Love’s Scoring Hardly Only Talent, As He Shows Against the Heat

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Remember “R E L A X”? How you feeling right now? Rising above the Love-ly Twitter storm of the early week, the team cruised to victory over the Miami Heat last night

The team’s clearly rounding into form. While there are only so many points to go around, opportunities are spread pretty evenly. The team’s running their sets and the amount of one-on-one play has diminished. Even more importantly, the team has gone from paying defense lip-service to putting forth the effort necessary to do it right.

They held the Heat to 40.5% field goal, the 11th time in the last 13 games they’ve had an opponent below 42%. Kevin Love in particular looked terrific defensively early, coming up with a couple steals. 

Notice on the very first play how quickly Love gets up the court on transition defense. While so many people are so hung up on Love’s nine-point scoring average drop over last year, they seem immune to considering his other contributions. He’s ninth in the league in rebounding, and his defensive turnaround the last six weeks rivals only Kyrie's defensive renaissance in the realm of stunning 180s.

This is why I’ve facepalmed the last three weeks while people wring their hands about Love’s scoring. These are Love’s numbers showing how he impacts player’s shooting % from various parts of the floor when he’s contesting:4

Month       / less than 6 ft (frequency%) / less than 10 ft (freq.) / Greater than 15 ft (freq.)
November /  +3.7 (41)                               / +2.2 (61)                     / -5.6 (29)
December / +2.5 (42)                               / +1.2 (62)                     / 0.0 (33)
January    / -7.8 (44)                                / -3.1 (60)                       / 0.1 (32)
February  / -14.4 (36)                              / -6.4 (50)                      / -6.2 (44)

Comparisons (season total)
Andrew Bogut -15.4 (47) / -12.5 (65) / 1.5 (28)
Serge Ibaka -12 (41) / -9 (55) / -1.4 (40)
Anthony Davis -7.4 (43) / -6.2 (54) / -6.3 (40)
Joakim Noah -6.5 (31) / -9.0 (46) / -.5 (45)
Nerlens Noel -7.0 (54) / -3.4 (64) / +4.5 (33)
Marc Gasol -3.9 (51) / -5.1 (67) / -2.8 (36)

I’m no more a coach than a scientist, and I know that Charles Barkley hates analytics, but defensive stats can tell us things our eyes have trouble sorting out, and at least it’s apples to apples and not one man’s reputation versus another’s. You’ll notice that of late Love has been challenging more long jumpers and you’ll also note that he’s doing a terrific job. (Having Mozgov – who is in the top 10 of rim protecting FG% since coming over – certainly helps Love press harder on the perimeter.)

So perhaps it’s a little frustrating for Kevin Love to hear night after night that the only thing people seem to notice or value are his offensive contributions. He certainly described it as “very frustrating” and that there wasn’t a playbook for this. When you only score five points you probably say things you don’t fully mean, but it seemed to be the trigger for LeBron’s tweet.

There are only so many scoring chances to go around, something LeBron was perhaps trying to communicate to Love. However you feel about the tactics LeBron employed, the idea seems to be that there will be plenty of opportunities to go around on a game-to-game rather than quarter-to-quarter basis, a fact reinforced by Love’s 32-point game against the Lakers.

Nonetheless it seems like a really thin copper pot that some are hammering on with Love’s scoring. Hopefully people will open their eyes to what he’s doing defensively. Then again, the world’s been the same a great long time, and I expect it to be the same 1,000 years from now. Probably sooner.

One thing helping Love is that Blatt’s opened up some of the playbook and pulled out some of the nifty sets he has. There are so many threats on this team; running sets can undoubtedly seem superfluous when Irving and James who seemingly can break their man down three out of four times. “Plays? Who needs stinkin’ plays?“

But that early-season refrain is now a distant memory – hopefully like “All About That Bass” – and the team’s running sets that take advantage of the Cavs’ deep talent.

This play features a pick from LeBron James who then flares for the corner. Timofey Mozgov is stationed at the elbow, able to dive to the basket if his man leaves to double the post, while LeBron will be open in the corner should the Cavs choose to swing or skip pass out of the post. Having J.R. Smith do the entry opens up Kyrie Irving to be a catch & shoot 3-point threat straightaway.

