Did Cavaliers Turn a Corner Beating the Hawks?

The Cavaliers plucked the Hawks Saturday night with such wily precision, Atlanta should have to call them “Tyson.” The final 109-97 tally doesn’t express the brutal efficiency the Cavaliers showcased at times, thanks to a 26-point lead that extended garbage time into the third quarter. 

After a road trip that included consecutive losses to the Bucks (in double overtime) and a very disappointing loss to the Pistons in which they were outscored in the fourth 29-18, the Wine and Gold have shown much more pride. For stretches. Coach Blatt for one has noticed.

“We didn’t play perfect basketball tonight. We were very good at times and we were not very good at times tonight,” said Blatt. “We need to play better than that consistently.”

In what has become a common theme going back to the team’s 33-3 run last year, the Cavaliers can be so dominant at times that they lose their focus. Like a big brother pasting his young sibling, the Cavaliers have an unhealthy tendency to show sympathy for their less talented opponents, and stop doing the things that make them successful.

For those that haven’t been watching, that’s playing defense, rebounding, and moving the ball. When you have scorers like LeBron James and Kevin Love who are also terrific, often unselfish passers teamed with fine perimeter shooters, it’s like the recipe for napalm.

Unfortunately, things come so easy to them when they play well, that they almost inevitably let their foot off their struggling prey’s neck. This isn’t Trivial Pursuit, it’s The Most Dangerous Game.

They need to play the whole game long, not two or three quarters, even if those quarters they do play have produced moments of pure devastation as impressive as when the Death Star blew up Alderaan.

“I can tell you honestly I’m disappointed in parts of the game we didn’t play right,” Blatt said. “There’s a lot to be learned from that.”

The Game

Through the first six minutes it was a close game as the two teams traded buckets. Both teams hit 6 of their first 12 shots. The Hawks tied it at 14 with a Teague 3-pointer and he had another one a minute later. It was one of only two baskets the Hawks would manage during the next six minutes. The other was a Tiago Splitter left-handed hook shot over Anderson Varejao with 23 seconds left. For nearly four and a half minutes the Hawks were scoreless.

Not that the Cavaliers were setting the world ablaze like some new Christo & Jean-Claude effort. They only mustered two buckets themselves before a little 8-0 burst with two minutes left, gave them a 10-point lead and they ended the quarter up 8, 27-19.

Much was made before the game of how Timofey Mozgov and Mo Williams would be sitting the game out with injuries. They joined Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving who are still recovering from injuries they had before training camp. But this is a deep, veteran team, and they were able to roll with it thanks in part to great reserve play.

J.R. Smith dropped a couple of nice rhythm 3s in the first part of the second quarter and Richard Jefferson scored eight as the backups pushed the lead to 12 with this beautiful reverse by Jefferson.

It was the last of three consecutive buckets, as the team of Matthew Dellavedova, Smith, Jefferson, Thompson and Varejao hung right with the Hawks. (It should be noted that the Hawks' usual starting PG Jeff Teague came off the bench because of an ankle injury, though he wound up playing nearly 26 minutes, far more than starter Dennis Schroder, who had 16.)

It was at this time, after Justin Holiday had his shot blocked by Richard Jefferson, who came from the weakside to swipe at the ball as Justin Holiday brought it above his head to finish at the rim. (Bet he goes up with both hands next time.)

We’re guessing Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer’s angle wasn’t as good as the camera shot above which seems to clearly suggest Jefferson got nothing but ball. In any case, Budenholzer was giving referee Mark Ayotte a hard time, and got a little too close for Ayotte’s comfort. For his efforts, Budenholzer got early dinner as he was tossed quicker than an Olive Garden salad.

Whatever hopes Budenholzer may have had that his ousters energize his team were countermanded by the fact that the Cavs bench bought James and Love a nearly six minute break. Cunningham got Delly and Teague proceeded to get the Hawks next five points. When Teague went to the line a second time, Delly came back in. Teague went 0-6 the rest of the way.

Matthew Dellavedova

Someday Matthew Dellavedova will get some credit for his defense. His defensive FG% is sixth among those under 6’7” in height, though the small sample size shows in the number of guys like Dion Waiters, Aaron Brooks and Lilliputian Jose Juan Berea, or they have gotten a lot better than we remember.

It’s hard to believe how far Delly has come. He was once reviled as not an NBA player, and now some are suggesting he start ahead of Mo Williams until Kyrie is back. NBA fans are some fickle fracks. While Matty has always been a pretty good three-point shooter, hitting 41% of his triples, but he struggled to score inside of 10’ shooting 34% even though a quarter of his shots came there. (Almost half his shots were threes.)

