Cavs Symon-ize Hawks Into Three-licious Smorgasbord

click to enlarge Cavs Symon-ize Hawks Into Three-licious Smorgasbord
J.R. Smith: Pied Piper of Aerial Mayhem
As the Cavaliers dismembered the Hawks, 123-98 demonstrating cold precision we might expect of Dexter or Hannibal, we imagined Johnny Carson reprising his Great Karnac act, holding an envelope to his head.

“Sony Pictures, Panama Law Firm Mossack Fonseca, and Bernie Madoff’s investors,” he utters, before opening it. “Name three things as pwned as the Atlanta Hawks.”

If things get any worse for the Hawks, they’ll find themselves locked in a pawn shop basement, clad head-to-toe in leather and answering to “the gimp.” They simply have no answer for the Cavaliers, who set an NBA record for three-pointers in a game with 25, breaking the old record of 23 held by the Warriors.

There was a light for Coach Budenholzer after Game One. He was upbeat. They’d taken the lead late in Game One, and seemed capable of competing. Last night he was beaten up. Coach Bud seemed as befuddled as Rick Grimes stumbling upon the Saviors or Elmer Fudd hunting wabbit.

Before the game, the Atlanta Coach was asked whether the media exaggerates the role of adjustments, downplaying the chess-match rubric.

“There’s more talked about it than there is in reality. Whether it be within the game or from game to game,” said Budenholzer during the pregame presser. “Coaches and teams and amazingly players, oftentimes will make adjustments in a game and between games, but it seems to be a big talking point every playoff series. I think the adjustments are very subtle. But subtle’s important.”

Think it’s safe to say that subtlety is right out for the Hawks. After Game 2 this looks less like a reno than a demo from the Hawks perspective. They should invest heavily in whatever tech Batman’s willing to sell them, because even kryptonite seems insufficient to stop the Cavaliers’ roll against them (now at nine straight games).

While the Cavaliers coach presser was mostly concerned with scribes wondering at the number of record-breaking threes the Cavaliers made, like a Louvre crowd bottlenecked around the Mona Lisa.

It’s an amazing picture – like the threes record – but there’s really a lot more to see here than that, and if you read most of the other coverage like we do, you might be sick of hearing about threes to the exclusion of everything else. (That’s us, providing an alternative.)

Unpacking the Threes

As Budenholzer implied in his pregame comments, teams generally have a gameplan that they’ve worked out based on the other team’s weaknesses. This would be strategy. Meanwhile most people get bivouacked in tactics – how they carry out the strategy. Tactics change, strategies are typically more durable. (But after last night…?)

The threes are essentially an outgrowth of the tactics executing the Hawks’ chosen strategy. They recognize the Cavaliers as a drive & dish team. The ability of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James to get by their men using pick-and-rolls (or just in the open floor) forces the Hawks to make some kind of concession.

Like the Pistons, the Hawks have chosen to seal up the lane and hope James and Irving can be coaxed into typically lower value midrange jump shots, or have other players beat them with jumpers. This is not going well, to put it mildly. For one thing, the Hawks lack a shot-blocker like Andre Drummond, so they must help.

The funny thing is that to some extent it did actually work. The Cavaliers were only 9-33 in shots at the rim for the game. (There did seem to be quite a few uncalled fouls.) Clearly there are limits to that strategy.

That help is getting exposed by the Cavaliers good ball movement. The Cavaliers aren’t averse to taking jump shots, but have been very good about making sure they are high value, by finding the open man. Here LeBron collapses the defense to find Kyrie in the corner.
The Cavaliers were certainly beating the Hawks this way, but it wasn’t so much about the halfcourt offense.

Much of it was about the team’s good defense and terrific transition offense. (We’ll get into the defense in a bit.)

What’s noteworthy from the jump is that they forced 10 Hawks first-half turnovers which they turned into 19 points. The Hawks had two points off three Cavalier turnovers. But it was more than just turnovers. The Cavs were running off of rebounds as well. Just pushing the pace.
“Our pace was amazing tonight; it started on the defensive end,” said Irving after the game. “We kind of made a conscious effort to get the rebounds. Like I said at the beginning it started with our defense, limiting them to one shot, one possession, and pushing the pace even if it was forced, but we had guys running the lanes and getting in position to shoot.”

Hawks Coach Bud noted first and foremost their issues in transition as a key for the Cavaliers threes. Love certainly benefited getting two of his threes that way.
“We need to be a lot better starting with our transition defense,” he said. “I think in transition we’re not doing a good enough job. We need greater urgency, greater understanding getting to all their shooters. I think it starts there.

