The Cavs Topped the Sixers for 11th Straight Win, But Where's the Love?

If Monday’s game were one of those elementary school report cards, it would read “meets but does not exceed expectations.” The Cavaliers did the expected in beating the 76ers, 97-84, but they did so without flair of much precision. In the process, we received another chapter in the (d?)evolution of Kevin Love saga.

Some credit for the former goes to Philadelphia which has a lot of very long athletic players who work very hard. As a result, you can’t really ever let up. In a long NBA season, that can be very hard. They almost caught Atlanta on Saturday, tying the game with 3 minutes left. They almost repeated that feat last night, closing to within two early in the fourth after trailing by 20 just nine minutes earlier.

That’s where the Cavaliers showed some grit. They regrouped in the fourth behind Matthew Dellavedova (10 pts, 3-4 on threes in the quarter) and Kyrie Irving (12, 2-4 on 3s) who scored 22 of the team’s fourth quarter 28 points. Delly played the entire fourth quarter, which Coach David Blatt described as a feel call.

“I think Delly does a great job for us at the end of games and I sort of felt like he was the right guy to go with in this case,” Blatt said after the game. “Obviously that’s not a normal rotation, it was a feel tonight and I’m glad tonight that feeling was correct.”

He noted the Aussie point guard’s grit, which Philadelphia coach Brett Brown pointed to as well despite cutting him twice from the Australian national team. Delly’s said it made him a better player, showing him that his path to the NBA lay only in displaying endless grit and determination.

Case in point, here where Delly grabs a loose ball and ties up the taller Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, then seems to grab Moute’s arm, using it like a bat to knock the tip to teammate Timofey Mozgov.

It obviously doesn’t hurt to be shooting 43% from 3, including 50% on wide-open threes, good for tops on the team. (Mike Miller is second at 45.5%.) Delly played in a lineup with Tristan, who Blatt likes to close games out with because of his energy and athleticism that allows him to switch on pick and rolls, picking up guards.

Playing meant sitting J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who both had solid efforts. Shumpert in particular played terrific, showcasing that defensive intensity we got him for. Not only that but his touch is coming around. After the game, the playful, very articulate Shumpert complained that because of the injury he was far behind. But don’t worry, he’s got a plan.

“I have my old teammates from high school drive down and I get some extra shots and extra one-on-ones in the gym,” he said. The issue against the 76ers, Shumpert said was, “They went small and we went small and for whatever reason we got really stagnant.”

He’s referring to the stretch in the third when the 76ers put their run on, going from down 20 with 8:39 left to down four at the end of the quarter, as they outscored the Cavs 26-10. Coach Blatt took much of the blame for that, subbing out Love for Shumpert and then James and Irving for Delly and Marion.

Toward the end of the quarter the five on the floor were Delly, Smith, Shumpert, Marion, Mozgov, a team that has perhaps spent very little if any time on the floor together, and yielded a 7-0 run.

“I sort of hurt our momentum,” said Blatt after the game. “I don’t think I did a good job in that third quarter. It’s easy to critique others but you should look at yourself first, I don’t think I did a particularly good job of managing the quarter and that was reflected in the score.”

But the story everyone really wanted to talk about was Kevin Love, who hit his first shot then missed his next six during the first quarter and didn’t take another shot the rest of the game. This is the extreme of a pattern that has been perpetuated throughout the season where Love gets early touches and then moves to the back of the bus while Kyrie and LeBron drive. Some of that happened last night and the length of the 76ers make finishing around the basket difficult.

For his part, Love did what he’s done all year. He found other ways to impact the game. He grabbed 15 rebounds, including three offensive, had two assists, a steal, drew a charge and blocked a shot. He played almost the entire fourth quarter and posted a team best +26. So it’s hardly like he’s absent out there.

He’s simply putting his effort in different places. He really put a body on Kyrie’s man during a fourth quarter pick-and-flare, opening him up for a three. During the month of January he posted his best defensive FG percentage, reducing opponents' field goal by 1.9% and reducing their percentage within 6 feet by 7.9%.

