtedly making the exact same plea in the opposite locker room, and they certainly had their own adjustments to make (such as the first half switches that found Teague frequently matched up on the six inch taller James.)

If there was ever any question whether Cleveland’s occasional lapses of focus and subsequent lack of ball movement or defensive effort would carry over into the playoffs, it’s answered. The Cavaliers aren’t Eliza Doolittle and won’t fix their tortured defensive syntax or hero-ball predilections overnight or with the flip of a switch.

The victory was James’ record-tying twelfth straight win to open the playoffs (also 18 straight first round wins), but clearly isn’t going to strike fear into the hearts of opponents.

Indeed, their recent predilection for blowing big leads could have their foes salivating. Just three teams in NBA history have blown a 26-point fourth quarter lead as the Cavs did against the Hawks the final week of the season. Allowing the Pacers to take the lead with an 11-0 run beginning with seven minutes left in the game only amplifies the feeling that the Cavaliers lack killer instinct.

If Hollywood has taught us anything over the years, it’s to make sure your opponent is well and truly dead.

ISO-rific Second Half

The Cavaliers finished with 26 assists and a whopping 16 screen assists, including one by every player on the team. (Only five Pacers had screen assists.) The team had good ball movement in spurts, but often got bogged down exploiting matchups. This isn’t truly an either or situation – you want to do both – with the Cavaliers preferring to leave the ISO ball for the last half of the last quarter. Ideally.

In the second half, the Cavaliers started taking advantage of Indiana’s switching, specifically seeking out Teague (15 pts, 4 assists). While this was pretty successful in isolation (so to speak) it didn’t much help the offense, which scored only 43 second half points after scoring at least 32 each of the first two quarters. And it wasn’t just LeBron. The Cavaliers used Love to exploit Teague as well.
The big disadvantage of ISO with regards to the Cavaliers is that it tends to marginalize the supporting cast, who made need to hit a big shot down the stretch but could be cold, make it easier on defense which knows what's coming, and more importantly, it tends to slow the pace to a crawl.

That’s not how the Cavaliers want to play. To whit, the first half featured a pace of 99 (possessions/team/game), while the second half dropped to 82 and 79 in the fourth quarter alone. When the pace slows, the ball tends to stop for the Cavaliers, and in the fourth that lead to 6-19 shooting, including 2-7 from LeBron and 1-5 from Irving.

The Cavaliers took a nine-point lead with under seven minutes left when Channing Frye (11 pts, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) hit a three off this possession which featured five passes.
The Cavaliers would make that many (post-halfcourt) passes the next six possessions as their lead evaporated in a series of missed layups by the Cavaliers and point blank scored the other way during an 11-0 Pacers run. The Cavaliers held on, but the finish hardly inspired confidence. Irving and James rather dominated the ball the entire second half, taking 26 of the team’s 37 shots including 15 of 19 in the third quarter when the offensive rigor mortis started to set in.

Kyrie (11-27 FG, 1-9 3pt, 23 pts, 6 assists, 2 steals) continues to be a maddening player, playing some incredibly lazy defense – as on this Teague blow by just dribbling the ball into the frontcourt – while scrapping hard at other times. (Old habits die hard.) Indeed, he made one of the key plays of the game, stealing the ball from Myles Turner (11 pts, 8 reb, 4 stls) with 65 seconds left. (Turner came back and blocked Irving’s layup attempt.)
His on/off effort is emblematic of the Cavaliers. It’s clearly who they are, and we just have to hope that their thrill-seeking behavior continues to stop short of disaster. It makes the crowd “oooh” and “ahhh” but it’s exhausting.

Curious George

Paul George finished a very efficient 29 points on 19 shots. He was 6-8 from behind the arc, most of those coming in transition. He was only 9-19, which means he only made three shots inside the arc. The Cavaliers did this by playing the game much as they did the final play: Make someone else beat you. The problem being that you only have so much control of that.

The Cavaliers did not, notably, play James on George for much of the night, frequently on the less dangerous Miles or Stephenson. Instead they trapped the pin-down screens and blitzed his pick-and-rolls, daring him to give the ball up. It befuddled the Pacers initially, though they found other ways to get him open, whether that was moving the screens to the center (the Cavs countered by starting to switch the screens) or having him slip the screen.
It also  may have in some sense helped the Pacers by forcing them to move the ball, which they did pretty effectively early on. The Cavaliers struggled on the interior, as the Pacers made lots of nifty passes to find cutters and feed guys near the basket.
Lance Stephenson (8-13 FG, 16 pts, 7 boards, 3 assists) really helped the Pacers situation by getting into the lane and making things happen. He was 4-6 in the final quarter, and led all scorers with 8 points. The way he played on both ends suggests he’ll get the start on Monday. “Born Ready” played the entire fourth quarter (despite only joining the Pacers about two weeks ago). The Cavs got beaten in the paint 22-14 in the second half and 10-4 in the fourth quarter. It bears watching.

