The Cleveland Cavaliers squeaked out another win last night, 118-114 over the Utah Jazz. Despite playing a string of five straight teams that didn’t make the playoffs (the sixth being the Knicks on Friday), the Wine and Gold have done their best to make it interesting.
They may have won seven in a row, but they’ve mostly made it “interesting.” However, the slow starts, inconsistent defense, and overall tendency at times to play down to the competition don’t strike anyone as all that worrisome. Injuries and odd scheduling limited the team’s preseason time, and as a result it can get a little ugly at times.
“We’ve won some ballgames but there are still some things we need to clean up,” said LeBron James after the game. “We had some uncharacteristic turnovers. Defensively we didn’t communicate on a few plays and they made us pay for it because that team really executes their offense.”
The Utah Jazz don’t necessarily inspire fear. In the particularly slow moving pregame chow line one of the road team’s people snarked that the crowd couldn’t be everyone showing up to see the Jazz on a Wednesday night. Indeed most years you’d draw a bigger crowd offering actual jazz.
When the clerk, in classic Midwestern nice told him, “Ah, you’re not so bad,” it brought an amusingly awkward explanation of how the Jazz is a team “the geeks love,” by which he meant the sabrematicians. (She didn’t understand this, and presumably though Booger, Gilbert and Lewis were big fans.)
But he’s not mistaken. When the Jazz traded the league’s worst defensive big Enes Kanter, and started playing the league’s very best defensive big, Rudy Gobert, the Jazz became the league’s very best defense. Not a lot of people noticed, but the stat nerds did.
Of course, that’s not how Jazz Coach Quinn Snyder explains their transformation.
“I think there was a pride that started to develop, an identity,” says Snyder. “Our team started to see that as a way we could have some success in the short-term and hopefully build on that. It’s hopefully something that continues to stick.”
The 7’2 Frenchman Gobert has the potential to change attitudes about the entire country. He’s that fierce protecting the bucket. Gobert challenges 11 shots/game and only 32% of them go in, a pretty epic mark. Over the last half of the season they were the league’s toughest defense, and they’ve been at or near the top of most defensive stats all year.
Which is to say that while Utah hasn’t been good since Karl Malone, the current core have the possibility to change that.
They would almost assuredly make the playoffs were they not in the Western Conference and plagued by some rather weak guard play. Neither Trey Burke, a shooting guard in a point guard’s body, and Raul Neto can pass, but would have trouble scoring in Tara Reid’s bedroom. Two halves don’t make a whole.
Not that the Cavaliers didn’t try to make Burke and the putative point guard, heretofore, shooting guard Alec Burks (who actually is a shooting guard in a shooting guard’s body) look like stars. The two paired for 40 points, and outscored the Cavaliers starting duo of Mo Williams and J.R. Smith, returning from a three-game absence after banging knees a week ago against the 76ers.
The Cavaliers had played some great defense until the last few games. Ironically, the offense has gotten better while the defense regressed. Last night was the second game in a row where the Cavaliers had 10 secondary assists.
They had nine in two of the three games before that. In fact during the first half, the Cavs had assist on 15 of their 19 baskets, a spectacular rate. Here you can see an example of the extra pass. Kevin Love has an open 3 off the pick & flare play with Mo Williams. But he sees Gordon Hayward (LeBron’s man) racing towards him and instead of taking the shot passes to LeBron for a vicious throwdown.
Love played a big role again, surpassing 80 touches for the second time this year, with 82. They were looking for Love – but in all the right places.
The Cavs offense was good but for the turnovers, of which they had 12 by half, giving the Jazz 15 points. That’s not surprising in that the Jazz thrive in the open court and are fourth in the league in turning opponents’ turnovers into points. That’s a bit of a must for them because they don’t have the kind of one-on-one offensive players that can just get a bucket when they need one down the stretch.
“We have to do a better job of that especially when we’re getting stops but we’re giving teams extra possessions. They also had 8 offensive rebounds in the first half,” LeBron said. “We were holding them to 40% at one point in the second but we had 10 turnovers and there were all from the starters.” (James is not above checking the scoreboard boxscore during the game.)
