J.R. Smith and the Cavs Slam the Knicks, 101-83

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It may have been Madison Square Garden, but the opponent was more like Grand Forks. This was strictly D-League competition, so the only challenge for the Cavs was maintaining their focus. Mission Accomplished.

The Cavs treated the Knicks like the foothills of Pennsylvania and gave them serious fracking. The very seams of the earth seemed to buckle when former Knick and lifelong New York resident J.R. Smith read "backdoor" in Shumpert’s eyes then launched himself like Louganis, delivering a jaw-dropping reverse-slam that had SportsCenter’s Play of the Day on speed-dial.

Even LeBron James was pretty blown away by Smith and the Cavs’ play.

These days, you don’t want to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play basketball, you want to frame it. Winners of 16 of 18, they’ve turned into an offensive and defensive juggernaut. They have best point differential over the last fifteen games (based on points/100 possessions) and the league’s highest eFG%, just ahead of the Golden State Warriors in both instances.

We’ll never know who deserves more credit and really, who cares? David Griffin, Coach David Blatt, LeBron James and the rest of the musketeers have united like the Avengers. Their resolve seems hardened by that period without LeBron James in December and January when they looked Knicks-bad, and many all but wrote them off in a fever of media hyperbole. (Oversell a narrative? We’d never!)

Maybe it was a game of bowling at the height of the tension. Maybe they needed an us-against-the-world mentality that the losing streak helped foment. Obviously the new personnel played a role. Maybe it was never quite as dysfunctional as it looked on the outside and maybe LeBron James is simply the best player in the world, proving just too much to lose. How about all the above?

The point is those struggles gave way to success, which is just how the process works.

“The problem sometimes with sports is everyone wants instant success,” James said at the all-star break. “It takes time for a team to gel especially for a new team to gel together and build camaraderie. That’s exactly what we were going through. We were going through early season struggles because we didn’t know each other on the floor and off the floor. Over the last month or so it’s clicked, and I think it has a lot to do with us gaining trust.”

Whatever ambivalence James might’ve had about Coach David Blatt early in the season – and at times it certainly seemed like he might have some – that too has given way to a scene from Band of Brothers.

“I think he’s great,” said James of Blatt at the all star presser. “He’s handled his first stint in the NBA extremely well so far and I’m happy to be playing for him.”

While that glowing endorsement is at least three notches more enthusiastic than some of his other comments (the presumably? exasperated “What other coach do I have?”) earlier this season, who truly knows how comfortable James really is with Blatt.

If there is still lingering tension, it will almost certainly come out in the playoffs. Remember Scottie Pippen sitting out rather than play decoy in ’94? Or Kobe’s nearly shot-less half against Phoenix in ‘06?

For the moment it’s the Pirates of Penzance. Maybe that will hold. Blatt’s coached a wide variety of players from diverse cultures in his international career. There’s reason to hope those early disconnects were just the very public hiccups in a budding relationship.
The team meanwhile seems to have completely bought in to the one-for-all mentality. Against the Knicks, four starters scored between 16 and 18 points. The ball was moving crisply. Guys were cutting and moving with purpose, the ball arriving at the perfect moment.

A moment after that play, Love returned the favor, finding James underneath on a quick cut with a pass like Peyton Manning throwing to his receiver’s outside shoulder.

Plays like those take a certain confidence and communication to pull off effectively. It’s a confidence that extends to every part of the team such as this play where Smith fed Mozgov on the pick and roll. The Cavs have Irving, Love and James on the floor, but run a play for the other two guys, and it goes for a lay-in. What more can you say?

But then perhaps we should file this under the subheading: The Surprising JR Smith. Anyone who’s followed basketball knew that he was a streaky scorer capable of Kathy Ireland-levels of hotness with range extending for as far as he can see. Indeed, that was the problem – his shot knew no bounds and would come at inopportune times. Add to that the whole shoelace, ear-blowing inanity and you can understand the pre-trade trepidations.

Now it feels like we just helped James Dolan unload some of his Apple stock at a fire-sale rate. Next year’s $6.3 million salary seems like chump change compared to what he’s giving out there. Sure the scoring is a given – and his catch & shoot (55% of shots, 54.4% eFG since arriving), one-or-two dribble game (23% of shots for year, 51.4% eFG) is perfect for a Cavaliers offense long on ball-dominant scorers.

He’s long been a willing passer (at least 2.4 assists five of last six years), though until he came to Cleveland, I’d never seen him initiate the offense this much. His pick and roll play has gone from 64 percentile to 87 percentile. He’s really turned into the team’s other point guard outside Irving, Dellavedova and LeBron. He’s handled the responsibility well and hasn’t seemed anything like the chucker of years gone by.

What’s even more inspiring is the level of defensive intensity he’s mustered. Scouts had reportedly said that Smith is the type of player who lifts his play on a good team, but nobody could’ve expected the defensive effort. He kept Shumpert from taking his the starting shooting guard position by amply demonstrating not only the ability to satiate his jumper compulsion but also to play hardnosed defense.