This year he’s hit 53% of his shots inside 10’ and the account for over a third of his shots. If he would only stop taking pull-up 3s (2-11), he’d be shooting at last year’s 41% clip from distance instead of 33%.

Dellavedova’s 107.7 offensive rating (per 100 possessions) is 5th behind Love, James, Varejao and Mozgov, while his 92.6 defensive rating is better even than Tristan Thompson’s impressive 93.6. (LeBron is fourth with 97.1 and Love is fifth with 98.7. Varejao has the team’s best defensive rating with 90.3 in 99 minutes of play.

Back to the Game

The Cavaliers were up 13 after the Budenholzer technical foul shot and the return of the starters only pushed that lead by a bucket. Perhaps Blatt said something to them about it. Whatever the impetus, the Cavaliers came out like a Mack truck during the first two and a half minutes of the quarter, scoring 11 quick points behind a couple of Love hoops and free throws.

They only scored nine more points in the quarter, as their play became decidedly sloppier from that point forward. This is the “not play right” stuff Blatt was talking about. After holding the Hawks to five points on 1-12 shooting for the first six minutes of the third quarter, the Cavaliers let down defensively. Over the next six minutes they would allow 18 points to the Hawks, 14 by Schroder and Korver.

Worth noting that Delly sat this whole stretch, while Cunningham played and Thompson was also on the floor. The team committed five turnovers during this stretch as well, as the Hawks cut the 26 point lead in half. Half of this time was with James off the floor.

LeBron James’ Blown Gasket

With the Cavaliers up 26 points, James by his own admission blew a gasket. That James cared so much in a blowout is emblematic of his competitive spirit. It could also be read as one of those ways in which James is kind of rude to his teammates.

In this case, he simply signaled he was tired and walked off the floor, not waiting for the stoppage of play or the coach to acknowledge, just “frack this shite, I’m outta here.”

As has been noted elsewhere, James has a bad habit of complaining about his ‘mates play when he gets frustrated – even when he’s the cause of the issues. (See also, LeBron James failing to get back on defense after not getting a foul call.) The sequence of frustration featured three turnovers, part of the team’s seven in the quarter.

What was strange was that otherwise the team was doing well. They had their largest lead of the game (26) and had hit 5 of their 6 last shots. Suffice to say, LeBron James’ passion and perfectionism are not always of benefit to the team.

Blatt made a joke about it suggesting James thought they were playing hockey, where subs are made while play continues. One reporter saw this as a sign of Blatt’s better relationship with James, in that he felt comfortable enough to make light of the incident.

We don’t necessarily see it that way. What exactly is Blatt going to do, apologize for one of the most egregious breaches of basketball most banal etiquette – waiting for play to stop to leave the floor? LeBron apologized to the team, so the only thing to do afterwards is to acknowledge and move on. (Admittedly, if Blatt had savagely critiqued the potential GOAT that would’ve been newsworthy.)

Indeed everyone seems more comfortable this year from the players to the press. They say he’s less defensive, but then they’ve been less aggressive. Tomato, tomatoe.

Obviously LeBron tends to invite such (over) analysis. It’s debatable whether it matters how James treats Blatt, unless you’re Blatt’s wife or children. It certainly didn’t prevent the team from going farther than anyone expected.

We don’t know if the fault lies with a media that pores over his headband usage, James’ sometimes passive-aggressive use of the media to communicate, or a general sports journalism movement toward gossip and hot air over substantive game and play analysis.

We don’t care that it happens per se – everyone’s entitled to their perspective – but can’t help but find it inconsequential and digressive. Hey, everyone likes an ongoing narrative, and “happy happy joy joy” just isn’t compelling enough drama.

Notice this all occurs just after LeBron said Blatt does as good a job as anybody in the league. He’s taking away their narrative and they can’t do anything but make the best of it. But where will the drama come from next? Certainly not the team’s inconsistent play.

Our take – none of this relational BS is anywhere as relevant as how the team handles a double-team, and certainly not worth the amount of ink spread on it, but it’s much easier to offer a steaming hot take than analyze the game.

Back to the Game, Pt. II

Last year when the Cavs played the Hawks, Atlanta threw the team off by aggressively trapping the ballhandler and forcing James and Kyrie Irving to give up the ball. It worked that last regular season game, and they’ve kept with it, to increasingly modest effect. Last night, it was partially responsible for LeBron James scoring 0 first quarter points and only 5 in the first half.

“They show a lot of different trap sequences on him because as you said, they’re trying to get the ball out of LeBron’s hands, and he read it well,” said Blatt after the postgame presser was over. “They really targeted him and wanted him to limit him but it worked fine, as we found out.”

