Hey, Hey, We're the Cavaliers, and We Came to Play Some Defense

The Cavaliers defeated the Pistons 103-95 last night despite missing 16 of their first twenty shots and making three turnovers during the first eight minutes of the game. But they stuck in the game with their hard work on defense.

Yeah, that’s what I said. This team, which was one of the four-five worst teams in the league defending for the first half of the season, has turned it around on the defensive end, which held the Pistons to a 42% shooting percentage, including 33% from three.

During their seven game win streak, the Cavs are allowing an effective FG percentage of 47.2%, good for 8th in the league; for the season, it’s 51.3% and 26th. (Effective FG accounts for the different values of shots by making 33% shooting of a 3-point shoot equivalent with 50% shooting of two-pointer.)

Not that it’s all about defense. Across the same stretch of games, their eFG (54%) is third in the league (their season-long 50.5% is only good for 12th). Maybe we should’ve been listening when LeBron told us to, “R-E-L-A-X.”

Of course, that’s before ESPN got everyone riled up with rumors of Coach David Blatt’s imminent demise (which naturally proved to be overstated). This was also before David Griffin made long-awaited moves to clean up some roster imbalances that had been apparent since training camp (see: large interior presence, perimeter defense).

According to Plain Dealer reporters, Cavaliers players were so bummed that it took so long that they didn’t play hard on defense. They cited roster composition and depth that made it apparent the team would be lucky to make it past the second round. Bur now, apparently it’s all good.

It wasn’t sourced or quoted cleanly enough to know if that was a dig at Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters or Mike Miller, but since we only upgraded at shooting guard and center that’s a natural conclusion, if overall an utterly ludicrous suggestion. (We understand the frustration of scrubs filling in for injured guys, but Griffin took his time in order to make the right moves, which he did; nobody ever believed Cleveland wasn’t going to upgrade its roster.)

LeBron spoke after the 39-point decapitation of Hornets about what had TRULY changed for the team since his return: “I think more than anything it’s just taking responsibility and competing. It’s something we haven’t done all year but I feel like right now that’s what we’re doing. We’re understanding it’s fun to do defense… gets stops and play free-form offensively.”

Though that last bit about free-form offense probably made Coach Blatt squirm a bit, that first part’s truly been the key. Defense is less about tactics and strategy than about commitment and focus. That’s something you can bring every night if you dig inside, and it’s what the Cavaliers must do to be an elite team. In their hearts they all knew it, but they needed to kind of build a rapport together.

How quickly do you say “god bless you” to your significant other after a sneeze if they’ve just done something that pisses you off? It’s the same way with team defense and one’s need to cover for your teammates. If you’re always covering for someone that doesn’t seem to be making enough effort, what are the chances your “help” rotations are going to be a split-second slower, almost out of spite?

Total unconditional commitment is what makes great defense, and the Cavs have it right now.

“Overall, we’re just trusting each other,” said Love after the game. “Whether it’s being physical, whether it’s doing a number of different things on the floor. We’re just trying to do what ever we can to win.”

That willingness to give up your body and the effort on defense carries you through those tough stretches as it did last night.

“In order for us to be really really good we have to commit on the defensive end,” said James after last night’s game. “You’re going to have lulls where you just can’t make shots, you can control the ball going in and you get good shots but sometimes they just don’t go in, and you have to be able to go on the defensive end and get stops.”

The game started pretty ugly as we said, as a lot of guys had real off-nights. The new arrivals in particular looked off. J.R. Smith was 2-11 and Timofey Mozgov missed his first four shots. (Kevin Love also had an off-night with lots of missed 3s, going 1-8/3-11 overall.)

We’ll defer to the sage wisdom of Jim Chones, who said that Mozgov was just fine at the rim. We think he needs either a head fake or to finish more forcefully as seen on these two plays. (That said, look how he inbounds the ball after the made basket and then beats everyone up the court in the second bit of the clip.)

