Sunday Notes: Cavaliers Ask Pixies, Where Is My Mind?

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The Cavaliers are as frustrating to write about as they are to watch. They’re Jekyll & Hyde! They’re Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader! Batman’s Harvey Dent! They’re a fast-cycling teenager coming off a sugar buzz! They’re your best frenemy! They may be looking for an identity, but we’ve got a pretty good read on their character.

But give them credit – they found some consistency the past week, jumping out to big first half leads against the Rockets, Knicks and Hawks, then blowing those leads in the second half. Only the Nets have escaped that pattern, winning in Brooklyn and losing in Cleveland nearly wire-to-wire. Of course, even the fact of losing to the Nets speaks volumes toward their inconsistency.

What more is there to be said? Maybe it’s fitting, for a team which courts drama like dating strippers. While the King has bristled at the underdog role, perhaps for the first time in six years, there’s something right about it.

Those Golden Boys may do like many golden boys and flame out earlier than anyone expected, burdened by expectations that were easier to bear when they were unheralded. San Antonio are taciturn professionals. They’re Mr. Wolf supervising head cleanup. Their sheer lack of drama is part of their intimidation.

In this scenario, the Cavaliers are the drunken masters, who despite their stumbling, bumbling ways are a foe not to be underestimated. In layman’s terms, “unreliably dangerous.” Isn’t that Cleveland in a nutshell?

The win over Atlanta was a moral victory, and gave the Cavaliers a taste of the drama they seem to crave. They hung tough with the pressure and battled back. We’re supposed to be pleased about this. You know, “pressure didn’t bust the pipes”?

“When times get tough you’re able to rely on each other,” James said, explaining what they’d learned. “We played a helluva first half. The third quarter has been our Kryptonite so far this year. We have to figure that out. But we gave ourselves a chance to win in the end and we did do that. We were able to get a stop – we got a stop to send it into overtime, then got stop at the end of the overtime period to get the win.”

While we’re all for stress-testing the Cavaliers’ plumbing to make sure the brass bearings are suitably large, we figure they’ll receive plenty of on-the-job training in the playoffs, why test the fittings now? Not like we can replace them.

So while we enjoyed getting a key victory, and especially seeing this team perform with energy and focus down the stretch on the second night of a back-to-back against a resting home team, it’s still a game they played well for 30 of the 53 minutes. That won’t get it done in the playoffs.

All year we’ve heard about them developing better habits, but we’ve gotten a good look at those regular season habits and even Sister Act II puts them to shame. Hiring Tyronn Lue was supposed to change the team’s energy, or so we were told. It’s hard to hold a rookie head coach responsible for a team he took over in midseason, but he hasn’t flipped the script of anything.

Don’t get us wrong. We like Lue and believe maybe one day he’ll be a really good coach. Maybe it will even be this year. Even if it isn’t this year, Steve Kerr and Paul Westhead won the NBA Championship their first year of NBA coaching, though neither took over in midseason.

Heck, we’ll give him credit for not making the team any worse. But let’s be frank, this team is the same team it was under Blatt. Maybe they play at a slightly higher pace, but the net point differential was 5.8 under Blatt and it’s 5.9 under Lue.

Considering all the injury issues Blatt dealt with, you’d rightly be disappointed there wasn’t any improvement. All that changed was they flipped in a way that’s disturbing. We asked LeBron in December about the team’s tendency to start games flat, while in the fourth quarter they had the best point differential in the league.

“Better that than the reverse,” James cracked.
Well the laugh’s on him, because now it’s the reverse: the Cavaliers are truly front runners – they’re a net negative in the second half since Lue Took over. Their pace decreases, their shooting percentage sinks. If we had to guess, we’d say the Cavaliers were coming out with better intensity but wearing out in the second half. Is it boredom? Exhaustion? Feel lead is a license to play selfishly rather than playing right? All of the above?

Hawks Game

There really isn’t much to say about the game that hasn’t been said before. The Cavaliers played some great defense the second half of the first quarter through the middle of the second, beginning right about the time Mozgov left the game. Trailing 19-14, the Cavs held the Hawks to 7 points over the next nine minutes while scoring 22.

LeBron James scored on a slam off a Kyrie Irving steal and it was 55-34, or a total 41-15 run over about 15 minutes. That’s pretty much the moment the Cavaliers let their foot off the accelerator, allowing a 7-0 Hawks run to close the half.

