Gritty Cavs Unsaddle Thunder, Make Some Alpo

The Cavaliers swaggered into Dodge like Rooster Cogburn in the midst of a Rocky montage. Oklahoma City knew there’d be shooting but didn’t expect to be brutalized like lifeless slabs of beef, particularly when Kyrie Irving bowed out late in the first.

Cleveland were only up one at the time and talk of stringing up the Thunder and watching their dying feet dance by the end of the third would’ve seemed mighty bold talk indeed, one-eyed fat man or no.

Things looked their most desperate for the Cavaliers right before trap door clicked open beneath Oklahoma City in the 115-92 execution.

The Cavs were already down Mo Williams, with a nagging knee injury (to go with the earlier thumb issue) and Iman Shumpert, who hurt his shoulder in the Chicago game on Thursday. Matthew Dellavedova is still on a (25) minutes restriction (finished with 29) from the hamstring injury that forced him to miss five games before the allstar break.

At the same moment Kyrie left with the flu, J.R. Smith also picked up his second foul of the first quarter. (Midway through the second he picked up his third foul and was forced to sit until the second half.)

But they’re from Cleveland and led by LeBron James, a fellow as attuned to drama as Kanye’s therapist, so when things got desperate, the Cavaliers got heroic. Russell Westbrook had just gone the length of the floor of a Mozgov miss to jam home his tenth point, tying the score at 34 with just over 8 minutes left in the second.

That’s when Kevin Love and Lebron James’ Wonder Twin Powers activated, taking the form of a dime-dropping triple threat and a free-throw-line-bound low-post nightmare. Over the next 19 minutes to nearly the end of the third, the Cavaliers outscored the Thunder 61-35, with James and Love scoring 17 apiece during that stretch and collecting seven assists.

James mixed in several drives, two threes and a rediscovered midrange jumper, with Love’s game around the basket. James and Love ran numerous pick-and-roll getting Love covered by Kevin Durant, who had trouble with Love’s assortment of low-post moves. As is Love’s magic when it’s really working, he didn’t get but three buckets, yet always had the Thunder out of position so that he took 12 free throws and made 11. (Love took full advantage of the Thunder being in the bonus most of the third period.)

This is the beauty of Love’s low-post game and why it’s so useful. Love trips to the foul line kept a lid on the game’s tempo, forcing the Thunder to spend more time in the halfcourt. With Irving out, Dellavedova and James took turns initiating the offense or running pick-and-rolls.

As has been the case since Lue’s ascension (see column, mention of LeBron The Facilitator), LeBron is looking much more to create than shoot. You’ll notice him taking or receiving the ball in the center of the court, suck the defense to him and throwing it to one wing. Sometimes he just lobs it up there like a softball pitcher.
On other occasions he’s taking advantage of the defense’s strongside overload to throw cross the court to the three-shooter on the weakside. But as really the main point guard most of the night he was even more diligent in getting the ball to love quickly in the post.

Love grabbed those extra possessions that would’ve gone to Irving, and it was a reminder of how much smoother the offense ran when Love, Delly and James were doing most of the ballhandling early in the season.

This is not to slam Kyrie. He’s an almost absurdly talented offensive player and he’s been one of the team’s better defensive players since Lue took over, believe it or not. Yet Kyrie’s still learning when to do for himself and when to do for others.

It’s perhaps wise for Lue to relieve the 23-year old Irving of principal distribution responsibilities, since his skills are so great attacking and the last thing you want to do is make him tentative. Well, maybe not last thing, given Kyrie’s tendency to dribble more than a Depends user.

It also seems pretty obvious that Love’s juices really got going getting the ball two out of every three times down. His aggression and confidence grew. This really isn’t news. The quandary is that Love seems to require a certain level of offensive attention/volume of shots to consistently get that level of aggression.

For one thing, Love only took four threes. It’s the first time in 13 games he’s taken less than five. He took more twos than threes in just five of those games. It’s only the third time all season Love’s reached double figures in free throws. So clearly this has been something less than S.O.P.

It does seem like a way the Cavaliers could play, but typically don’t. Some of that is Love settling for threes rather than aggressively attacking opponents closing out his shot. Some of that is LeBron being one of the only guys who feeds Love the ball in the post with enough deftness to allow him to maintain his position. Some of it is Love’s tendency to wind up a weakside catch & shoot statue when LeBron and Kyrie run pick-and-rolls.

