Cavs Take Their Fight to the Warriors After Sweeping the Hawks

Friends, Cavs fans, bandwagon jumpers, lend me your hearts. I’ll rip them asunder. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m the tester of faith, Cruel Fate. God of inexplicable fumbles, boneheaded pitching decisions and improbable rolls. You’re perhaps familiar with my work?

Did you see me dancing with glee as they circled David Blatt in January, calling for his head like some Mayan sacrifice, a virgin coach. (“But I’m not a virgin, I tell you, I won lots of championships in Europe. You’ve heard of Europe, right?”)

Like a coven of bloodthirsty prep school kids or perhaps refugees from the DHARMA initiative, they circled with their strange, haunting chant: “Kill the Blatt. Save the season. Hire M-Jax.” I simply thought it was a time for a change.

I told the press (and their ministers) losing the team’s only legitimate center and a fellow in the conversation for Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) wasn’t a legitimate reason to lose games (and they believed it??). To people whose idea of lineup construction comes from Draft Kings, whether the soufflé had the chemistry to rise or the necessary ingredients to gel was beside the point.

My plans were thwarted when D-Grif dialed up a rag-tag trio of misfits straight out of Guardians of the Galaxy. He got a tree-like Russian who speaks something resembling English, a tattooed, cool as permafrost assassin, and a defensive destroyer who lives to take away others’ livelihoods.

These outcasts found a home and, when LeBron returned, rolled through the NBA like Aragorn’s army of the dead, sort of airborne piranhas eviscerating everything in sight for miles. (And the impact on property values? Can we talk?)

My coup d’etat went down a ditch, so I turned to a twisted leprechaun and asked him to give a twist. Yes, Love, Love is all you need.

Were that not enough – and it never is for me – I took out your expert assassin, J.R. “That’s Cooking With Gas” Smith for two games with a seldom-used reserve, like a Stratego Spy finding your Marshall. I even stepped on Kyrie Irving’s foot when he wasn’t looking, just for good measure. Not that anybody noticed in all the commotion.

But Kyrie came back and helped them take Game Two. So I kicked a little harder until I knew he was through, when he tried to come back, I pushed him, until he stepped on someone’s shoe. I even called in some heavy favors to bring home Rose’s prayer. Have you any idea what game-winning bank shots go for on the miracle market? I had to sell a Faberge Egg.

Still you denied me satisfaction, and from that moment on turned the game back on me. Like Popeye downing several cans of power-ups, the Cavs turned the Bulls into Italian Beef Au Jus.

So I called upon a ghostly Gillooley I know to lead-pipe Irving’s knee. To hell with the foot, let’s be done with this business. He didn’t Kerrigan the job this time, yet they took two on the road more decisively than the health department acting upon a tip about green eggs and ham.

But that wouldn’t stop the Cavs either. As you might imagine I was getting desperate. My friends on the TNT broadcast team clued me in to Al Horford’s history (see, T.J. Ford) and I got the Jolly Green Giant-looking dude tried to pull the sparkplug on Matthew Dellavedova with an Atomic Elbow only to have him get sent away like a common thug, further ensuring the incipient sweep.

Yes, the Cavaliers have thwarted me thus far, but as Clevelanders you know, I’m just around the corner. Only this time perhaps, even Cruel Fate isn’t enough to overcome the will of the King.

Lack of Experience & Missing Open 3s

Ever wonder why some narratives only belong to the Cavaliers?

While there was so much talk in the run-up to the playoffs about Cleveland’s lack of playoff experience, it was ultimately the Hawks whose throats tightened in the Conference Finals. Golden State has a similar lack though they haven’t shown the same weakness leading up to the playoffs, and of course they have the league’s Most Valuable Player. All the Hawks had was the league’s Coach of the Year and we know how much good that did them.

We wonder if the Hawks got shit stuck in the windpipe because they were sucking air on open jump shots all series long. Two particular stats really jumped out at us. The first is that the Hawks shot 23% on open 3s. This is a team that shot 38% during the season, second to only the Warriors.

We dove into those stats and found that much of the issue was on “open” jumpers where a defender is between 4’-6’ as opposed to “wide open” jumpers (6’+) on which they shot 30%. The difference makes us wonder if these are cases where a defender is closing out a shooter. Or perhaps the pressure of the moment got to them.

Whatever the case, the Cavaliers held the Hawks to 15.6% shooting on open 3s – with the Hawks getting more than 11/game. (They got 13 “wide-open” 3s a game, while the Cavs 13.3 open, making 43.5% and 9.8 wide open 3s, making 38.5%) The Cavaliers have hit 36% of their contested 3s, about 2 of 6 each game, while the Warriors, for example only shoot 21% on contested 3s in the playoffs.

Some of this Hawks cold shooting has to be the Cavaliers defense. They hit 30% of their open 3s during the rest of the playoffs. Worth noting that after LeBron’s return, the Cavaliers allowed the 5th lowest 3pt FG% in the league.