The Hawks continued that momentum opening with a 23-6 run the first eight minutes of the third. Lue called a timeout after the Hawks opened the quarter with two threes, but then waited until the mandatory even amidst that long run. Lue is a bit too in love with letting his team work it out while they’re getting their butts booted.

The Cavaliers held the Hawks to 30% shooting for the half – while shooting 54% on twos and 37% on 3s. In the second half they shot 43% and 19%, in addition to missing six free throws (8-14, 57%). We’ve spoken before about the team’s tendency to fall in love with the three. We’ve also suggested maybe some rhythm twos and drives might help.

After moving the ball beautifully in the first, securing 16 assists on 21 baskets, in the second half they had 8 assists on 15 baskets. The ball still moved on occasion, but it moved about the perimeter. Nobody was truly driving and kicking, it was more like mindless swinging of the ball and skip passes around the 3-point line.

The team shot poorly but not terribly on uncontested shots (24-54, 44%) and got a lot of them. They shot much worse on contested shots (15-44, 34%) though most of that was Kyrie Irving (1-13 on contested shots). Atlanta missed a lot of open shots (20-54, 37%).

“I thought in the third quarter we started playing 1-on-1 basketball and not trusting the offense, not trusting the pass and got bogged down on the offensive end. We took some bad shots, and let them get out in transition,” said Coach Tyronn Lue. “It meant more because of the way we did it. They came back and took the lead after we had a big lead, but we stayed with it, continued to push through and keep fighting, keep grinding. That’s a team and a signature win for us.”

Gifting the Game-Winning Shot

We were struck in particular by LeBron’s play in the overtime looking for other guys. He had one shot, but three assists, and four boards, two of them offensive. One of them came in this sequence with three minutes left, where LeBron hit J.R Smith (once) and Kyrie (twice) with passes before they converted the three.
Right after that, is a nice 3-2 pick-and-roll which tries to get Kyle Korver caught up. When LBJ goes past the tied up Hawks and Horford moves over to stop the drive he quickly zips the ball to Thompson who puts it in. After a tough second half where he missed three free throws and managed only 2 rebounds (he had nine in the first half), he added two more in overtime, including the board that enabled James’ pass to Irving.

“We’re going to continue to work our habits like we have of late,” James said. “But to come in on a back-to-back and be able to have enough energy going down the stretch and have enough defensive energy going down the stretch as well, that’s big.”

The Three-Headed Beast

The Cavaliers finally have a workable center situation, and we couldn’t be more happy or surprised. Now we just need to find someone capable of operating the damn thing.

Ha-ha. We jest only a little. Tyronn Lue needed convincing to put Channing Frye out there (and Frye needed to learn more of the “plays,” in case the team mistakenly uses one). Now it’s just a matter of where to play him.

Similarly Timofey Mozgov has begun to recover and play better. Not that you would notice from the legions of haters. Referees like J.R. Smith more than some Cavaliers fans do Mozzy. We think it’s almost a reflection of LeBron’s spates of public frustration with him.

We know that he fumbles away a lot of easy baskets. But people’s memories suck. Mozgov made more turnovers/36 minutes in the playoffs (2.5) than he did in the regular season last year (2.2) or so far this year (2.0). His shooting % (56%) isn’t up to his time in Cleveland last year (59%), but is still the second highest of his career.

He isn’t getting any foul calls (.254 free throw rate, well below .375 career). Some of that is Mozzy not going up strong, some of that is refs denying him love. His rebounding is off some too. On the other hand he has the best defensive rating of his career. His offensive rating (per 100 possessions) is off from last year (down 117 to 111) but that’s somewhat mitigated by his defense being two better.
Over the last 10 games, Mozgov has been part of some of the team’s best offensive lineups, and his net rating is far superior to Tristan Thompson’s. It’s a small stretch, but signs of progress. We mention that because we’ve heard even more complaints of late about Mozgov, leading us to conclude some typically smart people might have a blind spot.

Meanwhile Frye’s recent cold streak (35% FG, 25% 3pt last 8 games) has diminished his offensive impact but he’s been a solid on-ball defender. (He’s not a great rim protector as we’ll see in a moment.) We expect his shooting to even out, and that will demand a change in how he’s being used.