Later Blatt snuck some 2-3 zone in, flummoxing the Heat and helping ignite what would be a 22-9 run during the final five minutes of the first quarter. The Cavs forced a couple turnovers and four missed shots during that two or so minutes they ran it while LeBron was off the floor. It’s the kind of little thing that can escape your notice.

The team even ran a post-up play with Love at the three-point line on the wing, a variation on the kind of clear out play they’ll run sometimes in the first allowing Love to back his man down in the post. Pictured below, he popped out instead opening up the lane for Tristan who had gotten a great seal on his man.

Thompson has benefited from Blatt laying the lion’s weight of the bench minutes on him and Shumpert. Blatt’s tightened the rotation during the streak often going only eight deep until the Fat Lady’s into the last line of the final refrain. It’s helped make everyone, especially the new guys, a lot more secure in their roles, but he could probably cut the mileage on the big three a bit.

At the press conference before last night’s Heat game, Blatt seemed surprised to hear that Shawn Marion had endured the first DNP-Coach’s Decision of his life against the Lakers, and said the as the season went on the rotation would loosen a bit.

The issue for Marion is that Tristan Thompson has played outstanding the last few weeks, and really during the whole season has been the Cavs most consistent player. Nobody on this team shows up every game like Thompson – at least since Varejao went down.

Thompson, who was one of the worst rim protectors in the league last year (alongside Thaddeus Young and Kevin Love), has improved from allowing 58% of his 5.2 rim defenses to go through to 50.6% while facing one-third more shots. That’s the same rate as the Zellers brothers and Brook Lopez and Al Horford – not great, but a vast improvement. It adds to Thompson’s demonstrated talented switching onto guards on the perimeter.

He’s defending the perimeter less these days (41.5% of his shots last year, 33% this) and he’s been even more effective inside of 10 and 6 feet while facing more shots improving from +1.9/+1.6 to -4.1/-3.9, according to’s player tracking stats. That’s a 5.5%-6.0% swing and will undoubtedly come into play around contact time this summer.

Marion got into the game, but the way the bigs are playing there are fewer PF minutes, and Shumpert is doing a fine job of eating up wing minutes. He and Smith are averaging more than three steals per game between them.

It’s all a reason why it’s easy to forget Marion. I mean, have you seen this guy’s form? He puts the shot-put in shot. (He’s also scored 17,667 points for a 15.3 lifetime average, 48% FG and 33% from deep.) But he does a lot of little things that don’t ever show up in the score sheet. He’s usually in the right place and despite his wiry frame does a good job in the post. (His declining athleticism was exposed this year trying to shadow guards.)

Playing his more natural position of small forward in a lineup with Tristan, Love, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs have put up their best differential of any lineup that’s seen the court for at least 15 minutes, posting a +28 differential per 100 possessions.

Believe it or not, the best lineup has been that squad, replacing Marion with Matthew Dellavedova. And the Mozgov-Love-Marion-Smith-Kyrie lineup is the best defense lineup in that dataset – though it’s only seen 17 minutes and has struggled offensively. It’s still their fifth best lineup, right beside the same lineup with Dion Waiters replacing Smith.

Which I suppose is going a long way to say that while Blatt’s focused on what we have, the bench shouldn’t be neglected. Blatt’s had a tendency to focus on developing starter chemistry to the exclusion of the bench. Now that he finally has one it seems he could reach a little deeper into it especially given that they’ve built some pretty huge second-half leads the last couple weeks.

Going into tonight’s game against the Bulls, their two-thirds season from hell has caught up with the preseason hype. A team that played defense less often than Seth Rogen shaves is suddenly pushing their way toward the top of the league.

If they can even muster a top-10 defense, this offense has enough firepower to carry them to the Finals. Using effective FG as the measure they have the best offence (tied with Atlanta) and third best defense during that time. Some of these teams haven’t been top-notch and there have been a lot of home games, but there’s every reason to believe this is for real.

I’ll be live tweeting tonight during the matchup with the Bulls providing video from the game. Follow me @CRS_1ne. You can also read my column on Friday on the Cleveland Scene’s Scene & Heard blog.

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