The Brooklyn Nets went after their championship with the guile and foresight of drunk freshmen at Spring Break in Daytona. Is it any wonder they woke up half-naked, missing their wallet and with a tattoo of beloved Saturday morning cartoon characters performing unmentionable acts illegal in several states?
Injuries sapped the whatever top-room Brook Lopez and Deron Williams had on their potential, while Pierce and Garnett were sold “as is” by Danny Ainge, who kept checking his watch the entire transaction. No one had witnessed anything this harebrained since someone had Jimi Hendrix open for the Monkees.
Now they exist in purgatory – not bad-bad like tank-jobbers Knicks and Sixers or even the directionless Magic. But they aren’t anything resembling a playoff team, even in the East. So obviously it was a little alarming when the Nets jumped out to a 16-7 lead going into the mandated TV timeout at the midway point in the first quarter.
Despite really lackadaisical defense Blatt didn’t call a timeout, waiting for the TV one. Out of the timeout, the Nets scored four more to take a 20-7 lead with just over five minutes left in the first. That’s about how long it took the team to get its legs beneath them after a 8-day road trip.
From that point forward the Cavaliers outscored the Nets 110-72. The game was won – to the extent that it was even losable – by the supporting players. James didn’t make his first basket until midway through the second quarter but had seven assists. Kyrie was looking to pass more than score, and for the first time this year had as many assists (10) as shots.
But the real stars of the game were J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov. Smith broke a 28-all tie with the first of three consecutive threes the next four possessions, all assisted by Lebron James. Truth be told, some credit must go to the shitty Nets D which collapsed on James drive leaving Smith wide-open 3s to get him going.. In 90 seconds, it went from a tie game to a nine-point Cavs lead.
At half the lead was 12 and it expanded as the Cavs lit up the Nets on the pick & roll. Irving and Moz-illa were cruising. It all began with this falling down feed to the Russian Thor, who brought down thunder. This goes out to everyone who doesn’t believe Mozgov can catch a pass below his shoulders let alone his knees. If this kid’s hands improve like this suggests they can, opponents better stand-back-or-be-posterized.
Blackboard Jungle Turned Into Parking Lot
We like to break down the games with video and pictures, but this seems an increasingly fruitless task like having Dan Rafael breakdown the legendary matchup between notorious Napoleonic douche Danzig and the North Side Kings, a band he screwed over. (Maybe Daniel Tosh can offer Danzig a Web Redemption help him beat up an inflatable clown or something.). .
ESPN ran a graphic last night to the effect that over some unspecified period of time, the Cavaliers had played around 375 minutes with a double-digit lead. The other best teams in the NBA were bunched up around 200. That confirms the eye-test. This team is absolutely crushing their opponents at an unprecedented rate.
You’ve probably that they have the best record in the league since mid-January. What’s extraordinary is that they’re outplaying teams with significantly more experience playing together. It took a trade and LeBron coming back from his nagging injuries fully healthy and – let’s speak honest – fully engaged. That necessarily filtered down to the rest of the team. But the speed with which it did is remarkable and emblematic of how much talent this team has.
When they’re focused in, it’s like hardly anyone comes close. Of all the basketball we’ve consumed in our life, the way this team’s played rivals the 85-86 Celtics, the 2000-2001 Lakers and could potentially equal the gold standard, 95-96 Chicago Bulls. The only more dominant sport team we’ve ever witnessed was that ’98 Yankee team. Don’t believe me? (Don’t worry, I won’t say it.)
If you just take since the All-Star break, the Cavs have the second best point-differential per 100 possessions at +10.3. (The white-hot Jazz are +11.1 and anyone who was taken the Jazz against the spread for the past month is probably a lot richer.) The Warriors trail at +9.3, followed by the Pacers (+6.6), the Spurs (+5.6), and Clippers (+4.7).