His numbers are eye-catching. For the year he’s lowered opponents’ 3-point shooting by 2.8% and increased their 2-point shooting by the same amount. In eight February games (according to NBA.com’s SportVU) those numbers are -11.4% and -15.7%. You read that right. If JR Smith was covering you the last three weeks, it felt like Gary Payton.

Their defensive play has ignited their offensive play. Here JR alters Jose Calderon’s shot (possibly fouling him) then releases and Kevin Love quickly grabs the rebound and finds the streaking Smith for a layup.

On two other early occasions, LeBron stole the ball for breakaway baskets. They still don’t consistently create enough opponent turnovers (even the Knicks only made 11 turnovers, while the Cavs made 15), but recen play suggests they are beginning to take steps in the right direction, something Shumpert’s comments before the game hinted at.

“Defensively we really figured out,” he said. “We had a hole on offense, and it was because we were walking the ball up every time. What we did was turn it up another notch defensively and made our defense become offense.”

It’s not just about fastbreak layups, it’s about playing with pace and getting into the offense quickly. When they get shots in the first three to nine seconds of the shot clock their eFG% is nearly 60%, but they only take a shot before 15 seconds have elapsed 34% of the time.

Over the last 15 games they’ve raised the eFG% a smidge in those situations, but more importantly are getting more shots that way at 37%. Even better, when the clock runs down, they’re getting great shots, shooting an absurd 59.3% eFG in the final four seconds of the clock during this time. That includes 46% from three.

It’s because since the trade the team isn’t afraid to keep passing the ball down to the shot clock’s shortest hairs, as here, where LeBron found – who else? – JR Smith for a 3 late late in the clock.

With only 10 wins, the Knicks didn’t pose much of a test. The Pistons, who the Cavs play on Tuesday, don’t seem to be packing it in, and Coach Stan Van Gundy has them playing pretty well. We know their new trade-deadline addition from the Thunder, Reggie Jackson, will be looking to make an impression after escaping Russell Westbrook’s shadow to be the man in his own right.

Van Gundy recently said Jackson is their man going forward. Sorry Brandon Jennings, enjoy your Achilles tendon recovery – though Van Gundy insists they can co-exist – like champagne and malt liquor! After that we host the league-best Golden State Warriors on Thursday. If the Cavs can avoid looking past the Pistons, that Warriors matchup ought to be a great yardstick of the team’s progress and current standing.

The Cavs are going to need to waive someone to take on Ray Allen, whenever he officially signs. On Monday Kendrick Perkins will sign with the team, taking the slot opened when the team waived A.J. Price a month ago. Allen’s signing will force a move, and who will get waived is open to debate.

Because experienced 3-point shooters are especially useful in the playoffs and they’re players signed at LeBron James’ urging, we would think that Mike Miller and James Jones will remain, even though they’re some of the players most made redundant by the all-time 3-point champ’s arrival.

That leaves Joe Harris and Brendan Haywood. Harris is signed to a two-year guaranteed deal and a reasonable price, is young, rangy and a coach’s son. But his inexperience makes him unlikely to see any playoff time.

Haywood is closer to dead wood judging from the way Blatt’s used him. He’s the human victory cigar, which is a little sad inasmuch as Haywood once had some skills. His most valuable asset is a fully non-guaranteed contract that quadruples from two million and change to $10.5 million next year. That allows him to be packaged up to bring back a bigger contract from a team trying to dump salary this summer.

No idea what Cavs will do, but with the TV contract set to balloon by at least $25 million in two years, and far less bad contracts haunting balance sheets. Griffin could conceivably decide to stick with Harris. Shumpert and Thompson are restricted free agents this summer that could court large contacts. Are the Cavs going to want to take on another big contact aside? For potentially the 9th guy in the rotation?

Of course, should the Cavs not decide to resign Shumpert or desire to jettison Smith (who has a player option for $6.5M he’s expected to trigger), Haywood’s contract could come in handy. But if they think this eight-man rotation is the one they want next year as well, why not hold onto Harris who could potentially develop into a Mike Miller type, and drop Haywood?

Harris is probably the one on thin ice, but it’s hardly a done deal. Allen doesn’t have to sign by any particular date to be playoff eligible so long as it is before the end of the regular season, he’s fine. (Players presently on a team must be waived before March 1st to become eligible for a different team’s playoff roster.)

As for newest Cavalier Kendrick Perkins, he fills a big hole up front, and in a desperate situation could carry starters minutes. His lack of an offensive game can bog down an offense, but that shouldn’t be a big issue in short bursts and even at 30, he’s a strong defensive player, equally good at defending the rim (45.3% FG allowed) as Timofey Mozgov.

That’s really not any better than Samuel Dalembert, but Perkins has played with winners, knows how to fit in on a winning team and brings a nastiness that can come in handy. If someone hurts a Cavs player, Perkins won’t hesitate to get their back with a brushback pitch of his own. He’s just ornery, and when the playoffs get physical it will be nice to have that guy in our corner.

The Cavs play the Pistons Tuesday. I’ll be covering the game on Twitter posting live video from the game. You can follow me at @CRS_1ne, and read my analysis the next day here on the Scene blog.

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