However history’s anything but destiny. The simple fact that the Cavs pulled this out in their moment of need and executed it so well on the road against one of the league’s five best teams is testament to what this team’s capable of when focused in. Doing that consistently is that goal of these last six weeks, and so far so good.

“At the end of the day we have the beast player in the world and as long as we still have LeBron, we have an opportunity to win,” said Richard Jefferson after the game. “Everyone steps up. It’s next man up mentality.”

Jefferson stepped up big for the Cavaliers, taking over the small forward position for much of the night while LeBron played the point. He played 25 minutes, scored 15, grabbed six boards, a steal and made three of four from beyond the arc.

Timofey Mozgov continued his renaissance as well. He scored 11, making 5 of 7 in around 17 minutes and grabbing five boards. One a down note, he committed three turnovers ending a stretch of seven games in which he’d only committed a total of one.

Though Mozgov catches a lot of heat for his defense, he’s been one of the team’s better defensive players (by Defensive Field Goal%) since Lue took the job.

Defending Love

Anytime you talk about a family member’s faults, it’s possible someone will feel defensive. We all have faults and to acknowledge them seems more functional than to deny they exist. Kevin Love is a great offensive player. Nobody’s ever challenged him to be anything else.

Kevin Love was brought here to score, not play defense. This is the central conundrum of his Cavaliers existence, because whenever Kyrie’s around there’s less need for additional scoring than outside your neighborhood container store (where young gigolos apparently first learn their trade).

The problem is that without his scoring Love does less things to balance his below average defense. The clever thing Lue’s suggested is that by taking the ball out of Irving’s hands and making James and Love the facilitators, the Cavs can take advantage of Love’s other great skill, his passing. This requires Kyrie to spend more time off the ball, which he’s capable of, but doesn’t seem to happen as often as Love disappears in the second half.

So turning up the offense and getting Love more involved are good for the offense and perhaps that would keep him more engaged defensively. It has seemed in the past few weeks that Love was hustling around on defense, finding the open guy and running at him. At least it seemed like that for a while.

Our eyes tell us that Kevin Love can be a decent one-on-one defender, though Synergy stats don’t necessarily back that up.

What has always bugged us was less those plays where someone bigger posts up and scores over Love (like Duncan in the Spurs loss), than those plays where Love just doesn’t make the additional rotation.

In general he's slow stepping into the lane on drives which is problematic already because he’s not blocking shots so position defense is all he can offer. Then in those cases where he picks up a player on a pick, Love is bad about getting back, like a teenager who’s been excused from school part of the day to see the doctor.

Here Westbrook has already passed the ball, and Love follows him down the lane two or three more steps freeing Ibaka for a wide-open jumper. 
On this play Love picks up Westbrook in transition and when Smith recovers Kevin doesn’t quickly recover to his man, Serge Ibaka, who is coming up as a trailer. There’s time for Love to get back, but it just takes him too long to make that decision, while standing shoulder to shoulder with J.R. Smith as Westbrook idles on the baseline does no one any good.
We’re not trying to harp on Love, just to show even on nights when he’s got it going offensively, Love’s defensive effort is at best in-and-out. As help defense is only as good as your worst player, it seems a salient issue. Especially as this is the kind of thing that gets overshadowed by offensive play.

(We’ve noticed when guys perform well on offense, fans talk about how well they did on defense, and vice-versa. Take for example Mozgov, who’s defense has been good to great all season. He often takes a beating from fans for his defense whenever his offense is sucking.)

Love is never going to be a great offensive player, but he's got to give the Cavaliers consistent effort on defense or they'll never get over the hump. There's little doubt that when Love is on the floor, he's the Weakest Link.

Let’s Get Physical

Fortunately the Cavaliers defensive intensity overall was quite good, particularly after Irving left in the first. Delly, LeBron and J.R. Smith all spent time on Westbrook, not stopping him so much as slowing him down.

Of course the only way to really slow down the Thunder is to control the tempo. This was one of the most encouraging things about this game. The Cavaliers could’ve been tempted to play into the Thunder’s pace because of Lue’s desire to play up-tempo, but they did so with great control, thanks to LeBron, who finished with 25 points and 11 assists.

