Spurs Dig In, Cavaliers Leave Bruised and Beaten

For twenty-three minutes the Cavaliers looked like champions. That will get them to the NBA Finals if they can afford a few grand for airfare and tickets. That’s because the NBA isn’t a burlesque show and there’s no award for great teases – just ask last year’s Atlanta Hawks – as the Spurs topped the Wine and Gold 99-95 in San Antonio last night.

Cleveland outplayed the Spurs for almost the entire first half. With a minute left, the Cavaliers held a 12-point lead behind 53% shooting, a modest nine 3-pointers (out of 40 shots) and seven turnovers to the Spurs six. The Spurs were shooting 15-42 (36%) and their starters outside Tony Parker were a collective 3-19.

Then the Cavaliers let up. In sixty seconds they made at least a half-dozen mistakes that allowed the Spurs to cut the lead in half before intermission. Though they would still hold a lead going into the fourth quarter, the team’s ball movement had already dwindled.

They had assists on only 6 of their 17 second half buckets, and shot 16 threes (making the same number as in the first half, five), almost double that of the first half. They had nine second half turnovers (eighteen for the game), though six of those were offensive foul calls.

San Antonio had one offensive foul called (which seemed like a make-up call after a sketchy call against James on a loose ball thirty seconds earlier), and wound up shooting exactly twice as many free throws and making twice as many too. This was literally the difference in the game, as both teams made (32) and took (82/83) nearly the same number of shots.

The frustrating part is that none of this is surprising. The Cavs have struggled focusing for the full 48 minutes all season. They’ll be playing great basketball one moment, moving the ball and cutting, then regress into ball-pounding, movement-killing isolation the next. This freelancing hero ball kills momentum faster than Roundup and effects both ends of the court. (When the team’s offensive fortunes falter, the Cavs tend to let their defensive intensity slip as well.)

“We stopped moving the ball as well as we were earlier and of course they picked their defense up,” said Coach David Blatt afterwards. “It’s always important to move the ball. It’s also important to utilize the strengths you have in iso(lation) situations but it’s absolutely critical to move the ball.”

Dishing Out the Blame

There were individual culprits. Kyrie Irving generally played hard on defense, though not always well, as the Spurs exploited Love and Irving repeatedly in pick and rolls. Irving’s offense shot selection remains a work in progress, as his rustiness on the court feeds amplifies the difficulty of the shots he likes to take, and his desire to beat the Spurs in pick-and-roll pretty much stopped the team from running any regular offense for long stretches of the second half.

Despites a double-double including ten first half rebounds, Love was a non-factor or worse in the second producing three points on four shots and just two rebounds. San Antonio repeatedly posted Tim Duncan with Love on him, getting the game sealing basket over him with his greater length.

Whether it’s the low usage, his offseason surgery or his general role within the offense, but Love’s frequently tentative. He doesn’t seem to attack closeouts enough and his hesitation in launching threes (or, really, anywhere on the court) means he’s often bypassing scoring opportunities.

As if it weren’t hard enough already to get him the ball in a position from which he can easily score, he doubles the difficulty with this deferential lack of aggression. Given his passing skills it doesn’t seem much to ask to have Love attack 3-line closeouts as often as J.R. Smith has this year. The other issue is that Love often seems too preoccupied with scoring on these plays where given his passing skills, he should be able to force rotations that result in an open shot for someone else.

Love’s usage is up this year (23.4 versus last year’s 21.7) and he’s getting a few more assists per 36 minutes (2.8 v. 2.4), he also making more turnovers (2.1 v. 1.7), getting to the line less (4.5 to 4.6), and shooting even more threes (43% of shots over 41% last year) at a rate consistent with career numbers (36%). Love still seems capable of more.

