LeBron Finds His Shot, Serves Nuggets on a Platter

Call off the search and cancel the milk cartons: LeBron James’ jumper has been found. Like the missing/malfunctioning detonator that perpetually imperils the payload and mission in action films, James’ AWOL jumper has contributed to the Cavaliers season-long offensive dysfunction in Kyrie Irving’s long absence. Its return keyed King James’ 34 point outburst on the eve of his 31st birthday as the Cavaliers held off the pesky Nuggets 93-87.

The Cavaliers got out to a quick lead in the first quarter with some good ball movement that found seven different scorers. The team fell overly in love with the three (again), shooting nine of them in the first quarter, making two. They’d go 2-13 the rest of the game, thankfully dialing back their frequency. 

In the first half the Cavs settled for a lot of jumpers, but knocked them down, making 51% of their shots without attempting a single free throw. That’s emblematic of their willingness to settle for jumpers, though, thanks to the Nuggets often uninspired defense, these weren’t necessarily bad shots.

Besides LeBron James’ 15 first half points, Iman Shumpert finally got his own jump shot back in order for five buckets and 11 points. Kevin Love contributed 8 first half points, then didn’t score again, missing all six of his second half shots and two free throws.

In the second half the Cavaliers, and LeBron James in particular, stopped taking so many threes and started to move the ball downhill toward the basket. LeBron made 7 of 8 free throws and scored 19 second half points almost half the team’s 40 second-half total. JR Smith added seven more (despite missing all four of his threes) and Shumpert added another five, while the defense turned it up a notch on the Nuggets.

Their suddenly active hands forced nine steals, and 11 second half turnovers, 18 for the game. The Cavs turned those into 26 points, while only yielding 15 points on their 12 turnovers. That was enough to make the different in the game. James, Smith and Shumpert wound up the only Cavs players in double figures as the team's shooting touch cooled to 35% in the second half.

The Cavaliers maintained an 8-12 point lead for most of the second half. They never could quite put the Nuggets away, nor could Denver string together enough good possessions to make a decent run against the Cavs. There was a brief scary moment when the hack-a-Thompson resulted in three  missed free throws, but it Blatt pulled him and the Cavaliers ultimately dispatched the Nuggets 93-87.

After a couple games looking out of sorts, LeBron James did what was necessary to break himself out of his slump. He put in more work.

“The last two nights – this whole road trip – I came out early and got some shots up,” James told Allie Clifton after the game. “I’ve tried to get my rhythm back on my jump shot. I haven’t been shooting it like I’m capable of shooting. The work pays off and tonight was an example of that.”

Long Live the King

James made 13 of 24 from the field while dropping 6 of 9 midrange jumpers and 1 of 3 three-pointers. This is an important development because opponents are starting to sag on James’ drives, retreating to the front of the rim to challenge his shot. This tactic’s been made even more effective by the refs’ unwillingness to give James whistles.

(James is drawing fouls at the lowest rate (37%) since his first NBA season when his ratio of free throws to field goals was 31%. His career average in both Miami and Cleveland is .43, and his present rate is 13% lower than that and 10% lower than last year. It’s like LeBron’s suddenly become less attractive in the zebras’ eyes, sort of like Amy Schumer's “Last F-able Day” skit with Julia-Louise Dreyfus.)

Like any of the latest wave of quants, James seems to have embraced the high efficiency, “no midrange jumper” mentality. As many of you know, this strategy stresses the value of 3s, high-percentage shots at the rim, and free throws. The fact that he’s shooting a career low 25% from three has put even more pressure on him to go to the hole for better shots.

This year LeBron’s gotten 45% of his shots within 3’ of the basket, way more than last year’s 33% or his career 34% rate. The jump shots from 10’ to the arc which throughout his career have provided a third of his shots, are down to 21% this year. (They were 27.5% last year.)
Not only has he shot these midrange shots less, but with the worst effectiveness of his career. He’s shooting about 32.5% on midrange to long twos (career 36% and 39% respectively), while also shooting below 70% at the rim for only the second time in his career. Add to that the lowest shooting percentage from 3-10’ and you have and you have a situation.

To address this LeBron has tried to take closer shots, reducing his average shot distance from last year’s 12.6 feet (a little above his career rate) to 9.6, a foot and a half closer than he’s ever averaged.

Well suffice to say this hasn’t gone unnoticed by opposing coaches who are now sagging into the lane off LeBron on his drives, daring him to pull up and take the jumper. Instead he’s been plowing into two or three people and is generally not being given the benefit of the doubt. Think about it – LeBron driving more than ever before and getting less calls than ever before.

The only way to keep other teams honest is for LeBron to make his jumpers and last night he was. Here are all seven glorious jumpers. Like his birthday today, may there be many more.
After last night’s game James looked very out of sorts and bristled when it was suggested he was more deferential offensively. Apparently to him, it was as much his own struggles as a conscious choice.

But there may have also been a bit of strategy involved as well. LeBron had really dominated the ball the last month, particularly down the stretch. It was almost like the last two games the team made it a point to play LeBron off-the-ball and let Kyrie Irving and Mo Williams facilitate more. Certainly with Kyrie back full-time (after missing this back-to-back) that’s what we’d expect from the offense.

After the game, Coach David Blatt took some responsibility for James’ funk, implying that in trying to get Love and Irving going, the King may have been a little neglected.

“He got into a good rhythm early and it was something that we wanted. I felt maybe the last couple games we maybe didn’t help him get into an early rhythm. Tonight we made an effort to do that and he responded extremely well,” he said. “[James] got into a good rhythm, really shot well, really played well all around the court, and we needed him to have a good game to carry us to this win.”

