Media Lining Up Pallbearers, But Cavaliers Aren’t Dead Yet

Welcome from the Bay where after a thrilling overtime game the NBA Finals was decided by X-ray. Though the diagnostician never made it onto camera, the postmortems were written before the shutter could blink: “Kyrie Irving out for months with injury; the Cavs may not win another game.”

If disrespect were a mason jar, the Cavaliers would already be pickled and on the shelf.

“We were the underdog coming into the series, and with Kyrie being out, people are writing us off,” said LeBron on Saturday. “I mean, that's fine. That's fine. I'm motivated.”

Big Data’s long list of clients declared this one of the Finals’ greatest mis-matchups in history, yet the first game came down to a rebound and putback. Like almost every other such shot for the Cavaliers that night, it went awry.

We’re not sure if you’d call 1-11 on second-chance points defense, incompetence or luck, but we do know it’s disastrous for a team into a second or third life and living off the offensive boards.

Despite the (over-) seasoned analysis, both teams made the same number of baskets; the fierce Warrior 3-point attack managed one more three. The difference in the game it would seem – as it was all postseason – has been the Cavaliers ability to control the boards, which they didn’t do after the first quarter.

The Wine and Gold actually controlled their turnovers, making one fewer than the Warriors, and Golden State’s vaunted passing attack only produced 24 assists, one off their post-season average despite the extra frame.

The big, largely unnoted difference in the game was the Warriors' ability to hit their open shots. During the entire Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks shot poorly on open shots. That is not Golden State’s issue. Half their shots were open/wide-open and they hit 52%, while shooting just 36% on contested shots. The Cavs shot 42.3% on contested shots and 40.5% on uncontested, while shooting ten more (52-40) contested.

Clearly the goal has to be more contested shots, and it largely worked. With five minutes left Thompson got loose for a pull-up three in transition. That’s when Blatt went to Mozgov, who produced immediately with a dunk, followed by a 6-0 Warriors lead thanks to a miscommunication that gave Bogut a dunk and Thompson two free throws.

At that point Blatt sent in Thompson for Shumpert. Those two were +5 all night when on the floor together, and are an obvious key for the Cavs. Down the stretch, much like Blatt, Kerr would rather go small, but with both Thompson and Mozgov in there the Warriors are in danger of being crushed on the boards, as the Cavs did in the first quarter.

Mozgov-Thompson and Mozgov-James were the most successful non-Irving lineups last night (both +5). Over the last five games, the best combinations are with Mozgov, Shumpert, Thompson and James. (The James Jones lineups are better offensively but much worse defensively, and the feeling here is that Cavs must simply go all in on defense going forward.)

Those lineups, especially with Shumpert playing the wing, are tremendous on the boards. The Cavs allowed 11 offensive rebounds to the Warriors, and, thanks to Cleveland’s poor put-back, trailed the Warriors in second-chance points 10-6. Yet the Cavaliers did win the battle of the paint 44-40, and will need to turn that even more to their advantage on Sunday.

The Cavaliers were a somewhat ridiculous 7-28 in defending the rim, which means the Warriors were 32-60 when not going into the paint. It would seem that Cavs must improve that and try to drive the Warriors even more off the open jumpers. Hand them the keys to a Ferrari and bait them into drives.

We heard a lot about the Warriors vaunted bench but it seemed as much due to defensive weaknesses. The Cavs gave the Warriors bench 12 open jumpers (they made EIGHT). When they contested the reserves’ shots they were 2-11 (excluding Andre Igoudala’s unsustainable 4-4).

The Cavaliers only got five defensive boards in the fourth quarter against the Warriors four offensive rebounds, including two by Harrison Barnes. That just can’t happen. Barnes was also 4-8 on open jumpers. 

So What Next?

The Cavaliers’ options are somewhat constrained. After running a short bench through most of the playoffs, the Warriors' superior numbers caught up with them by overtime. Even though Blatt likes to make few allowances on rotation it seems he’s going to have to sacrifice some of James Jones' 17 minutes to someone who offers more than great stationary shooting.

We understand the desire to keep his 3-point shot in the game, but unless we get a transition 3 it isn’t like his man is leaving him. He got up one shot in 17 minutes, and his time could probably be better used by someone who brings something that’s less easily denied.