Most of Frye’s minutes have been with Tristan Thompson on the floor. This isn’t ideal use in our opinion. We see the way Frye has played with Love and that makes a lot of sense to us.
Love/Frye is very hard to defend because no bigs can load the lane, allowing Kyrie and LeBron open driving lanes. With J.R. Smith that is arguably the team’s best shooting lineup. Their offensive skill could even conceivably advantage the defense by not allowing as many transition opportunities. Yet this lineup’s only played 25 minutes.

Another good lineup is Mozzy and Frye, where Frye essentially replaces Love. That’s two seven-footers and it’s been the team’s best defensive lineup with Frye on the floor.

Frye’s arrival has upset Tristan’s rotations a little bit and he’s been scuffling a bit of late. We have utter faith in Thompson – but think he’s best when he’s in the 28-30 minute range.

Thompson offers the worst defensive lineup with Channing Frye, other than J.R. Smith. That seems counterintuitive, but we suspect it has something to do with neither being very effective rim protectors. These numbers are since the all-star break.
We like how Thompson plays with the reserves and with the starting squad down the stretch. We’d like to see a rotation that still began the halves with Mozgov, but which featured Frye coming in for Love midway through the quarter and playing with Mozzy for a couple minutes. After stealing 2-3 minutes of rest, you either come back with Love and rest Irving for the second, or move LeBron to the 4 with Frye for the final few of the first.

Then you could come back with Love and/or Irving with the Minor Third (Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova & Tristan Thompson). Thompson’s second best lineup is with Kevin Love, so that makes sense. When LeBron comes back the second half of the second you decide which of the three to go with based on matchups.

At the end of the game you probably stick with Thompson because of his ability to switch pick-and-rolls and grab offensive boards. However, given the rim protection issues maybe you bring Mozzy back against some teams. If the team is behind, a Love/Frye lineup makes a lot of sense.

We feel like in trying to find the right lineups, Lue is falling into some bad patterns. Thankfully he’s bidden farewell to the horrendous Thompson/Mozgov lineups which haven’t worked all season. (Lue’s only given them 18 minutes on the floor together since the all-star break and only in four of the 20 games.)

Kyrie Forever?

There are a lot of questions being raised about Kyrie. Some are fair, inasmuch as he never has been a pure point guard. Nor has he ever been a good defender. Some people take history as destiny, and some people want a Walrus to be valet.

Part of appreciating any player is accepting his gifts. Kyrie is an extraordinary offensive player, who has had to make the transition from being his team’s Allen Iverson to being Tiny Archibald on Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. His greatest talent’s been duplicated – which isn’t such a bad thing since an aging LeBron will need to shed some of his scoring load.

Of course, James isn’t about to do so now which is, in a word, awkward. We don’t necessarily believe the suggestions that they dislike each other, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they find the other stubborn/overbearing. We aren’t too concerned. Kyrie, like a young Kobe, will ultimately be measured by his rings, and we feel he’ll do what he must.
As we noted a few weeks ago, Kyrie passes more off drives than LeBron. This is not to say he’s a good passer. He’s no LeBron. But he’s also 8 years younger than LeBron and Wade, why would anyone expect him to have that level of maturity? James was in his fifth year, just like Kyrie, coming off a loss to the Spurs in the finals. Did he know what it took to win?

All that stuff about character and personality is often just circumstance. Is Karl Malone a loser? You want to say that to his face? Talking about such speculative BS is good work for those opinion-casters working in sports. Our own experience with J.R. Smith ought to be experience in favor of discretion before giving “attitude problem” too much weight.

None of this is to deny that Kyrie has been off of late. But you also have to remember they were coddling him with regards to back-to-backs through January. He had a week off in February. Only recently has he begun to play back-to-backs and it appears to be what’s weighing down his stats.
We’ve also taken a look at Kyrie’s defensive stats over the course of the year, using our favorite stat, DFG%, which is the difference between what the shooter shot from that range and how he did with Kyrie guarding him.
As you can see, Irving got off to a decent start, regressed in February after Lue took over, then has improved during March. These are only cases where Kyrie was within 3’ of his man, which needless to say leaves out a certain percentage of plays.

He’s not even been that bad in the PnR allowing .83 pts/possession to the ballhandler, putting him between Delly (.78)/Shump (.80) and J.R Smith (.85), at the 48th percentile.