“Then in the halfcourt I think they’re probably in the paint a lot, and we collapse when they get into the paint. People help. They’re moving the ball. They’re making the extra pass. They’re making shots,” he said. “Then the third piece. Several of them, including J.R. Smith, are hitting extremely difficult threes on top of those first two things.”

(Speaking of difficult threes: Calling the man of the hour, J.R. Smith, with his seventh and arguably hardest shot.)
The other issue – which hardly anybody talked about in either presser – was the job the Cavaliers did on the boards. Few noticed, but the Hawks beat the Cavs on the boards by five boards In Game 1, the entire advantage on the offensive glass.

That was an anomaly between the two teams (the Cavs beat them by 13 rebounds/game during the Conference Finals last year), and something the Cavaliers took care of last night. They beat the Hawks 26-17 on total boards and 9-4 on the offensive variety in the first half. (Game was over by halftime so….)

“Yeah in the first half that was something that we talked about,” said Coach Bud to our query about it. “And I think it was something, adding a fourth layer to their threes – when they got a few offensive rebounds and kick outs. We’ve got to take care of the boards. Take care of everything. There is a lot to take care of in a game like this.”

Pace Sells, But Who’s Buying?

There is a lot of talk about pace, but a lot of it is somewhat ill-conceived. Pushing the pace isn’t necessarily about running, though that’s part of it. It’s about getting into the offense quicker. That’s part too. But it’s also about dictating how the game should flow.

The Hawks want to push the pace too. On the board in their locker room before the game it was repeated three times. Below that were the words movement, variety, purpose and pace again. In some sense, pace is as simple as trying to play your kind of game.

We spoke to James Jones about it before the game and he put it rather poetically.

“Pace is relative to your team and personnel,” Jones said. “They like to move the ball. They like to move bodies. They have to play at a high clip to create triggers. We understand that and expect that they would try to come out and make it a faster paced game. That doesn’t mean you’re out of control that just means they want to get into their sets faster, and want to move with more momentum and more force. On the flipside we’re the same way.”

Transition is important because life gets very hard in the halfcourt.

“It’s tough to execute against the players in this league if you’re playing slow – just the athleticism, the recognition, the versatility. They can make it tough,” he says. “Basically you’re trying to outpace each other to the trigger – which means you’re trying to get to a compromising position for their defense faster than they’re trying to compromise your offense. It’s a race to see who can get to their strength faster.”

An interesting side-note about the pace: In the first half last night, the Cavaliers averaged 93.6 possessions per 48 minutes. That was the fastest pace since Game 2 versus the Pistons. What’s salient about that is that the Cavaliers made 20-38 threes in that game. Coincidence?

Don’t Call Me Jump, Shooter

One of the things we’ve complained/worried about over the year is the team’s tendency to shoot a lot of threes. We have constantly noted that there must be a balance between taking threes and finishing drives, if only to increase the number of foul-drawing opportunities.

Now given the team’s difficulty drawing fouls, we can sort of understand their hesitancy. (Not last night, however, as they drew ten first half free throws.)

(Side Note: One of the things Lue hasn’t gotten enough credit for is coaxing this team to play through the whistles and not get flustered when calls and/or momentum go against them. They’ve done a better and better job at this as the postseason has gone along.)

Of late, a lot of other reporters have seized on these concerns – strangely, just as we’ve become assuaged in them. As Lue has patiently explained through his tenure, there are good threes and bad threes (much like LeBron says there are good turnovers and bad turnovers).

There was a time when a substantial proportion of the threes the team took seemed somewhat forced. Perhaps they might have attacked the close-out, or swung the ball one more time. Not anymore.
Their offense is really finding guys with open threes a lot. Of the starters 55 shots, 29 were uncontested, and they made 17 of them (59%), while the team overall made 51% of their 45 uncontested shots. They were a sick 18-29 on catch and shoot 3s for the game, a 62.1% FG and a 93.1 eFG%. Eighteen of their 24 first-half buckets were assisted.
LeBron calmed anyone that might’ve worried the team had fallen too in love with the three in the postgame presser. He bristled at the description of the team as a 3-point shooting team.

“I don’t think that’s us. Obviously we got guys that can knock down shots from the perimeter, and it’s been key to our success, but we need to continue to understand, that we have to be very balanced offensively. Tonight was just a byproduct,” James said.