They’ve posted the second-best record during that time (11-4) behind the Warriors (12-4), despite playing 11 of those 14 games on the road and sitting each of the Big 3 one or two games during the stretch. (Three of the four losses occurred with one or two of Irving, Love and James sitting.) Even with one arm tied behind their back they’ve been able to bitch-slap the rest of the league into submission.
We’d love to show you how the Cavaliers are doing it, but what’s the point? Everyone knows how a wood-chipper works.
This Team of Ours
Everyone is humming at a pretty good pace. J.R. Smith certainly had it going last night. But in general, he’s been hot shooting 43% from 3 since the All-Star break. Indeed all four starters (obviously outside Mozgov), have all shot over 40% from 3 since the break. Ponder on that and that fact that 11 of those 15 games have been on the road.
Also, LeBron James FG% which dipped to 48% in February after shooting over 50% during his two weeks in January, is back up to 50% since the break. LeBron has also cut his turnovers, getting them down to 3.3 this month down from 4.2 before the break and 5.5 in February. .
During this stretch both Love (7.8 DRB) and James (5.4) have been hitting the defensive boards producing 13 boards between them. That’s important because Tristan Thompson (4.5 gm/yr) and Timofey Mozgov (4.9 gm/yr) aren’t always the best defensive rebounders.
If you watch the games you know that Iman Shumpert has been an absolute defensive BEAST. Since Febraury, Shumpert is 15th in Steals/per 48 minutes (1.4 steals in about 24 mpg) among main rotation players better than Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
Meanwhile Kyrie seems to have discovered the ability to turn it on when he needs most of the time. In the last few weeks he’s started to become incredibly efficient offensively. He’s picking his spots in the flow of the offense instead of by controlling several possessions in a row. Since the break he’s converting six free throws a game, fifth in the league behind Westbrook, Harden, Cousins and Isaiah Thomas.
Prior to LeBron’s January 13 return, Kyrie was taking 35% of his shots either early or very early in the clock, since his return that’s down to 34.2% and since the beginning of February it’s down to 33.5%. While there are undoubtedly other ways to read this, we see it as symbolic of his willingness to work the clock and not settle so often.
The other thing nice to see is that Irving’s getting more of his points (40%) in the lane compared to about 27% from LeBron’s return through the All-Star break. He’s also getting 26% of his points on free throws as compared with 18% before the break. This has come at the cost of the far-less efficient mid range jumper which dropped from 19% of his shots to just und 10% since the break.
The only unfortunate thing is that Irving has backslid on defense. He’s still playing 75% as hard as he was earlier in the season, but he’s not going over picks with the same intensity he was during late January and February. Between that time and now Irving’s defensive score have dropped precipitously.
Kyrie Irving’s DFG%” Time Period —- vs. 3pts —— vs. 2pts. —— w/i 6’ —— >15’
Until LeBron Went Down ========= -3.4% ——— +5.9% ——- +10.9% —— -1.8%
Until James Came Back ========== -5.0% ———- +22.1% —— +11.3% —— +8.0%
LeBron’s return through Break ===== +2.4% ———- -7.9% ——- -5.9% ——- -4.2%
Since March 1 ================= +15.1% ——- +10.9% —— +4.4% ——- +18.1%
The numbers reflect how much having Irving as opposed to some other guard on you would effect the players shooting percentage. As you can see Irving started the season pressuring too far from the basket, doing a decent job of stopping three at the easy drives to the hoop. He stopped doing that and started playing some really hard nosed D for about 20 games and since the beginning of the year has done some serious backsliding.
But it’s not all his fault….
What’s He Up To?
Some of the blame goes to Blatt for his decision to go small a lot during the last few weeks. That’s exposed the center of our defense quite often. As great as Tristan Thompson is at switching onto guards and stopping them late in the game, he’s also a liability at the rim allowing opposing big men to go right at and over him at the rim. This puts the guards in the same position it did earlier in the season. (Irving still bears substantial blame for his defensive deficiencies the last three weeks.
