Cavs Survive Knicks While Mulling First World Problems

A Renoir, a Picasso and a Gauguin go into a room, but where do you put them?

These are “First World” problems. That’s defined as the opposite of what the Browns have. The Cavaliers aren’t looking for offensive weapons, a defense, front office and coach. They’re trying to keep a tableful of talented ballers from going hungry on the meal that is the Cavaliers offense.

The return of Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving could not have come at a better time. They arrived over the last two weeks to give a shot in the arm to a Cavaliers team whose focus goes in and out like an alcoholic living above a liquor store. Needless to say, Coach Blatt’s having fun brewing the perfect cocktail, but we’d all be happier if the lineups congealed and the Cavs got down to serving their opponents.

Whatever the Cavs’ plan, it probably didn’t include a hard-fought contest against a Knicks team without Carmelo Anthony. Coach Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson’s Triangle offense are doing a respectable job (14-16 after the loss) in a very tough Eastern Conference. They’re 12th, sure, but only 3 games out of the playoffs with two-fifths of the season gone.

One of the keys for New York is the best three-point defense in the league, and the Cavaliers encountered that firsthand. After hitting four of their first six triples in one of their better first quarters of the year, the Cavs proceeded to miss fifteen of their next sixteen.

The team was a more respectable 19-45 inside the arc, and would’ve been better advised taking a few less threes, but when you have a habit, you feed it. (The Cavaliers are 7th in three-pointers, though they shoot a higher percentage, 36.1%, than every team ahead of them except the Warriors, who are shooting an absurd 42.3%.)

The team was 7-14 on 2s in the third, but 1-7 from three, and didn’t shoot a free throw all quarter. This helped the Knicks – who only shot two free throws themselves and two from beyond the arc (making them all) in the quarter – get back in the game. James missed his only took two shots, and Kyrie missed the shot he took.

They actually were actually moving the ball okay. Sixteen of their 19 first half field goals were assisted. They just weren’t making them.

“We had 23 assists on 32 field goals… and we only had eight turnovers,” said Coach David Blatt after the game. “We just didn’t make shots. We had a lot of looks that maybe we normally knock down.”

The shot charts in the second and third quarters bear this out. They got 20 of their 41 shots at the rim, and overall shot 35.7% in the middle quarters.

In the second quarter the Cavs had also shot 7-21, but got to the line 11 times knocking down 10 of them. The Knicks went to the line 14 times, half of those Derrick Williams, the former lottery pick, who was the focus of the Knick offense with Kristaps Porzingis for much of the second quarter. The 7-3 Porzingis had eight in each of the first two quarters and posed problems for the Cavaliers and Kevin Love.

Love is probably as close to 6’8” as he is his listed 6’10” and often seems to struggle with particularly long, athletic fours (Serge Ibaka, Draymond Green). At the end of the third, Love had 22 and Porzingis had 23.

You might say the match-up was a wash, but the truth was that outside Porzingas the Knicks didn’t have anyone to go to. (Despite that hot second, Derrick Williams played less than seven second half minutes taking but one shot.)

By sitting Love the first seven minutes of the fourth and playing James at the four with Thompson at center, the Cavs helped keep Porzingis from getting shots, and he never got a rhythm going. Knicks scoring mantle fell to Arron Affalo who took ten fourth quarter shots (making 4) to Porzingis’ one despite playing the same minutes.

The Cavs didn’t necessarily do anything in particular, just Thompson denying the ball out to the three line, which he can do because of his quickness.
After tying the game at 80 with 4:31 left on a Kevin Love free throw, the Cvas made three of their next four shots and a couple James free throws to outscore the Knicks 8-2 down the stretch and a six-point lead with 51 seconds left proved too much. This high flying slam by LeBron was the finishing move as he simply beat his man off the bounce and elevated for the exclamation point.
It was sweet redemption because up until that point the fourth quarter offense had reverted to the James Isolation Show. But he couldn’t finish against Williams and Porzingis, and did not draw the foul call despite a lot of physicality. (We’re doing a longer bit on LeBron’s failure to draw fouls that will be out after the holidays.)

This will be the toughest part of Blatt’s balancing act. While Love actually finished the game with a team high 77 touches, LeBron dominated the ball in the fourth quarter. Love took one shot in the fourth. It’s happened enough that it now goes uncommented, which is how it will remain so long as the Cavs close teams out. 