Rotational Chairs

With Irving promising before the game that this will be the last back-to-back he misses, the Cavaliers finally have their full complement on hand. That complicates life for Coach Blatt, in mostly a good way. He’s been fiddling with rotations a lot trying to find good combinations.

Mo Williams was someone Blatt tried in a couple different combinations, logging 19 minutes, his most in two weeks. It was a strangely mixed bag. Williams made three of four shots and had four assists. (He also had three turnovers.)

His ability to hit the midrange jump shot was in evidence, and seemingly will be useful in the playoffs where teams aggressively chase opponents off the arc. Williams doesn’t mind that because he’s deadly in the midrange area. (He’s shooting an absurd 57% this year from 16’ to the line, and 44% from 10’-16’.)

Here he runs a pick-and-roll with Mozgov where defending rookie European center Nikola Jokic sags into the lane conceding the jump shot. Williams drills it thank you very much.
The issue is that Williams is a terrible defender. The Cavs had a 102.4 defensive efficiency (pts allowed per 100 possessions) last night, eight points higher than the next worse defender. He was minus-10 in +/-, six points worse than anyone else. Somehow the Cavs must figure out a way to cover his defensive deficiencies because he can definitely help the offensively-challenged second and third units score.

Lethal Weapon

Iman Shumpert is one of the best defensive players in the league. His intensity on the defensive end is infectious. His active hands seem to inspire the same in his mates, while the breakaway slams from his forced turnovers demoralize opponents. Here he picks off a pass by former Cav Mike Miller that looks like something Brandon Weeden would toss just before falling down.
His defense is game changing but his jump shot has the potential to keep him off the court. While he’s not a bad dribbler, his handle is nowhere as reliable as J.R. Smith, he has trouble finishing (55% career at the rim), and his jump shot is less consistent than Cleveland weather.

Yet we’ve heard that prior to his start of training camp injury, Shumpert worked his tail off, and even with the right wrist injury spent lots of time working on his left, off-hand. Since coming to the Cavaliers last season, Shumpert has made 56% of his 10’-16’ jump shots, almost double his 29% career rate.

If he can maintain that or even not regress to far, his two-way play will make him a dangerous weapon. The Cavs saw a little of that last night as Shumpert shot 7 of 13, including a couple corner threes. He also forced a couple turnovers without committing any himself.

Trading Places

The Cavaliers steamed ahead with their new starting lineup and its too early to tell if it’s the best thing for Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov who have traded places, like Eddie Murphy and the Duke brothers.

The offense looks a lot smoother with Mozgov not on the floor fumbling feeds like an Earnest Byner Vine. Thompson managed the team’s third-highest offensive efficiency rating at 98.7, just behind Matthew Dellavedova (103.4, best defense also at 77.4) and Kevin Love’s 99.1 rating.

For his part, Mozgov seems more set for success playing with the second stringers which says a lot for how far he’s fallen since June. He’s still a top notch defender, and his defensive rating last night was 80.1, third to Delly and Love. His offensive rating, as has been the case for a while now, was a team low at 76.2.

Until Mozgov gets his mojo back, he needs to stay on the bench where he can’t unintentionally (and with the best intentions) sabotage the entire offense like the basketball version of Barney Fife or Lucy Ricardo.

Hammer Time

We love to analyze plays, and were curious when we heard Kevin Love comment that the Blazers beat them a few times with Hammer action.

“I think there were a lot of times tonight we saw the hammer action got wide open threes,” Love said. “So there are certain things we need to clean up but overall I feel like we did a great job [defensively].”

This has nothing to do with hardboiled detective noir or pilfered Rick James samples. It’s a play that the San Antonio Spurs sort of pioneered, and which involves the point guard dribbling under the basket, to suck defenders away from the three-point line.
Here’s the video of it.
It’s interesting and soon you’ll start noticing how many other teams run similar action.

Final Analysis

On the whole the Cavaliers did well enough to win the game, and given the circumstance of the road trip, that’s more than sufficient. However it shouldn’t escape anyone’s attention that while the ball movement was a little better and the defense stiffened in the second half, this is as far from a finished product as Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
Like the epic Barcelona cathedral, the beauty is readily apparent, but so too are the cranes and workmen. The Cavs allowed the Nuggets to get 12 more shots at the rim (37) and make 20 of them to the Cavs 12. Yes the Wine & Gold’s 25 shots at the rim represented as many as they’d taken the last two games combined, but that’s not sufficient.

Nor is a defense that allows the opponent to shoot 54% at the bucket. Love, Thompson and Mozgov all allowed 50% or better. While the Cavs did force 54 contested shots (out of 89), they simply can’t let their opponents get that many attempts at the heart of the defense. That’s how a not particularly bruising Nuggets squad beat the Cavs in the paint 48 to 44.

Though the Cavs moved the ball better, it was hardly good, racking up only 17 assists on 38 baskets. But for a team that had lost seven of 10 on the road before evening up this four-game road trip, it’s a well-earned victory, and a warm up for the upcoming six-game/nine-day road trip that begins on Wednesday. It holds the Magic 8 Ball answer of how quickly the Wine and Gold can become that finely tuned win-machine we saw the last half of last season.

The next Cavaliers game is at home Saturday against the Orlando Magic. The Cavs have crushed the Magic their last two meetings, home and away. We’ll be at the Q, commenting and posting video. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our game analysis on Sunday in the Scene blog.

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