It’s hard to say what exactly happened, but the reserves had a hard time competing with the Spurs bench which outscored the Cavaliers 32-12. Despite two sweet first half steals, Iman Shumpert seemed more detriment than credit, putting up a team worst -13 in plus/minus, one worse than Richard Jefferson, who finished -12, when Blatt exposed him in a bad lineup during the early fourth when the Spurs took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

David West in particular gave the team fits, scoring 13 on seven shots and grabbing three offensive boards. Aldridge had six and Duncan only nine. Tony Parker should get a return engagement in Kyrie Irving’s nightmares as he lit Ky up for 18 first half points en route to 24, with two assists and three steals. Think he remembers Irving’s 57 on them last March?

Kawhi Leonard also got hot scoring 16 second half points, as the Spurs shot 53% to the Cavaliers 42% in the half. But arguably the most damning thing in the half was the 14 personal fouls called on the Cavs against just five on the Spurs. The Spurs were even tougher in the fourth when they made 10 of 13 non-threes, and outboarded the Cavs 13-8.

"Having 18 turnovers for 19 points against this team who executes so well and don’t make many mistakes," said LeBron James, picking his own issue. "You have to take care of the ball more."

Omen in Second Half Close

We mentioned the 23 minutes of tough-nosed defense the Cavs played in the first half. The last sixty seconds unraveled some of that and served as a foreboding sigil for the second half. Here's the video, then we'll break it down more.
The sins in this sequence are multitudinous. In the first play of the sequence, LeBron gets in the way of Kyrie fighting under a Kawhi Leonard, and offers not defensive help against pick and roll. When Kyrie gets off the pick he doesn’t close very well leaving it to help defender Timofey Mozgov to (unsuccessfully) challenge Parker’s shot.
With the Cavaliers possession, LeBron dribble from one side of the floor to the other off a Mozgov pick-and-roll. Leonard switched onto Mozgov who could’ve slammed a proper pass. Indeed as badly as LeBron shot over Duncan and Ginobili (hidden to his left), perhaps it was a pass that Timo was too tentative to grab.
In the end, Leonard runs Mozgov over going for the ball, but despite falling to the floor right in front of the ref, no call. Then inbounding the ball with 41 seconds on the clock and a clear opportunity to go for the 2-for-1, Kyrie let Parker roll the ball all the way through the backcourt without touching it, thereby starting the clock. WHAT THE HELL??? Why didn’t he challenge and force them to run more clock?
As a result, the whole play took just 6 seconds off the clock, Parker cut the lead to 8, and left San Antonio enough time to take the last shot themselves. After an errant JR Smith three, the Spurs came down for the last shot. Again they went to the Duncan/Parker pick and roll that put Irving and Love on the defensive. If you watched Parker – not a great defender – but when he knows the pick is coming, he’ll pull up close to his man so he can slide over it.
Here Kyrie appears completely oblivious of looming pick and too far from Parker to get over it easily. That could be on Love to shout out a warning, or just Kyrie with somewhat inattentive defense, impossible to say. In the end, Parker got a fallaway 15’ jumper that he sunk easily over Kevin Love’s outstretched T-Rex arms. Whether it’s his jumping ability, arm length or foot speed, Love has notable trouble challenging shots around the lane, something the Spurs clearly were preying upon.

(Indeed, it seems like it must be wonky data, but according NBA.com’s player tracking data, the Cavaliers made 26 of 36 shots at the rim (72%) making them 12-46 elsewhere on the court. The Spurs were allegedly 25-33 at the rim (75%) and 13-50 elsewhere. Seems like bad data to us, but it was so eye-catching we had to mention it.)

Second Half Woe

All of this proved emblematic of what was to come. The Cavs second half was as bad as the Spurs first half, and by the end of the third, it seemed fortunate for the Cavs to still be clinging to a one-point lead. The Spurs opened the half on a 15-4 run, featuring baskets by four different Spurs and four Kawhi Leonard free throws.