The other interesting related stat for the series is that the Hawks shot 3.5-16.5 (21%) on average on Catch & Shoot 3s during the series. They shot 36% the other dozen playoff games. All this seems to suggest the Cavaliers made it an active point to stop the Hawks from the 3-point line, but it also seems to suggest the Hawks did a lot of the damage themselves by not taking advantage of the opportunities the Cavs presented them. Without DeMarre Carroll (27%), Jeff Teague (28%), Paul Milsap (11%) or Kent Bazemore (22%) hitting their 3s, their offense ground to a halt.

Let it be known that the Cavs surrendered a high field goal percentage at the rim. The Hawks shot 68% from within 5’ during the series, which would best the Clippers by 3% and the Warriors by 5.5%, if extended across the entire playoffs. However because they’re getting a much lower percentage of their shots there, it’s not killing the Cavs. Cleveland only had ½ a shot less a game and one less basket – which they more than made up for with their hotthree-point shooting.

We’re not sure the Cavaliers defense is as good as the Hawks’ bad shooting made them look, but it’s not entirely out of the question either.

Atlanta Coach Mike Budenholzer, who all series-long hit the podium like an ad for Pepto Bismol waiting to happen — said it was a little of both. “I think Cleveland's defense was good the entire series. And I think we had some open looks that we would take again that we need to make to give ourselves and our offense to free some things up if we make some threes.”

For us, the fact that the Hawks were bounced in the first round the last three years points to a lack of experience on the big stage where Cavs players like Smith and James seem immune, and Thompson proved himself to be a clutch-time performer during the last two series as well.

A funny sidelight brought to us by some of our Israeli fans: During last year’s run with Maccabi Tel Aviv his defense approach was exactly the opposite. They were the league’s worst at defending the 3-pointer but the best at defending the basket. This obviously speaks to Blatt’s versatility.

Mozgov in Effect

One of the things that struck us during the game was how much time Coach Blatt gave to Timofey Mozgov. One couldn’t help but wonder if the 35 minutes they used him was any indication of how he might be used against Golden State. Naturally, Blatt was revealing no secrets in the postgame.

“Tristan has the ability to guard perimeter players as well, and we saw an advantage, and when we saw that it was working for us, we just played it, and we stayed with it,” said Blatt, implying Mozgov’s limited minutes during the series were part of the plan to stop the Hawks’ perimeter shooting.

“Tristan and Moz have been terrific together, and when they're playing together with J.J. or Bron at the four,” he continued. “Tonight they just, they dominated the rim, they dominated the glass, and they did it pointedly, you know, very, very specific, small areas of the game, and did a great, great job.”

We continued to notice ways that the Cavaliers were able to get open 3s even with Tristan and Mozgov on the floor together. Their ability to attack the rim off a pass or on a rebound forced the Hawks to sag into the lane, especially when LeBron had the ball in the post. But that left the perimeter open – thanks to James’ ability to find wrinkles in the coverage to pass through to the open player, as he does finding Shumpert for a three below.

Keeping Thompson and Mozgov near lane minimizes the Hawks ability to send big men to double James and clogs the lane, opening up the perimeter, provided James can find the openings as he did here.

Here a Kyrie drive left the space in front of the basket clogged but Thompson with a wide open baseline shot he nails. If he can make that consistently it makes the Cavs that much more dangerous because that will be open until the Cavs make opponents take it away.

Meanwhile on defense, Mozgov makes it very hard to get to the rim. Look here as Teague tries to score over him. Look for the Cavs to try and entice Curry into driving. He’s not as good at finishing as shooting 3s so it’s a good strategy, but will require Mozgov to stay out of foul trouble.

Here he is again challenging Milsap while doing a great job of remaining vertical with his arms, preventing a foul call.

As the series went on, Mozgov seemed to do better in space and with the quickness advantage Milsap and Horford had on him. He benefited from the fact that both have relatively slow releases and he seemed to figure out how far he needed to stay off to still be able to recover and contest them during the course of the series.

We’re just guessing but our sense is that the Cavaliers might try to use Mozgov more to take advantage of their rebounding advantage against Golden State. The Warrriors were a very middling team during the year at rebounding and keeping opponents off the offensive boards.

Doing this will also slow the game’s pace down, something the Cavs will be looking to do. They want the Warriors to get as much of their scoring out of the halfcourt as possible. By pounding the offensive boards it will be that much more difficult for the Warriors to run without giving up easy put backs underneath.

That said, we have a lot of respect for the Cavs game and their two stars Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. However we’d also say that if you can limit them, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut aren’t real offensive threats. If the Cavs can force someone other than the Splash brothers to beat them, you have to like their chances because we expect the Warriors to have a helluva time stopping a focused LeBron, especially if Kyrie is even 75% of his usual self.

Finally we wanted to apologize for the lateness the last couple days of these columns. Memorial Day found my editor out-of-pocket, so it didn’t get posted until Tuesday. Then yesterday we closed on a house in Rocky River, finished a cover story related to LeBron James to run next week while also making arrangements to buy a used car from out-of-state, and submit our credentials to the NBA, who decides coverage for the Finals as opposed to the home teams who handle the playoffs until now. Cross your fingers, because a verdict’s still pending, but we’re hoping to be covering the series from both Cleveland and Oakland next week.
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