The frontline of Gobert and Derrick Favors, plus gritty rebounding/energy power forward Devin Booker, is pretty formidable and gave the Cavaliers fits in the first half. They indeed grabbed 8 offensive boards to the Cavaliers 6 defensive ones. If the team hadn’t shot 53% and 54% from 3, they would’ve been in trouble. They continued to get into the paint whether off rebounds or penetration, and though they didn’t shoot well, got enough easy buckets to stay in it.
The Cavs were up before that by twelve, 38-26, with seven minutes left relinquished the lead with turnovers and defensive lapses, including four turnovers in one three minute stretch during which they didn’t score. This was followed by a 10-2 run just before the final minute to close the lead to two.
The Jazz finished the half down four, but killing the Cavs on the boards and in the paint where they held a 26-14 advantage. During the second half the Cavs would play them even and repeatedly go to the hole to garner a ridiculous 37 second half free throws. Some of that was late game fouling but there were 18 Cavalier free throws in the third quarter alone.
With 5:24 left in the third Kevin Love hit a 3 off a LeBron James pass to give the Cavs a ten point lead. The team would not make another basket for five minutes. They’d miss their next five shots, and four free throws (they made six) while making two turnovers, to allow the Jazz to tie the game. There were lots of miscommunications like this one on the pick and roll, which allowed a slam.
With 30 seconds left, Delly hit a floater where the Jazz were so worried about the alley-oop, they essentially gave him a layup.
The game entered the fourth quarter tied, but the Jazz came out hot while James and Love both sat. Blatt sent them back in with 10 minutes left, but they only managed 3 points over the next 2:30. They went down by nine with 7:22 left. That’s when the Cavs really turned it on. In less than four minutes the Cavaliers executed a 17-3 blitz, featuring 7 points by LeBron and seven Cavalier free throws (with only one miss). LeBron led the way just as he did Sunday. Just as he does almost every day. Besides the points he had an assist, a key steal to extend a possession and then to cap it off drew a charge.
All in a day’s work for LeBron. Also deserving mention is Mo Williams who like Richard Jefferson has exceeded anyone’s most optimistic expectations. Williams is shooting 49% from the field and 41% from beyond the boundary while averaging 16.5 points/game. Last night he was nearly perfect sinking 8 of 9 shots, 4 of 4 triples and nine of 10 free throws. He never seems to force the action. He finds backdoor and cutting players with passes they can handle, and he’s even looked passable on defense much of the time. Nothing but kind tidings for Mo and Tristan Thompson. The $82-million dollar man continues to show improvement defensively, blocking three shots in the final stanza including this monster rejection on Gobert, who’s probably at least a half-foot taller.
He was part of the Cavaliers terrific defense at the rim. The Cavaliers only allowed 13-35 (37%) on shots at the rim. Thompson (5-11), Love (6-14) and even the laboring Mozgov (2-5) helped turn back the beefy Salt Lake City crew.
Indeed, while the team did surrender 29 points on turnovers, the defense was otherwise pretty solid. The Wine and Gold contested 52 of Utah’s 82 shots (63%), their second best showing this season. (Contesting isn’t everything. The Cavs best performance was 71% against the 76ers at home, where they hit 46%, better than they did on open shots.)
Overall the team continues to make progress. There’s a lot of inconsistency in certain areas but the passing and offense seems to be fine, so long as they can clean up the turnovers. You may remember the Cavs had the same problem early last season of making turnovers which were turned into points at a high high rate.
But unlike last year, this team is playing shorthanded. They have a top 5 defense without their best perimeter defender and a top 5 offense without their second best offensive player. You’d have to be a terminal misanthrope not to be encouraged. Sure, there are issues, but it’s looking more and more like this is the same team that went 33-3 at the end of the regular season last year, and also like the defensive juggernaut of the playoffs.
It’s almost like you’re a little thankful they’re banged up. Wouldn’t want them to get too full of themselves or to peak too early. Of course, that seems all but impossible with LeBron James watching the speedometer and applying the gas at the appropriate time.
Can’t help but feel the fun is just beginning.
We’ll be in New York on Friday, making our first visit to Madison Square Garden. We’ll be tweeting analysis and video from the game. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne
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