The Spurs had erased the lead before the Cavaliers finally got it into gear. It’s hard to separate the cause from the effect but the Cavs stopped getting the ball to the rim and started relying on jumpers and threes. Five of their first 12 shots in the third were 3-pointers, contributing to the jump-shot heavy shot selection, and diminishing ball movement. (The Cavs had 3 assists on 8 baskets in the third.) The Spurs shot 8 free throws to the Cavaliers four.

Yet to begin the fourth quarter the Cavaliers had the lead in San Antonio, where they haven’t lost since March of last year. If the Cavs had pulled it together there, they would’ve had a chance to win the game. Instead they reverted to their worst, selfish habits.

It wouldn’t bother us so much that they barely ran any offense short of ad hoc pick-and-rolls all quarter if such actions had resulted in decent shots. It didn’t. They failed to push the ball in the quarter, didn’t get quickly into the frontcourt and when they did it was dribble dribble dribble and very little in the way of ball or player movement.
We tracked the Cavaliers’ first 15 possessions of the fourth quarter. Both Irving and James gave away a possession with a jump shot shortly after crossing half-court. Neither was involved in either of the two plays that involved more than one pass (both shots by Matthew Dellavedova while Kyrie sat), and one of those featured an inbounds after the ball was knocked out-of-bounds.

Some of the blame needs to go to Blatt who ran a lineup early in the quarter featuring Richard Jefferson at the 4 with Mozgov at center. David West got two quick buckets on him to start the fourth and get the Spurs rolling. Between Thompson, Love and Varejao, there has to be a better option.

As we mentioned earlier Jefferson was -12 plus/minus despite just 11 minutes on the floor. Blatt must find a better option and spot Jefferson better such that he’s not on the floor during crucial fourth quarter runs. (We’d also complain about how long he let the bleeding continue, not that Love provided much of an answer.)

“Obviously the way we started we seemed to know what we were doing and have a plan and we did get away from what we were doing earlier that was pretty clear,” Blatt said. “My guys played hard I just think they need to be a little more determined to play throughout the game with good flow and good pace.”

Final Analysis

The Cavaliers thoroughly outplayed the Spurs during the first half of the game and were just as thoroughly outplayed in the second. While we’re willing to make allowances for the fact that the Cavs are still gelling as a team, it’s still painful to see them so abandon the principles of ball movement and total team involvement.

Last night was particularly disappointing for Kyrie Irving, who was outplayed by Parker on both ends of the floor. He mostly put the effort in on defense, which was encouraging, but his technique still leaves a lot to be desired. In particular, he needs to be better prepared for the pick’s arrival. It still often seems to catch him off-guard, making it even harder for him to leave it behind.

It’s true that the Cavs mostly matched up pretty well with the Spurs, who’ve had years to integrate many of their pieces, where the Cavaliers core seven haven’t even been together for 50 games. It was also the fifth game of a long road trip. It's only the second time this season the Cavs have lost when leading at the beginning of the fourth.

But these are all really excuses. To win the NBA Championship they’ll almost definitely have to win a road playoff game against a team of the Warriors or Spurs caliber. Right now this team doesn’t look capable.

They look close, but lack the focus, intensity and discipline to get it done down the stretch. That’s disappointing, but there is still plenty of time for that to change. The fact that it always seems to come down to the same issues is even more disconcerting because it starts one wondering whether they might be implacable facets of this team’s personality.

We’re not there yet. We still believe this team has the character, and will develop the grittiness to stand up when the Spurs (and let’s be honest, the refs) push them down. The complaining really needs to stop because it accomplishes nothing and feels like a ready excuse for failure not the accountability one expects from a champion.

The Cavaliers continue to improve and perhaps these continued failures are the constant inspiration the team needs. They’ve climbed a few rungs, and can hang with the big boys (which we sort of expected after the Finals run), but don’t look solid enough to put the highest caliber teams away on the road. Yet.

The Cavaliers will be back at it tonight. We’ll be watching along with you, commenting and lending our analysis. You can follow on Twitter @CRS_1ne. You can read our postgame analysis the on Saturday in the Scene blog.
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