“Offensively you want to push pace but that doesn’t mean you want to take early shots. You want to push the tempo and get the ball up before 19 on the clock. If we had shots we took them if not we were able to execute which we did,” James said after the game. “You want to slow a team down like this and not get too crazy because their transition is just as good as ours. So you have to be careful with that. We were able push tempo when we had it and execute as well.”

From the start the team was willing to engage the Thunder physically. They didn’t whine to the referees or lay on the floor, they gave as good as they got and put their bodies right into Oklahoma City, let them know they’re here too. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s sort of not shying from the battle, and it’s a mindset as much as anything you can point to in particular, but it was certainly a goal.

Lue spoke after the game about how the team “stayed physical the whole game” and how it seemed “when we play great teams we always seem to rise to the challenge.” Lebron related that back to the team’s physicality

“It gives us more focus when we’re physical,” James said “You’re more in tune. That’s two straight games, we’ve been able to do that. And that needs to be our statement. I think the guys know that. Defensively we need to get back to what we do.”

It didn’t happen so much in the first half when the Thunder scored 53, 29 of those by Durant and Westbrook. But they really reached another level in the third when they held the Thunder to 20 points while Dion Waiters shot shriveled to nothing like Burgess Meredith of the course of the Rocky series.

The Cavaliers had trouble stopping ball in the first half, allowing the Thunder to get into the lane at will. It forced help rotations that left guys open. That (and offensive rebounds) is how Steven Adams scored 9 of the Thunder’s first 22 points.

The Thunder outscored the Cavaliers 34-26 in the paint in the first half, but the Cavs held them to 16 in the second half. (Thunder finished with 50 to the Cavs 42.) Part of that was the pace. Going to the line slowed the pace as the Cavs took 18 second half free throws compared to 9 in the first half.
The Cavaliers also did a better job on the defensive boards in the second half. Since Lue took over the Cavaliers have gone from the third-best defensive rebounding team (grabbing 79.4% off opponent misses) to the seventh worst (74.7% of opponent misses). If there are 50 misses a game, that’s 2.5 offensive boards lost.

That may sound trivial, but the team’s better ballhandling has meant 2.8 less turnovers than before Blatt's departure, meaning the added offensive boards nearly wipes out the possessions advantage from less turnovers. It’s something that bears watching.

We also took a quick look at Elbow Touches since Lue became coach. He made it a point to get Kevin more of those opportunities which are in a spot on the floor where he feels comfortable and that his versatility is enabled. Though the team's only running a few more plays a game, they've seen 50% better offensive efficiency.

Final Analysis

With a few practices under their belt, the Cavaliers seem to be gathering steam. They practiced Friday and Saturday, and their offensive play looked a lot smoother on Sunday. They shot 51% for the game and 44% from 3 while committing 12 turnovers and racking up 25 assists on 41 baskets. There was more passing and more movement than in recent games.

Lue said he was happy about the offense, but talked more about the defense and how they met the Thunder’s intensity level all game long. Consistency is the last hurdle for this Cavs team. That doesn’t get easier with the injuries and new players. Channing Frye still hasn’t passed his physical and has a heart condition, but it would be strange if he didn’t ultimately pass and the trade were voided.

The team’s down two spots, not even counting MoGotti and Shump,  but it isn't clear they’ll make a short-term move to address their backcourt issues. They’re playing the Pistons Monday night, and play again on Wednesday, so there would hardly be anytime for a new player to step in.

With the deadline to buyout players just a week away on March 1, the Cavaliers may hold off on signing anyone to a 10-day contract and ride it out with what they’ve got until the reinforcements arrive or the injuries recede.

It hasn’t been a particularly smooth 13 games since Lue took, given how well the team was playing before, but it certainly hasn’t been a disaster. They seem to have found their step. Love looks recharged after the break and the second half of Sunday’s game was one of their best defensive performances for the rookie coach.
As LeBron suggests, it’s not wise to get too up or too down, especially given how little the regular season matters in the scheme of things. However beating a tough Thunder team at full health on the road is certainly a positive sign, and they’re begin to proliferate.

The offense needs to maintain their present efficiency and the defense has to look like it did in the second half last night on a consistent basis, if they’re to be considered serious contenders. But they look a lot closer than they did a month ago.

We’ll be at the Q tonight for the game against the Detroit Pistons. We’ll be posting analysis, video and snark from the game. Follow us at Twitter @CRS_1ne and read out postgame analaysis Tuesday morning on the Scene and Heard blog.
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