LeBron’s Not Enough If His Teammates Don’t Make Open Shots

Boxes of carefully alphabetized CDs mount to the ceiling, jostled by boxes of hanging folders containing everything from college papers to book notes; unhung gold records acquired during employment, carefully leaning against a wall beside a thicket of computer; and stereo wires from which even Br’er Rabbit would’ve found it difficult to extricate himself. 

Just making one’s way from room to room is a perilous challenge ranging from towers or pans and flatware to glass vases and loitering art pieces. When you’re moving into a new house, life is like an unedited mess of video; you do the best you can until you can get it cut down to size.

The same applies to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who also seem poised themselves to disappear into moving boxes. Their lineup’s a mess after putting three of their best eight pieces on the shelf this year, two in the last month and a half, yet they still survive among the ruins.

Nobody’s crying for the Cavaliers — nor should they, as they’ve lapped perhaps more talented Eastern Conference foes on the strength of grit and moxie. Make no mistake, the defense and intensity Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s replacements brought to the court exceeded their predecessors.

It may be that the Cavaliers don’t even reach the Finals with their original, more offensive-minded lineup. Perhaps Kevin Love wouldn’t have responded to the physicality of the Bulls series the way this team did, by hardening their shoulder and plowing the Hawks like the Tasmanian Devil with a thing for Toucan Sam.

But what Coach David Blatt wouldn’t give for even a smidgen of that old offense... We imagine him like a 70s filmic junkie, disheveled, a bit wild-eyed and begging up strangers, “Can you spare an open jumper? An easy transition hoop? How about I teach you a few Yiddish curse words and you let me loll around in the restricted area unfettered for a moment?”

Watching the Wine and Gold get outscored by an average of 11 points the last three fourth quarters, it’s hard not to feel like Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy comforting Dustin Hoffman’s dying character as he coughs and hacks his final breaths in the back of a bus. Cavs fans are increasingly convinced they’ve got their arm around a corpse.

Stephen Curry delivered a dagger in Game 5, personally hoisting the team on his shoulders, hitting 7 of 11 uncontested shots, and breaking open a tie game in the fourth with 17 points, outscoring the Cavaliers (16 fourth quarter points) by himself. This dispassionate American Sniper took them down from a distance, but still remains doesn’t care much for physicality.

Just as the Cavaliers used their physicality to take the Warriors out of their high-paced offensive attack, the Warriors used their small lineup to force the Cavaliers into a faster, less physical game. Though they were able to get 40 from Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in Game 4 at home, they still lost and Blatt didn’t seem comfortable continuing to ride that horse.

The argument is that Mozgov isn’t a very good passer out of a double team, which leads to turnovers which the Warriors are converting at a high rate do to the team’s year-long issues on transition defense.

Though they’ve improved during season and playoffs – mainly by limiting their turnovers – they surrender a high percentage of points, allowing on 10 turnovers but 18 points, while forcing 16 Warriors turnovers which they could only convert into 15 points.

The other issue is that playing Mozgov and Thompson together makes it harder to defend all the screens the Warriors run and leaves Mozgov covering guys like Andre Iguodala, who hit several open 3s with Mozgov on him. (We feel that he should press him more and then foul him if the goes by, as his 2-11 run at the line on Sunday suggests.)

However, the Warriors beat the Cavaliers on the boards by six on Sunday, and though the Cavaliers won the rebounding battle at home on Thursday and still lost, we’re much less convinced they can win a game they don’t win the rebounding battle. (Before that they’d won every game in the playoffs where they had the rebounding advantage.)

That smaller team did play even with the Warriors for nearly 40 minutes, but that’s the Warriors game and they feel comfortable playing it. By allowing them to play their kind of game with a lower amount of physicality than before Cleveland let them get into the pace and type of game they’ve won all season.

If playing big didn’t work in Game 4, matching their small team didn’t ultimately fare any better. But there seemingly has to be a middle ground that doesn’t involve playing Mozgov fewer than 10 minutes, one game after a career high 28, including 10-12 from the line. In Sunday’s game, James and Thompson took 19 free throws the rest of the team two.

There are many things to blame for that from the refs to the failure of the Cavs to keep taking the ball to the rim. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert must complement their jumpers with drives to the basket in an attempt to draw fouls and produce rebound opportunities. When someone leaves a big to stop penetration, it’s an ideal opportunity to pound the boards. Meanwhile long jumpers lead to long rebounds which the Warriors can turn into transition points.

Of course, the simplest way to analyze the game is to mention that it’s a make-or-miss league, which spare prose enthusiast Raymond Carver would probably love, penning something austere and heavy. “That was their relationship. He put it in, or he didn’t. Sighs or size had nothing to do with it.”

In Game 4 the Cavs shots a ghastly 6-29 (21%) on uncontested shots and had twice as many contested (59) shots. That’s a measure of how the Warriors came out with their back against the wall. The energy was palpable. They didn’t have that same energy in Game 5, but the Cavaliers didn’t do much better, LeBron James aside.

James was 7-11 on uncontested shots. The rest of the team was 7-25 (28%), even though they only got one less uncontested jumper than the Warriors. Golden State, however, has drained such shots at a great then 50% rate the last two games. In Game 5 they had nearly equal numbers of each but made two less contested shots. The Cavaliers actually shot better on contested shots (40% to 39%).

So maybe it really is as simple as a Married with Children plot. The Cavs aren’t making open shots. They haven’t gotten physical enough with the Warriors lately, and need to get to the line to both slow the game down, get a little rest and score some relatively easy points.

Timofey Mozgov’s free throw showing alone in Game 4 suggests he must be a part of a home victory, and Blatt may feel the fouls will be going more his way in Game 6 at home, making it easier to keep Moz-erati in there.

The Cavaliers won two in a row knocking the media mouths and the Warriors straight on their backside. Now the Warriors have come back and done the same. Some media bloviators learned from the first occurrence, but most expect the Warriors to stomp the Cavaliers like they did the last two fourth quarters.

But the Warriors will also be tired. Kerr’s gotten into playing his starters 40 minutes/game as well. They play with pace, but usually not so many minutes, and we have to wonder if there will be some moment when all those Curry and Thompson minutes start to show in their legs and defense.

Mostly, we just rely on some time-tested economics. This is the highest-rated NBA Finals series since Jordan. Wouldn’t the NBA love for this to go seven games? That’s a lot more money in their coffers if it does. We’d be a little surprised if they don’t get what they want.

Oh, and the Cavaliers have the best player in the world playing for them, which is sort of like having The Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan in the bullpen, manipulating time and space. We just have to hope that Steve “Ozymandias” Kerr doesn’t distract him so much with the scoring load that James can’t help his teammates hit their needed higher level (of open shots). 

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