The Cavs had trouble in transition early on and with the Pistons’ size for the entire game. It was a physical game thanks to the Pistons’ twin towers of Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. At first this flustered the Cavs big trio of Love, Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.

But the ever unflappable Tristan Thompson did not back down and wound up with 12 boards, six of them offensive, while Love made up for his missing 3-stroke by rebounding (8) and passing (4 assists) and good enough defense to post the team’s best +/- at +11.

In the end, it was the defense that kickstarted the team as Kyrie not only fought through a pick and made the steal, but found Marion streaking up the court to — as, Austin’s fond of saying — lay the hammer down. Suffice to say, this is the type of hustle and perseverance play that Kyrie Irving in particular was not making earlier this year. That play kicked of a 9-4 run that brought the Cavs within 2 at the end of the quarter, despite shooting 31%.

Why Coach Blatt refuses to acknowledge this obviously fact is beyond me, because he should get the credit for the change, not act like there’s no difference, diminishing the obvious and very welcome change in Kyrie’s defensive demeanor. (At least Austin Carr’s made no bones about it. We’ll corner him at the game tonight and get a quote on Ky’s defensive chrysalis.)

LeBron had three buckets in the first bit of the second quarter, helping buoy the sinking offense. A LeBron jumper that tied the score at 28 with 8:30 left was their last bucket for nearly three minutes when Kyrie started to get it going. He dropped three jumpers on the Pistons and then came up with a steal that lead to a Kevin Love layup for a 40-35 lead.

That run decided the game. The Pistons never got closer. During the third, Kyrie and LeBron deferred to the rest of the team as Mozgov and J.R. Smith both got a couple buckets and Love also got one. Then in the fourth it was all LeBron and Kyrie, who scored 26 of the team’s 28 points, many of them at the line, as the Pistons fouled repeatedly looking to get back in. To their credit, they made 12 out of 12 free throws in the final three minutes to seal the game.

It’s nice to know that Cavs can win without playing a particularly great offensive game, and it’s even better for them to know it. It sounds like they do, and developing the mental toughness to continue to play defense even when things aren’t going well that is the take away from this game.

“A team can make a run on us and we won’t crack like we did earlier in the season,” James said. “That comes with games, it comes with being together and experience. Even tonight with Detroit they made a little run we held serve, made plays, got enough stops and got to the FT line and made shots. That’s all part of the process.”

There’s that word again. Everyone would love to be further down the road yelling hurry up, but the truth is without these shaping experiences, without that hardship, without that horrible stretch of losing, this team might not be where it is.

In psychology they talk about there being two different kinds of understanding. Intellectual understanding’s like a bar hook-up, it’s great, but it doesn’t change anything. Emotional understanding — knowing in your heart, not just your head, that what you’re doing wrong and how to right it – well, when you have that is when real change happens.

Judging from their play the last two weeks, the Cavaliers Emotional Quotient’s beginning to crest. That’s good because the offensive rhythm has been absent the last two games leading to ball domination by Kyrie and LeBron.

They’re running the offense more, so maybe it’s just a matter of repetition and finding guys on other options. That said, as well as the two are playing, you don’t want to take the ball out of their hands that much, but the Cavs are a lot harder to stop when they share the ball than when the offense comes almost wholly from one or two places. (Last night Kyrie and LeBron scored 70 of the team’s 103 points.)

Tonight the team takes on the Portland Trailblazers, who at 32-13 are third-best in the Western Conference. Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is having a career season and is playing through a hand injury on his off-hand. Portland has an explosive offensive led by Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard, who are both score over 22 points/game.

They’re also one of the league’s top three rebounding teams, diminishing one of the Cavaliers big offensive advantages. They’ve lost five of their last seven, though they haven’t played since beating Washington Saturday at home because snow preemptively cancelled their game in Brooklyn on Monday.

This is the last real challenge for the Cavs for a while, as they enjoy a stretch after this where seven of their next nine opponents have losing records.

I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game on Tuesday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my game analysis on Thursday in the Cleveland Scene blog.

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