“If you look at a lot of the threes that were made and that were taken, the ball was getting into the paint first and then it was spraying out,” he continued. “We’re not a three point shooting team and we don’t want to be labeled that, we’re a well balanced team that’s capable of making threes. We have guys, we have designated snipers, if we need it.”

The Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd then asked about Golden State taking away the stigma of being a jump shooting team. Again, James denied that's what they were. (Implicit in that is the idea that this is what Atlanta chose to give Cleveland.)

“Our league is PG driven and I think the Golden State Warriors have kind of reshaped the league in that they’ve been able to shoot the ball so well and they have so many multiple pieces,” he said. “I think we’re getting lost in the translation with calling Golden State a jump shooting team. What gets lost is their ability to have multiple guys on the floor able to do multiple things. Their personnel fits.

“For us we don’t want to be a one-base team, we don’t want to be a jump-shooting team. We don’t want to be a paint team. We want to be well-balanced,” James said. “I always look at the football analogy. When you have a well balanced offense running and passing it can free up a lot of things. That's what our team is about.”


The Best Defense… Is a Good Defense

While there were as many things that went well for the Cavs as Budenholzer suggested went wrong, and they aren’t unrelated. But for our money, the thing that most impressed us most was the energy and intensity of the defense.

The Hawks were 11-32 (34%) in the first half, and the success on defense fed into the offense, both in the transition hoops and the free-flowing energy of the players on the floor. It’s gotta be an infectious feeling crushing the life out of a team.

We collected these three clips as examples of the fervor the Wine and Gold defense.
In the first one Teague gets a floater but not before Irving handles Millsap on a switch, with the help of Wildman Kevin Love, who not only has his hands up but leaps and almost intercepts the ball. The next one shows Love doing a fine job contesting Horford’s reverse layup. Though undersized compared to Horford, Love’s done a fine job with the matchup, allowing Thompson to focus on Millsap.

The third and fourth plays show a great falling out of bounds steal by J.R. Smith and great scrambling effort by the defense to stifle Schroder, who eventually has the ball stolen by LeBron James. The final clip shows Richard Jefferson fighting through a screen and drawing an offensive foul on Paul Millsap.

The way Jefferson has played on both sides of the ball has been a revelation, on top of the fact that he’s a first class professional, great quote and all-around nice guy. (RJ finished with 8 and made all three of his shots and had three assist.) He’s also one of the team’s best decision-makers, seemingly always making the right call on attacking a close-out or taking the three, and finishing strong at the rack.

Final Analysis

It is only one game, but Sgt. Pepper’s only one album, and it’s magnificent. If this game had come out of nowhere we wouldn’t be nearly as giddy. However it feels very much like the culmination of a trajectory that began when LeBron inaugurated playoff mode early, a couple weeks before the end of the season.

It was hard to have too much faith in the positive signs bubbling to the surface in early April, but the way the team’s played against the Pistons and Hawks so far vindicates those developments.

The team’s three point shooting is in fine shape led by Kyrie Irving, who’s shooting over 52% (23-44) from beyond the boundary during the post-season. His outside shooting is forcing teams to press him on the perimeter, which opens up penetration. He’s done an excellent job of balancing midrange jumpers, drives and assists. He's dropped 33 dimes through six games against just 9 turnovers.

We suspect that teams will have to take away the three going forward, or at least make more of an attempt, beginning with the Hawks. They really have no choice. That other strategy about packing the paint is pretty much shot to shit by now.

“Now we have to prepare for them to run us off the line in game 3,” Irving said afterwards.

LeBron’s words reinforce our sense that this team has figured itself out. It’s got a feel for how to play together, and understands the pitfalls of lackadaisical halfcourt or transition D, and the peril of settling for jumpers. It’s still going to be about executing, but to watch a team put together such a complete game, and stay focused throughout was tremendously encouraging. 

The play of the bench, and particularly the second squad, with Delly, Shump, Lebron, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye has been spectacular. Frye in particular continues to surprise. He made two tremendous finishes around the hoop, and appears more than capable to backup Thompson and provide a dangerous option for surrounding LeBron with four shooters.

“They’re obviously a team that’s put together very well and we’ll have to be very good to change it,” said Budenholzer.

We just don’t think they could possibly be that good.

The Cavaliers play again Friday in Atlanta. We’ll be there live, posting video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis here on the Scene & Heard blog Saturday morning. You can also hear us this Thursday afternoon around 2:25 on WAKR 1590, talking about the game with Sam Bourquin.
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