Those are comparable to season-long numbers of touted defenders like LaMarcus Aldridge (-1.9%/-3.5%), Derrick Favors (-1.9/-7.2) and Nene (-1.0/-7.2) and better than all-stars such as Paul Millsap (+3.3./+4.2), Chris Bosh (-0.1/+2.1) and Blake Griffin (-0.6/-1.8)

So it’s not like he’s not doing anything out there. But the fact that he went from a 26-point/game scorer to nearly 10 points less gives many people pause. He’s not shooting well, and he’s not getting the ball where he was used to getting it in Minnesota. It’s only gotten worse since LeBron returned and his role in the offense receded again. In fact, over the last 5 games he’s shooting 34%.

We always knew there were probably more Cowboys than Indians here and people were going to have to accept a smaller role to be part of a winning program. Love’s made that sacrifice without blinking. While he obviously needs to shoot better, and the team can find him more, maybe getting caught up in that is a mistake.

Love’s doing a lot to help the team even beyond what shows up in the boxscore. There are more than enough people to score on this team. Maybe we should spend more time applauding Love’s sacrifice than worrying about his missing shot.

There’s an adjustment to be made and it’s obviously affecting Love, but since he’s doing other things to compensate, perhaps we should be patient. This isn’t Dion Waiters we’re talking about, but a guy who’s consistently produced. He should be given the benefit of the doubt he’ll figure it out.

That said, Coach Blatt could probably do more to help by running more plays for Love, particularly those in the elbow area that allows Love to be more of a passing & scoring threat than he is out at the three line. (The problem being forces both LeBron and Irving to be cutters off the ball, which maybe isn’t as strong a suit for them as off the bounce.)

Here’s what Blatt said before the game on these Love elbow sets.

“During the course of the year you use different offensive packages sometimes depending on who you’re playing with, sometimes depending on the defense of the other team. And sometimes just to mix things up a little bit and show different looks,” he said. “Could we see more or less of it as we go along? Yes in both cases.”

Pressed a bit more he said this: “We like the ball in Kevin’s hands in the post and the perimeter because he’s a good decision maker and he has the ability to shoot it and to pass it very well, but as you mentioned we have some other guys who are pretty well with the ball too. “

So if you’re wondering whether to expect Love to score a lot more points in your fantasy league, in the parlance of Magic 8-ball, ‘All Signs Point to No.” But he’s contributing on defense to a greater extent than he has anytime in his career and Love knows the task ahead of him.

“I've been keeping my head up and keeping positive, glass half-full,” he said after some post-game shooting. “I'm just trying to impact the game in other ways as best I can. I think tonight I did that on the defensive end — stuff that doesn't necessarily show up in the stat sheet, and I've been trying to rebound the ball and get inside the paint a little bit more these past few games."

The most important thing is that the team continues to play good strong defense, and do whatever’s necessary to flummox the opponent. Last night for example the Cavs played a significant amount of 2-3 zone – which while zone is now allowed in the NBA after long being outlawed – it is still a relative rarity, and can bother less experienced teams such as the 76ers. (The 76ers shot under 40% for the game and 36% from 3.)

Notice the players – Delly, Shumpert, Marion, James and Tristan Thompson – some of the quickest, scrappiest players on the team, all capable of closing out 3 shooters. Mark my words, we’ll see more of this come playoff time, and that lineup might be just the team to get it done.

It’s a rare two days off for the Cavaliers before hosting the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday. Their 109-102 victory over the Clips on Thursday, January 15 ended a six-game losing streak and inaugurated the current 11-game streak. They also post the streak’s greatest challenge before the all-star break, though the concluding back-to-back of Miami and Chicago on Wednesday and Thursday next week will pose a challenge as well.

I’ll be tweeting and posting live video from the game Thursday. Follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read my game analysis Friday in the Cleveland Scene blog.
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