However it’s an open question whether the team can play enough like one in the fourth quarter and still have LeBron driving the lane every time down. There’s effective and there’s efficient. Yes it works, but we’ll damn sure believe a little diversity would help build better habits. Pretty soon Kyrie will be coming to supper as well, and he's doing to be hungry too. Keeping all three stars well situated with touches will be difficult. It will be more so when Kyrie starts to make shots. He was 1 for 7 from the field and looked tentative with the ball. (His handle was great, just looked indecisive.) It's clear finishing is going to take some time to shake rust off too. Maybe he will use the opportunity to hone some of his facilitation skills and alleviate the stress on the buffet line. Time will tell.

Shumpert for 3

No, we’re not talking about Iman Shumpert’s long-distance shooting but his use at the small forward spot. Much of his time in the fourth quarter came there with LeBron at the four and Thompson at center. This lineup is a defensive terror, depending on the guard play. Last night Blatt played Mo Williams with Matthew Dellavedova and Kyrie Irving. J.R. Smith, who had three steals last night, provides Blatt with lots of flexibility.

Last night Shump closed down Afflalo, who had scored eight of the Knicks’ 10 points until then. Afflalo had gotten the better of Iman on several of those hoops, but when it got down to the nittiest-grittiest, it was the Wine and Gold's eraserhead that won in a mano-a-mano post-up duel.

“It’s what the game’s about, the sword fight as I like to call it. Usually it’s on an island with a guard, but Afflalo’s a guy that prides himself on being strong on the low block,” Shumpert said, with a shake of his head like a wagging finger. “And I got the best of him tonight.”

We can imagine him putting Williams in with Irving for those times he wants more scoring, Smith for more spacing, and Delly for more defense. It’s only four games, but so far this season, Shumpert is holding opponents to 31% shooting, 12 points below their averages. It will be interesting to see if he can provide enough offense to stay on the floor as much as his defense dictates.

Shumpert is only a 34% career shooter from 3, and only a 43% shooter from inside the arc. He’s got a decent midrange jumper (40% career from 16’ to the line), but despite shooting 56% last year for Cleveland from 10’-16’, he doesn’t have much of an in-between game (33% career from there and 25% from 3’-10’). More than half his shots were 3s after the trade last year.

As James has said before, Shumpert has the ability to make an All-NBA defensive team. He showed it on two plays down the stretch against Afflalo that made a difference in the outcome.

Is There Defense for Love?

The long-standing complaint about Kevin Love is that he doesn’t play, but he’s been intermittently trying to change that since his arrival. It’s partly a choice and partly the fact that nobody wants the bear the LeBron Stare of Shame. (The glare that says, “Was that last effort worthy?”)

Love has really improved his defense in the past month, and against the Knicks saw time down the stretch in the Cavs’ otherwise toughest defensive lineup, with Delly, Shump, Thompson and James. That’d be a great lineup to close-out games with, and we’ll probably get the chance to see it on this road-trip with it’s pair of back-to-back road games.

Irving has been playing the beginning of quarters so Blatt won’t have to pull Delly at the end and potentially deeply compromise the defense. Meanwhile Love’s starting to turn things around after a rough start. While he’s only played nine games in December (versus 13 in Novemeber), you can see marked improvement, particularly inside and in the midrange areas.

Speed Trials

There wasn’t a lot to see of Timofey Mozgov, who only played about 14 minutes as Blatt tried out various different lineups. With Mozgov still rounding into form he isn’t the kind of offensive threat you utilize to brutalize small lineups. Not yet anyway. He is still a great cutter – as good as LeBron.

We talked in the last column about Mozgov’s speed. Last night against the Knicks he was moving very well, posting the best speed of anyone on the court, at 4.36 mph. We didn’t mention it last time, but part of the reason Mozgov shows so much speed is he plays baseline to baseline, grabbing rebounds and then getting out on the break harder than anyone else.

Mozgov finished with six points, four boards a block, and opponent shots at the rim on him went 1 for 5. For the season Mozgov is allowing 43.4% FG at the rim, just behind Draymond Green (43%) and tied with the Warriors’ Festus Ezeli. Rudy Gobert (36.2) and Serge Ibaka (38.7) set the standard.

Here’s to Tris

He didn’t generate much goodwill with his holdout, and he’s unlikely to ever be worth $82 million. He’s never going to improve enough offensively to move the needle out of the deep black, but he’s done just what the Cavaliers were looking for on the other side of the ledger.

Last night against the Knicks he was pure beast. The 24-year old had 14 offensive rebound opportunities because of his doggedness, and recovered half of them. Four came in the second half, bolstering an attack that only got 36 points. Those extra possessions were key, just like in the playoffs last year.

