If you haven’t read the reports, Kevin Love credited his Sunday’s second half breakout of the Cavaliers 101-97 victory over the Pacers to a talk with LeBron James. That conversation’s been spun in a variety of ways from scolding to pep talk, but the important thing, as more than one scribe’s pointed out, is that they’re communicating.
There’s a wonderful old line, “intelligence recognizes genius,” which implies a certain deference. That’s how Kevin Love played last year. He tried to fit in and accord everyone their space. This was Kyrie’s city and LeBron’s team. They handled the ball, and Love essentially was resigned to the being the spacer on the end.
That’s a long fall for an Alpha Dog and one he had to suck up for the sake of winning chemistry. In the end the question of how the three would co-exist in the playoffs sort of solved itself in the worst possible way. With Kyrie back, Love has a chance to get some real chemistry with LeBron in a way that wasn’t possible before. (How that survives Kyrie’s return is a question for another day.)
While it’s hard not to be encouraged by Love’s 19-point second half outburst against the Pacers, let’s not act like we haven’t seen this episode before. According to Love, he impressed to LeBron his interest in getting the ball inside where he could get a few easier buckets to get his outside shooting going.
LeBron told Love, “If he would just getting his motor going offensively the ball would start to go in for him.” He told him to earn it, which he did.
“It started with him and trickled down to everybody else,” said Love, explaining how the ecosystem works.
You might remember how last year during stretches of the season, the early first quarter would be dedicated to getting Love going in the post. There would be plays and post-ups for him in the early going. It just seems to be difficult for him to get going sometimes, and sometimes he seems to get frustrated with mental mistakes/his misses/whatever and lose focus.
It certainly doesn’t help being used often as a stand-still shooter last year. Standing at the line almost demands a sort of passivity which can bleed over. Love wound up watching and getting disengaged offensively which bled over to his defense. Luckily his defense has been pretty good this year (provided your expectations are suitably grounded in the reality of Love physical body type & gifts).
He’s answer that challenge to some extent this year by getting sleeker in the process of working on his lower body after his shoulder injury limited his upper body work. This will presumably make him a bit quicker and more able to put the rock on the deck and drive to the basket, either taking it to the hole or using the drive to establish post-up position, and not simply be a stand up shooter.
Last year LeBron told the press that if Love wanted the ball in the post he needed to demand it. That disregarded the obvious differences in stature, especially for the presumptive third wheel, Love. However now that he’s the Beta Dog, Love clearly felt a little more room to demand what he needs to get going. Would he have done that if Mo Williams had not struggled all first half, or better, if Kyrie were back?
Yet getting Love the ball does seem to be a part of Blatt’s approach, and he even tried to play matchmaker, noting that the inbounds play that led to a Kevin Love backdoor layup with 33 seconds left was LeBron’s idea. It sealed the game.
When first presented to James, he denied it was his idea, not wanting to step on Blatt’s toes, until he realized the inference that James told the coach to call Kevin’s number. This is a somewhat different proposition (in the press’ eyes) than telling the coach to call his own number (after a particularly crappy shooting night in Chicago).
One of the many extraordinary things about LeBron is his efficiency. He’s averaging around 62 a game, but hasn’t led the team in touches this year. (Mo Williams three times, Delly twice, Love twice.) We mention that to draw attention to Love receiving 88 touches yesterday, even eclipsing the 79 he got against Miami. Friday at home against the 76ers he had 70. LeBron hasn’t reached 70 all year.
Sure Williams has surpassed ninety touches three times, but he’s running the offense and bringing the ball up the court. For Love to touch the ball so frequently definitely is part of an orchestrated approach. Who knows what happens when Kyrie returns, but it certainly behooves the team to build the Bron/Love chemistry and keep that sweet-stroking refugee from Boogie Nights well employed.
Back to the Game
Love's defense has been improving for the last eighteen months so it seems unfair to say something like, “he’s gotten better” or “he's showing real effort” because this has been an ongoing process. Last year he candidly admitted that he wasn’t a good defensive player and had to get better. He’s not physically imposing or a big shot-blocker but he has quick hands, knows how to play position defense and is a great rebounder and outlet passer.