That said, the above chart’s not all peaches and cream. If you look at how many FGA attempts Kyrie faces, you’ll notice in March Irving faced one less shot >15’, one more shot from within 10’ and 0.8 from within 6’. So Kyrie was giving up more drives and fewer jumpers, but still allowed a 3-5% lower shooting percentag than the month before.

So it seems clear to us that Kyrie’s defense has been improving. Like J.R. Smith with the refs, or Timo on talk radio, Irving seems much-maligned more out of reputation than any wrong. Of course it doesn't help when he gets turned around worse than Justin Gilbert.

We think his knee is hurting him in back-to-backs, but judging from his second half effort, it’s not a question of trying hard, or presumably his defense would fall off in the second like the rest of the team.

Kyrie is young and still learning. He's getting better. He's a piece for the future. Which is probably more than we can say about Kevin Love.

Love Settles Into Spacer Role

Lue told a great story about how Kevin Love was going to be a new guy in his offensive scheme. Remember that? Remember what we said earlier about the team being just about the same now as they were under Blatt (statistically speaking)? Well, Love under Lue is averaging 3.9 elbow touches/game after Blatt got him 3.8. In the last 15 games that’s dropped in half to 1.9. By season’s end he’ll surely have averaged less elbow touches under Lue.

Is anyone getting the impression the regime change was about a whole lotta nothing? Nobody’s role changed. The inconsistency of effort and performance hasn’t even changed with the approaching end of the regular season. We’ve seen some different rotations, not all of that by design, and the Cavaliers will likely hold onto the number one seed just as they did under Blatt. Sadly, there are no stats for locker room excitement.

Not only is Love not getting shots at the elbow, he’s winding up with a greater percentage of his shots from 3. Under Blatt 43% of his shots came from 3. Last month under Lue that dropped to 40%, and in March rose back to 50%. He’s still getting about 50-55 shots inside of 10’ each month, but the number of midrange jumpers has decreased.

While many analytics folks might not immediately embrace that, Love’s shooting 47% on those midrange 2s (16'-24') for the season, or .94 pts/possession that ends in one. Over the last two months Love has been shooting 30% from 3 or .9 pts/possession.

He’s shooting 35% on the year, but much of that came when Kyrie was out and Love was the #2. This is another brick in our case that Love’s not getting enough touches to get in rhythm, an adjustment he’s never had to make in his life.

Like everything else in this column, we’re saying Love sort of is what he is. How that works in this offense isn’t clear, though, again, if LeBron would be willing to give up a few more touches maybe that would work. Playing Love with Kyrie or with LeBron but not with both more minutes might help, in concert with LeBron/Frye, Mozzy/Frye and TT/LBJ alignments.

We’d also like to see Richard Jefferson get some run. They may be nursing him, but given Lue’s predilection for 9-man rotations, he seems to have lost his place to Frye. We’d like to see him some at the backup three instead of Shumpert/Smith, both of whom have not been real inspiring offensively of late.
As for Love, he remains an enigma. Seven of his fifty-four shots inside of 10’ were blocked last month. Tristan was blocked 6 times last month on 78 shots, for context. On the positive side he shot slightly more FTs than any month this year. Come playoff time they’ll need those free throws and "easy" post-up points.

Final Analysis

There are things that are positive happening. The Cavs have played some lockdown defense. However they haven’t maintained it, and when they take their foot off the accelerator they like to pull the emergency brake as well. It leads to some whiplash-inducing games, but that’s your Cardiac Kids for you.

The offense has shown some good stretches of moving the ball, but they still lose focus and then fumble around in the second half unable to find the switch. Mostly they muddle along. Indeed the Cavs are being outscored in the second half under Lue. It’s a little ridiculous, but these guys do what they do.
It’s coming down to the wire, and we were encouraged to see that Irving, Shumpert and Mozgov were the team’s best defenders last month. If they can continue to do that while clearing up these focus issues, and maintaining their willingness to play right, they could live up to the talent.

We wouldn’t bet on it being anything short of a rollercoaster ride. Please strap into your body harness and try to keep your eyes directly in front of you. (No peeking to the West.)

We’ll be at the Q for today’s game against the Hornets. We’ll be posting analysis, video and snark. Follow along on Twitter with us @CRS_1ne. You can also hear us on the Defend Cleveland show on Monday morning on WRUW, 91.1 at 11 a.m. with Michael James. There probably won’t be a column on Monday (unless something interesting happens), but we’ll be in Indiana and Chicago for the games on Wednesday and Saturday.

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