We have a theory about Blatt’s flirtation with the James Jones lineup and his other rotational shenanigans lately. It’s as it like a hardened NBA 2K gamer Blatt was taking advantage of his ability to rout his opponents to test drive different floor combinations. He could be trying to give these lineups some extended run in case he needs them in the playoffs. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bread and butter. For instance, last night James Jones didn’t make it into the game until the Blatt emptied the bench.
This could also explain in part Blatt’s decision to sit Love. While he said part of it was finding him a good time to rest, it’s hard to escape without wondering if Blatt also wanted some time to try Mozgov and Thompson together. Truth be told, the results were not encouraging. Though they’re both beasts on the offensive glass, they’re much closer to lambs on the defensive end. When Love was out those two games, the Cavaliers got beaten badly on the offensive glass.
Asked about this Blatt said how much he liked having Love back and didn’t offer that any of it had to do with the opponents’ size or the small lineups he used. It’s certainly true. Love’s ability on the defensive glass and skilled outlet passes make a significant difference in how this team plays and are one of the overlooked factors in the team’s success when he’s in.
Blatt Said I Should Shut Up
During yesterday’s postgame presser we asked about the limited number of forced turnovers. The made only two steals all game, one in each half, and since the break they’re only 15th in steals. This has limited their ability to get fastbreak points, which may even be for the best given how hard those are to come by in the playoffs.
We posed the question with just such a qualifier, that perhaps this was a small worry given the team’s ability, in general, to play good position defense and limit the number of good shots. We said perhaps we should just shut up about such things. Given an open shot, we now know that Blatt will take it.
“Maybe I should just shut up and forget about it, “ we offered, trying to acknowledge the persnickety nature of the question.
“Of course you should do that anyway,” he jumped in, welcome to take any shot afforded to tell the media to shut up, even a putative ally.
He did go on to shine a little light on his philosophy with this group which seems unable to both play solid position D and create turnovers. If you don’t create turnovers you sure as hell better control the defensive boards and not give up second chances. Hence the question. If you’re going to give another team more opportunities than you every game you better make sure they’re a lot worse than the shots you take.
“Forcing a bad shot, a heavily-contested shot or a badly-positioned shot is as good as getting a steal,” he said. “In man cases there’s risk involved” with a steal, presumably putting the player out of position.
Atlanta & Golden State
Finally, watching the Warriors absolutely dismantle Atlanta I couldn’t help but think again on how crazy a Warrior-Cavaliers final would be. Two “rookie” coaches, though Steve Kerr really is a rookie coach, if not a rookie to the NBA like Blatt. (We see where the prejudice lies.)
To these eyes Atlanta’s performance against a Warriors team missing Klay Thompson points to something that’s been whispered about Atlanta by those unwilling to come right out and say it.
Their brand of disciplined basketball tends to exploit the loosey-goosey style of regular season basketball and especially the shittier, chemistry/ball-movement challenged ones, which would be most of them.
We remain unconvinced when the Hawks play really talented teams in the playoffs their intensity and focus. They’re 21-5 against the West, so it’s not that they can’t play at these team’s level. The question is whether Atlanta can find another level when necessary? Will they be able to create offense when teams know all their plays, are determined to play defense, move their feet and aren’t at the end of a back-to-back or a 5-game road trip?
Judging from last night’s performance, don’t bet on it.
The Warriors on the other hand look like the real deal. They play defense, they have good players up and down the lineup, and they have guys that make sacrifices. On top of that they have some incredibly sick outside shooters in the Splash brothers (Steph Curry & Thompson) and Draymond Green, not to mention their other marksmen.
The Cavaliers have split a pair with them and both were great games. It’s probably the match-up we’d be most excited to see.
We’ll be at the Q for Friday night’s game against the Pacers. This should be a great game. The Pacers and the Jazz have been the best under-the-radar teams since the break and the Pacers are in a dogfight for one of the last two (or three judging from the Milwaukee Bucks’ recent collapse) playoff spots. We’ll be tweeting and offering live video from the game. Follow me @CRS_1ne on Twitter. Read my column the next day on the Scene blog.