If you look at the stats, Thompson’s not the best at snaring his chance, that’s Kevin Love. When you adjust for the times Love allows someone else to grab an offensive board, he’s snaring 64% of his offensive rebounding opportunities, third in the league behind Orlando’s Nic Vucevic and Detroit’s Andre Drummond.

But few players create more opportunities than Thompson. Two years ago, Thompson was third in the league in offensive rebound opportunities/game (7.3) behind Drummond (7.8) and the Knicks’ Robin Lopez (7.4). Thompson did that in 32 minutes and is getting to the same number this year in four and a half less minutes.

He’s also dramatically improved his defensive rebounding, creating three and a half more opportunities a game than last year (11.5 to 8), and grabbing two more defensive rebounds (6.8 to 4.7). The team is +17 in net efficiency when on the floor (116 pts on offense, 99 on defense, per 100 possessions).

All that’s very nice, but that’s not what’s really really important.

What’s really really important is the mammoth leap Thompson’s made in protecting the rim so far this season. He’s just half a percentage points behind Mozgov and a full point behind Draymon Green, allowing 44% at the rim. That’s compares to 52.2% and 58.1% in years prior. Dramatic improvement like that is generally limited to stories featuring Henry Higgins and cockney flower girls.

Out of curiosity we checked how Tristan does in the pick-and-roll. Mind you – he’s only been in it 27 times, less than the Cav Most Likely To Be Exploited in PnR Situations, Kevin Love. Thompson is in the 83rd percentile allowing 0.70 points/play covering the roll man. Love is much much worse, allowing 1.21 points/play, putting him in the 19th percentile.

Thompson’s improved rebounding and rim protection, along with his strong pick and roll play, are the kind of things that can easily escape one’s notice, particularly given his offensive shortcomings. Truth is that while he’s overpaid, Thompson’s delivered everything he promised in last year’s playoffs and more. Thanks to his better defensive rebounding along with Kevin Love’s already great glass cleaning work, the Cavaliers are third in keeping opponents off the offensive glass behind the Spurs and Hornets.

LeBron Off the Ball

Another of the remarkable things about LeBron is his play off the ball. In basketball, most players need the ball a lot to be effective. Most don’t want or need other people to get them the ball. (In some sense, the remedy and cause for the decline in post players.) Just look at Kevin Love’s usage struggles.

However James is a different breed in so many ways, and one of them is that he can still be a great player while being very efficient. He doesn’t need a lot of touches to be effective as witnessed in this sequence. (It’s also what’s a little frustrating about the choice to pound the ball and be very LeBron-centric in the fourth. It just doesn’t seem necessary.)
The Cavaliers have been doing this a lot more frequently this year.’s deal with Synergy stats doesn’t include last year’s numbers but we can tell you that LeBron is getting almost two possessions a game this way.

His 49 possessions off of cuts is 33rd in the league, and his efficiency (1.37 pts/possession) is better than anyone above him except for DeAndre Jordan (67 possessions, 1.55 pts/possession). Just below him are Anthony Davis (48, 1.46), Jimmy Butler (46, 1.50) and Mozgov (46, 1.37).

“He’s a very good off-the ball player. LeBron’s so aware, Chris. He sees things people don’t see,” said Blatt after his presser. “He’s always one step ahead. That’s part of his brilliance.”

Final Analysis

The Cavs played hard down the stretch and in large part played good defense all game. Only 30 of the Knicks 82 shots were uncontested, and New York only made 10 of their 27 plays at the rim. This helped the Cavaliers maintain a 36-20 advantage in point-in-the-paint despite just 23 shots at the rim (the Cavs made 11).

They showed much better effort and focus in the first quarter than they have in recent weeks and that’s something to build on. They haven’t had a lot of consistency with all the injuries throwing off the rotations.

Blatt’s always been more of a feel guy anyway, and that’s probably played some role in the poor first halves. It’s just taking time for him to find the right mesh of players for the right times. Now that he’s unlocked that last row of crayolas, it’s time to stop coloring outside the lines and knock out some road victories.

The Christmas Day revenge matchup against the Warriors is followed the next night by a game in Portland and another back-to-back featuring Phoenix and Denver. The competition isn’t top drawer other than Golden State. The Wine and Gold’s biggest foe will be the travel. The thin air of Denver will be particularly grueling on the back-end of a back-to-back and the last game of the road trip.

It will be interesting to see if Blatt can keep them fit, focused and fighting for the entire trip.

We’ll be following along from home with you. Follow along with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read out analysis the day after the game in the Scene Blog.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.