Hack-A-Tristan On Tap?

Tristan’s sprained right thumb got a work out yesterday, illustrating how difficult this is going to be for the burly Canadian. At one point he had his thumb thwacked by LeBron James as James blocked a drive, smacking him right in the thumb. Such inadvertent mishaps are bound to reoccurs inside, leading to the intuition, that Thompson won't be right until the season's over. That's sort of chilling.
It’s unclear whether it was the matchups or the injury, but Thompson played just four-and-a-half minutes of the fourth, with Channing Frye replacing him in the middle because of his ability to stretch the floor. Of course, the issue is that Frye just isn’t that great at defense, and this can be an issue late.
However, Lue seems well-informed to take this tack because Thompson’s free throw is broken with the bad thumb. He’s shot five free throws since the injury, and it is U-G-L-Y. There’s no spin and the arc is for shit. It’s to the point where it would seem he has to seriously consider shooting them left-handed. (Thompson entered the league as a lefty before switching to his right after his second season.) He’s a poor FT shooter, but these aren’t even close.
Thompson had three of his four baskets and five of his thirteen rebounds (including three of his six offensive boards) in the first quarter. He is sort of a crucial part of the team’s first half offense because he’s able to work with Kyrie in the Pick-and-Roll in ways the bend opponents’ defenses.

Below, you’ll see Turner hang back to prevent the Thompson alley-oop, and Irving hits the floater. Next play Turner stops Kyrie who feeds Tristan the oop. Finally, the fact that teams slough off him can even work to one’s advantage as TT sets a backside screen that prevents the Pacers weakside help D from recovering to Richard Jefferson in the corner after LeBron James found him with a crosscourt pass.
His play is important and the fact he only played 13 second half minutes (Channing had 11) might explain the Pacers’ 20-16 edge on the boards, including 7 of the 18 available offensive boards. It didn’t help either that Love and James combined for three second half rebounds, while four Pacers had at least that many.

So What Does It All Mean?

The temptation is to say “42” but it may not even be that cut-and-dry. The Pacers aren’t a great team, though you’ll hear that delusion a bit on Twitter. They’re 26th defending the pick-and-roll, and they’re 16th overall. (The Cavs finished 22nd). They’re just as middle-of-the-road offensively (15th).

Indiana is basically bottom-rung playoff caliber, it’s just that the Cavaliers are making them look good with poor defense and indifferent focus. As many have noted, they make a reasonable number of free throws, or Kyrie makes a typical number of threes, and this isn’t a game. But that neglects to acknowledge that Cleveland isn’t a good free throw shooting team (23rd) or that Cleveland starts to disrespect the game when they get a lead as their shot selection and ball movement die like an aging replicant.

If the Cavaliers once evoked fear with their standard of play and general three-point prowess, they’ve been demystified. From blowing that lead to the Hawks to the Pacers’ performance, the mystique is dead. “We knew we could go toe-to-toe with them,” George said. “We challenged them the last time we were here [losing in135-130 in double-overtime early this month].”

The defense is ordinary at best, and coaches have to be telling their players – “just hang in there, they’ll eventually grow bored and let you back into the game.” Nor are we particularly impressed with James calling it “a great start for us,” or Irving who downplayed their poor play with something that sounded like: “mistakes were made.”

“I understand there are some mistakes that happen throughout the game,” Irving said. “The regular season didn’t end the way we wanted to. It’s just a step in the right direction.”

Well, that’s the Cavaliers low bar. They won. Why would they worry? Wish we could share their optimism, but Monday’s another game, we’ll see how they do. They have more talent than anyone in the Eastern Conference, but they've still yet to prove they can unlock it for more than a quarter at a time.

As we noted, James has won his last 18 first round series games, so this is clearly just an appetizer, but anyone hoping for that playoff je-ne-sais-quoi is left with a bit too much “comme ci, comme ça,” which isn’t exactly French for victory.

Want to take this opportunity to flog my book about last year’s championship, King James Brings The Land a Crown. Visit the site, you’ll find quotes from Mike Fratello, Ken Carmen, Michael Reghi, Brad Daugherty and others, as well as glowing reviews. We’ll be at the Ashland University and Kent State campus bookstores signing copies of the book Tuesday 1 to 3pm and Wednesday from noon to 2pm respectively. (We’ll be at Cleveland State and Oberlin College the week after.) We’ll also be on the Defend Cleveland Show with Michael James as we are every Monday at 11am on WRUW 91.1.

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