Passing, Cutting and Defense: Cavs Put It All Together in 105-91 Win Over Grizzlies

When they film LeBron James’ life story and prodigal’s return, this figures to be the montage segment where, through teamwork and focus, the Cavs discover their inner Survivor song.

That’s what we’re witnessing as the Cavs bounced back from an emasculating loss to the Hawks and a lackluster Brooklyn Nets win with one of this season’s finest performances, beating the second-winningest team in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies, 105-91 last night.

The montage would probably include the post-game scene of LeBron cracking on the trophy Kyrie Irving received last night as USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year for his performance in the Basketball World Cup.

LeBron joked about the trophy’s grandeur and that they left the “g” off his name, prompting Kyrie to look down and check, laughing with good humor. The post-game interviews shared similar light-hearted musketeer (“all for one”) attitude echoing like a Greek chorus: “Just the process of getting to know and trust your teammates.”

Judging from yesterday, they’ve moved beyond Trust Falls. Meanwhile, Wednesday’s lineup change that elevated wing Mike Miller to the starting lineup and sending Marion to the bench is paying immediate dividends.

Miller didn’t reprise his Friday night performance where he drilled seven 3-pointers to burn the Nets, indeed he only shot once, but he had four assists in 16 minutes, emblematic of his contribution to the team’s share the ball aesthetic. (Miller also made plenty of good rotations on defense.) As the Spurs showed last year, ball movement trumps isolation basketball most nights of the week.

Nearly three-quarters of their 46 baskets were assisted, contributing to the 60.5% FG. Both are extraordinary percentages which allowed both LeBron (11, 9 in the first half) and Kyrie (12) to reach double digits in assists. The ball was moving crisply and without pause as no one overdribbled. Kyrie in particular is showing improvement picking his spots. He made a couple astounding drives to the basket and scored 17 but only took 13 shots. Here he finds LeBron, for a hoop rather than the other way around.

Meanwhile Shawn Marion’s move to the second team has increased its defensive intensity and bolstered the scoring. He hit five of six shots. Nearly all were the result of dump-offs on drives leaving him with easy hoops any Lay-Z-Boy jockey could see themselves making, along with one wide-open three for a total of eleven points, along with five rebounds, a steal and a block in 22 minutes.

That’s terrific production off your bench. Dion also added 21 points, and was mobbed by reporters after the game, but 13 of those points came in the 4th quarter after the game was pretty much decided, exaggerating their impact. Memphis Coach Dave Joerger pulled all-star center Marc Gasol with ten minutes left in the 4th trailing by 9. The Grizzlies never got closer and Gasol never returned.

The Cavs got off to another one of their legendary starts, shooting out to a 20-6 lead with four minutes left in the first. Varejao had 8 of his 18 points in the quarter as Memphis had trouble handling the LeBron/Varejao pick and roll. Here you can see the conundrum – does Love’s man cheat over leaving Love an open corner 3? Does Prince, trailing LeBron, hand him to Gasol sliding over to take the Wild Thing? It’s the Kobayashi Maru all over again, especially when run in the middle of the floor with Irving and Miller poised at the 3-line

Of course, the offense hasn’t been the problem, it’s been the defense, particularly on the pick and roll. Cavs site Fear the Sword has been complaining about how hard the team’s hedged the pick-and-roll all season so they have to be happy after this performance. 

The idea was to force ballhandlers to reverse or relinquish the ball and give our guards more time to escape picks, something they’re not particularly adept at. Without a shot-blocker in the middle, the theory is you must force your opponent to move the ball. This is what Miami does. But our bigs – notably Varejao and Love – are not so agile that you want them coming out so far from the basket to stop the ballhandler. It strings them out and exposes the other four guys.

Blatt confirmed after the game that they’ve worked over the last week on tweaking the pick-and-roll, making it somewhat less aggressive. Notice how Varejao merely stays in front of Conley as opposed to trying to cut him off and force him to go/pass left.

Compare that to how hard Thompson challenges the ball handler on this play from the Atlanta game. Thompson’s aggressive “hedge” (as it’s known) pretty much forces the ballhandler away from the basket, giving the guard time to recover. (But as David Blatt noted after the first preseason game – pick and roll offense is too important in the NBA for you only to defend it one way.)

“When we get strung out we’re not as effective on the defensive end, so tha’ts just been little things we’ve been trying to clean up,” said Kevin Love (8 pts, 8 rbds) after the game. “A team like Memphis or Atlanta, they give you a lot of different looks. They’re kind of a grind it out team, beat you down low. We just needed to find different switching situations and matchups where we could get out to shooters, but also stop the attack inside.”

While everyone will rave about Dion, and even Coach Blatt had nice words to say about him, he remains a very one-dimensional player. That said, as Blatt notes, he is needed to score for the second team, and after the game he actually noted how he needs to defer to others and reign in his game when out with the first team, but let it fly when Love and LeBron are off the floor.

While his scoring is very useful, I’d take half as good a scorer if I could get an above-average defensive player, because there’s more than enough scoring on this team. Not that it isn’t pretty to watch.

What the Cavs really need is more people like Marion. (Championships are won with defense.) The Matrix’s ability to score – despite a shot so ugly blind orphans weep for him, and the New York Times actually wrote about it — is icing on the defensive cake.

Marion’s energy and intensity alone set a good example, particularly on the second team, while his ability to play the power forward has been taken advantage of in three-guard lineups the last two games.

Meanwhile their second quarters (typically at least half backups time) have been very good the last two games, in large part due to Marion, who got into the Christmas spirit last night by gladly receiving. This is how you score five times without really trying (and though it looks easy, please don’t try this at home).

Marion’s night shouldn’t overshadow Varejao’s 18 pts and 7 boards in 27 minutes. It’s just that we’ve seen LeBron and the Wild Thing carve people up on the pick-and-roll all season long. As we said before, the team’s starting to come together and do things consistently.

It’s also nice to see people taking turns carrying the scoring burden. Wild Thing had 8 in the first, Marion had 8 in the second, LeBron had 9 in the third and Waiters had 13 in the 4th. LeBron also had this emphatic slam in the second quarter off a Love pick going left to right. I don’t care how much weight he’s lost, I still don’t want to get in front of LeBron when he’s got some steam.

Though Memphis was missing key player Zach Randolph and backup guard/defensive stopper Tony Allen, it’s still an impressive win. The Cavs led the entire game and the second team looked very good, where a week ago it was a real let-down, defensively and offensively, whenever they came in. We’ll see how that holds.

The Cavs had an eight-game win streak before losing three-out-of-four. Mark my words, I expect the team’s streak (now two) to reach nine when they face Dallas at home in two weeks. They’ll need to beat Atlanta a week from tomorrow, and Miami on Christmas day, both on the road, which I think they will.

In the meantime, tomorrow, they face a Minnesota team reeling from injuries (Rubio, Pekovic), and starting four first or second year players. It could be a bloodbath unless the Cavs play down to their level. Let’s hope not.

As usual, I will be live tweeting during the game and sharing game video @CRS_1ne – the only Cavaliers beat reporter doing that. 
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