His only real skill is the 3. Take that away and he’s a liability on defense and the boards – the two places where the Cavs really need to hold the line. Further, we noticed that Tristan had 7 rebounds in his first 11 minutes of play and 8 the rest of the way.

While some of that is Warriors defense, some of that is sheer fatigue. The Cavaliers must give Thompson more of a blow because his game is built around effort, and that flags as exhaustion sets in. While Blatt can argue that if they’d won we wouldn’t be discussing the rotations, it also seems that the Cavaliers outplayed the Warriors but for a handful of plays.

Indeed, if the refs hadn’t utterly blown the Mozgov travel call you could argue it’d have gone unnoticed, something amplified by Blatt playing Irving 43 minutes. (A clear indication to the media that, yes, they completely sandbagged you on Irving’s health, sitting him in that practice when the media came in.)

However it seems to us that the Warriors 10-deep approach was always on a collision course with the Cavs' short bench, which almost inevitably was going to be a factor at some point. Probably sooner.

Now that we’re here the question is, Where now? Going big still seems like the best option. Without Kyrie it’s not as essential that the bigs stay out of driving lanes, particularly as LeBron is receiving the ball more frequently (and with better success, we might add) in the post than out front in the pick and roll.

When James is in the post, spacing is of less importance. He’s usually close enough to the basket that help can only do so much. If the team plays Thompson along the baseline for a potential alley-oop and Mozgov at the weakside elbow, it can dissuade the double particularly if TMo and TT make them pay with “and 1.”

The failure to continue to attack the basket was a real issue at the end, particularly as Draymond Green played the final 4:30 of regulation with five fouls. How did the Cavs not exploit that more?

Nobody is going to tell you this will be easy, but it’s not the Houdini act the press are making it out to be. They thought this team would blow the Cavaliers out, and even though that didn’t happen, it hardly changes their opinion. The Warriors will not have the same intensity as the Cavs, but if Blatt doesn’t lengthen the bench, it’s worth wondering if they can sustain it.

Add together Irving’s 40 minutes, cutting Thompson’s minutes back to 38, and stealing ten minutes from James Jones, leaves about 60 minutes — only a third to half of which will go to Delly (who played 9 minutes already on Thursday and would seem to top out at 30). Marion will get some of that presumably.

He’s still very skilled defending stretch 4s and 3s (please don’t put him back on SGs again), and more importantly he rebounds. Perkins could get a few minutes in the second quarter and end of the third to spell Mozgov without making Thompson play center.

He’s still a decent defender, and so long as James is in to find him under the basket when his man strays; he’s not too much of an offensive liability that you can’t buy a few minutes with him, especially when Ezeli comes in. Their two physical styles/limited offensive skills are made for each other. Not like Warriors are going to put Ezeli in pick and roll.

The points are going to have to come from the guys on the floor. Shumpert needs to take the ball to the hole more aggressively, as JR Smith has begun to do, attacking the closeouts. Smith simply must score more and not lose his man on defense, particularly when it’s Klay Thompson.

JR must simply not stop shooting. He only took 10 shots on Thursday. Look for 20 on Sunday. He also seems the most likely guy – when not Delly – to bring the ball up and make entry passes to LeBron in the post.

He’s much more effective when receiving a pass, and the team must make more effort to do so. Shumpert has played on-point, but threw a terrible pass that result in a layup the other way on Thursday and seems to have a much iffier handle than Smith.

This team won seven in a row before Thursday, much of those games without Kyrie. Only anti-Eastern Conference bias (some warranted) prevents this from being seen as an accomplishment. After all, it isn’t like the Warriors faced the best or even healthy opponents on their way after the Spurs and Clippers were dispatched and the Grizzlies' best defender taken away.

Cleveland has been walking this same tightrope for several weeks, and though their eyes are nearly swollen shut from the punishment, they still own a helluva haymaker. It seems foolish to bet against a man who has defied odds most of his life to put himself in the conversation as the finest, most complete ballplayer of all time.

James had a funny line on Saturday when someone said the Warriors were willing to give him his 40. James corrected the reporter. They didn’t give him anything. He took it. That’s about the size of it.

You’re damn right nothing’s been given. But that doesn’t mean they can’t take it.
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