The Cavaliers answered these double-teams they way you always answer doubles – by moving the ball. They passed the ball, and not only that, but they ran less pick and roll and more plays that utilized action off the ball.

So there were weak side screens to free J.R. Smith. They ran their Figure 8 motion offense with the dribble handoffs, making it hard to trap because the ballhandler had already come off an off-ball screen and his man was trailing too far. They threw skip passes were they bypassed the closest teammate for the uncovered one halfway across the court.

James wasn’t the only one trapped, as the Hawks also trapped Delly in many (but not all) pick and roll situations. The Cavs were prepared and made the extra pass for much of the night. Tristan Thompson had five first half assists and the team had at least 9 secondary/hockey assists (for the pass before the pass the led to a score) for the second straight game. (They had 10 on Thursday against the Bucks.)

Overall the Cavs are just a bit too big and physical for the Hawks, even without Mozzy. Thompson got near 31 rebounds and gathered just over half while Love got near 21 (grabbing 11) and LeBron got near 12 (grabbing 11). The Cavs had 94 occasions where one of their players was within 3.5’ of the ball, the Hawks just 72, the biggest difference since beating the Grizzlies by 26 rebound opportunities.

That’s also reflected in the Cavaliers 44-30 lead in the paint and a 17-12 lead in second chance points.

Love’s Labours Not Lost

Life’s not easy as a big man because you necessarily have to rely on others to get you the ball. Kevin Love does bring the ball up the court, so he is reliant on the kindness of others for his offensive opportunities.

Aside from the fact that Love’s ascended to the number two option with Kyrie on the shelf, he’s also receiving much more affection from the coaching staff. During the summer Blatt clearly dove into the playbook to find new ways to get Love loose. This one from the first quarter of the Milwaukee game is quite masterful.

Last week we discussed Love’s problems scoring at the rim. He’s since raised his FG% from 44% to 49% within 3’ for the basket. Meanwhile he’s shooting 61% from 3’-10’. This is 19% points higher than his best season from that range. We felt that while his touch is great around the basket, his attempts to finish (where he’s been blocked at a career high rate) were hampered by his inability to workout this offseason.

When questioned Love cited Yogi Berra’s maxim about half the game being 90% mental. Blatt suggested it might be an issue of timing, and not a holdover from his injury.

“I don’t see any ill effects from a physical standpoint,” said Blatt before the game. “He has out for a long time. It could just be comfort and rhythm around the rim and that will certainly correct itself in time.”

Love has had his father in town for the last two home games, and he’s shown off for dad, hitting 16 of 30 and 5 of 12 from deep, as well as two of his five games this year with at least 5 free throws. He’s also done well defensively grabbing 26 rebounds, 2 steals and blocking two shots over the weekend.

We always felt that Love’s defensive woes were maybe the result of someone other than himself. (Having to help rotate onto teammates open guys can play hell with your defensive field goal percentage, which for Love is +10% on two-pointes and +7.3 on threes.) On the other hand his on-court, defensive rating and DBPM numbers – which are all necessarily related – all look good, though that could just be playing with the starters.

We’ll try to break into the on-court/off-court numbers this week to tease out more of an answer on Love and Mozgov.

The biggest thing for us about Kevin Love is that he’s making his moves immediately. Last year he would look around, think to pass, and generally not look to score like he would’ve in Minnesota. He was tentative – perhaps because of LeBron and the new situation – and as a result his offensive moves weren’t always fluid. There would be hesitation in his attack.

Not anymore. Love is attacking as soon as he gets the ball and clearly is feeling more and more comfortable in then offense. Watch sometime as he comes out to the elbow while LeBron goes to the corner 3 area. Never saw that last year, but this year, they’re making Love the focal point at times and having LeBron work off him.

A guy of lesser ego might’ve chafed more, but James seems to have accepted the challenge and seems to have been doing much more scoring with off the ball cuts as opposed to post-up or pick-and-roll sets.

Hard not to be excited about the way the team bounced back at home after consecutive road losses. But as always this is an epic that gets serialized in short story form. Maybe that’s why everyone wants to impose an overwhelming narrative rather than accept this is just single, perhaps insignificant, step on the way to something greater.

Burt we won’t blame you for feeling good for beating the team that had last year’s best Eastern Conference record at much less than full health.

We’ll be at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday for the Cavaliers game against the Orlando Magic. We’ll be tweeting and offering live video from the game. You can follow us @CRS_1ne. You can read our analysis on Tuesday here in the Scene blog.

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