Yesterday he even turned it up another notch. While all year he’s been able to get just as many rebounds chances (within 3.5’ of ball) as Thompson, it’s required the 6-12 more minutes a night he plays. Last night Love was around 31 rebounds – more than Thompson season-high of 22 against the Knicks and his own season-high of 24 against the Bulls. He got after it.
It was a tough first half for Love in which he missed a layup and made a couple of turnovers. He was 1-6 in the first half with 3 points and 7 boards in 18 minutes. It wasn’t a terrible half. He did a decent job defending Jordan Hill, though, c’mon. Jordan Hill??
In the second half, Love was much better going 8-12 with a dozen rebounds, three of them offensive, and three blocked shots. Note that he only took 2 three-pointers and got most of his baskets being around the basket on drives or making his own cuts to the hoop. NOT by standing around. Here are his second half highlights.
But for all the talk about Love, it was LeBron who still carried the team down the stretch. When the Cavs relinquished the lead 90-88 it was James who repeatedly went to the hole and drew fouls, making five of six free throws down the stretch, and missing seven of his last nine shots of the final 18 minutes of the game.
During that same stretch Love was 6-7, so the commentary about Love saving the Cavs wasn’t completely off-base. But in the final three minutes down by two points, it was LeBron James. Again and again and again.
While we’re with the confidence of their Wine and Gold leader, we hope that this kind of attack diversifies more when all the weapons are present.
Dellavedova to Thompson
This duo is responsible for at least two buckets every game, which is a little absurd given their mostly limited offensive skills. However the pair’s timing on the alley-oop is impeccable and it’s causing problem for other teams.
Let’s note first that the biggest problems the two offer are defensive. Most teams don’t have bench defenders with as much aggression and energy. When they play with Anderson Varejao the defense is often suffocating.
However, that wouldn’t mean a thing if the team couldn’t score, and during much of the preseason the bench looked completely overmatched on the offensive side. The return of Tristan Thompson has surprisingly changed that.
Having this pick and roll play in your back pocket, alongside Delly’s much improved “floater”/mid-range off the bounce game has given the Cavaliers a strong option offensively for the second team. Their skills mesh very well with shooters like Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams on the wing. (Indeed that TT/Love/RJ/Delly/Mo lineup was key in the fourth quarter against the Pacers.)
In order to stop this play, opponents have been pinching into the lane to hopefully clog it enough to limit Thompson. It has only intermittently worked.
But the Cavaliers are already prepared for this and have been working on the counter, which they ran the very next time down the court.
According to NBA.com’s stats, Thompson has 11 of the team’s 15 alley-oop dunks this year. He’s in the 98th percentile as a pick-and-roll’s roll man, averaging 1.5 points/play, while Timofey Mozgov has a very respectable 1.17 points/play and 77th percentile.
The sad part is that the Cavs ballhandlers have done poorly (they miss Kyrie) from MoWill (36th percentile) to James (31st) to Delly (17th). When the ball doesn’t go to the roll guy the results just aren’t very good. The Cavaliers are 29th in league (0.60 pts/play) for the pick-and-roll ballhandler. It’s that none of the current players are good finishers nor are they really going to pull up and drill a jumper.
The Cavs are much better with post-up where they rank fourth (1.02 pts/play), isolation (tied for 7th, .95), off screens (tied 4th, 1.06) or transition (3rd, 1.24). They’re more middle of the pack off of cuts (15th, 1.17).
Overall the Wine and Gold are benefiting from this tour of some of the league’s weaker sisters, allowing time for Blatt to get his rotations in order and his guys focused. That comes to an end this weekend with the second night of back-to-back road game in Milwaukee with a return matchup Thursday, the Hawks on Saturday, and road gamesin Toronto and Charlotte Wednesday and Friday.
We’ll be at the Q Tuesday for the game against Utah. They’ve assembled some good young talent in the lottery the past few years and seem poised to make a playoff run for the first time in years. They’ve won four of their first six and their frontline of Rudy Gobert, Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward is very good. They’re just lacking guard play.
You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our analysis (sometime) the day after a game. Look for us tweeting live from Madison Square Garden on Friday and Detroit on next Tuesday.