What Have Cavs Learned Beating Pistons Thrice?

click to enlarge Is This Excited Enough For You?
Is This Excited Enough For You?
The Cavaliers beat the Pistons 101-91 to take a 3-0 lead in the best of seven series on Friday night. It's what fans expected, and the Wine and Gold delivered. True to form, it wasn’t without its moments of drama.

The Cavaliers were arguably outplayed in the first half for the third straight time. Yet for the third straight game, the Cavaliers clamped down like a third world dictatorship in the second half, bullying them on the boards (27-20) and dissecting them in the halfcourt offense (12 of 18 hoops were assisted). For the third game in a row, the Cavaliers held Detroit at or below 40% shooting in the second half.

Simply put, the Pistons lack enough arms or speed to neutralize the Cavaliers whack-a-mole offense for long. They can’t stop the Cavaliers defensively because their players’ skills lie more on the offensive end and Cleveland’s offense flashes moments of great efficiency like trailers for a film you’re dying to see. Unfortunately, that show is only in previews right now, but it’s easy to see where the story could go if properly backed with sustained focus for 48 minutes.

The Cavaliers still have some trouble taking good shots when they have the lead. Sometimes it seems like 6-9 point leads become a platform for all manner of heat checks, dribble expeditions and steely Wild West showdowns where LeBron stares down his opponent for 6-7 seconds before shooting a jumper.

While these bad habits keep surfacing at inopportune moments like a cold sore, they’ve yet to prove debilitating (or long-lasting thankfully), particularly when the Cavaliers are playing good defense. Much of the night their ability to hedge and recover on Jackson pick-and-rolls was enough to force the Pistons into attacking individual match-ups one-on-one.

In the first half Detroit seems to have a lot of their success attacking the team in transition. There were also a number of breakdowns that allowed them to shoot 60% in the first half, the third straight game they’ve shot over 55%.

“They’re playing at a fast pace and the game moves fast,” said James Jones. “Usually as the game moves on, it starts to slow down for our guys; they get a better feel and a rhythm for the speed of the game. Then they kind of settle in and that’s what we’ve been doing lately.”

Jones says there weren’t any real gameplan adjustments in the second half. It’s mostly just keeping your head in the game and following the plan.

“We’re not doing anything different other than trying to be more consistent, and be more efficient,” Jones said. “We had some mistakes in the first half, and a lot of them were effort-based. Once we get back in at halftime and lock in, we can focus on executing our schemes and being in the right places and be able to live with them making shots.”

Big Three Takeaways

Kyrie-ficiency. The weathervane crowd’s spun around, which is to be expected because the wind blows freer than a young Hollywood starlet. Irving’s posted 47/52/75 numbers in the first three games, with that 52% 3pt shooting coming on almost eight attempts a game. (Only four players averaged more during the regular season.)

Kyrie’s also averaging better than a 3.5 Assist to Turnover ratio (4.7 to 1.3). On offense, he’s largely been decisive, and he’s not been a ball stop. He’s averaging two secondary assists/game (from the pass before the assist), third in the Eastern Conference playoffs and seventh overall. (James has 1.7.)

His defense hasn’t been great during the series, but last night defenders only shot 2-7 on shots he contested. It’s reasonable to believe his playoff defensive intensity is increasing.

While everyone gets frustrated with his dribble-centric behavior at times, it can’t be forgotten that he’s younger than most league superstars (24), was still working back from injury this year, and needed to rediscover chemistry with his mates. There’s also some question as to how much Coach Tyronn Lue was sandbagging during the regular season (just like his players) given the variety of new plays we’ve seen since the playoffs started.

Kyrie wasn’t as efficient in the second half as the first (6-8, 13 pts), but he was even more needed thanks to LeBron’s struggles and the Pistons’ effectiveness doubling Kevin Love (more on this in a moment). Of course he hit that huge three.
“We were looking for Bron on the lob,” J.R. Smith shared. “Fortunately they lost him. The crazy thing is Ky practices that shot all the time and Bron is always why you practicing that shot. This situation it worked.”

Kyrie is an incredible shotmaker with solid gold handles and a sometimes underrated ability to find others, such as Kevin Love. The two of them have developed some great chemistry, showcased on a couple nice pick-and-roll plays.
Of course, they needed to start running the pick-and-roll with Love because the Pistons had success forcing him to give up the ball with the double team. Love had two assists and two secondary assists in the game.

Double the Love. One of the points we’ve made about Kevin Love is that his game is more valuable in the playoffs, particularly for the Cavaliers where he doesn’t have to bear the full weight of the offense. As an alternative to a steady diet of James/Irving pick-and-rolls it’s essential, because (as we might’ve pointed out) transition hoops become significantly harder to come by and having a variety of ways to score makes it tougher on the defense.

The Pistons are particularly plagued by two players who are sort of like Love – good offensive players who lack great athleticism and will for defense, plus neither is taller than Love meaning he can shoot over top. That’s allowed Love to go off to the tune of 21.3 points/game over the first three, while shooting 48% from the field, 44% from 3 and is taking almost six free throws/game. They just can’t stop him one-on-one.

In game two the Pistons were sending a guy late to try and disrupt Love’s shot. In game three they simply cut the crap and doubled him immediately in the post, much of the night. This made Love a passer, and made it extra important that the Cavs found the weakside perimeter players.
The Cavaliers worked much of the night to beat this. Here the ball is swung weakside to Delly who beats the help defense for a short floater.
On the below clip, the Cavs use a backside screen to free J.R. Smith for one of his three treys (3-8).
“They’re a team with an amazing big man. When he’s on the floor and goes over there, a guy like double T or Kev sets a great back screen. Fortunately I was on the receiving end of it and made the shot,” said J.R. Smith. “The crazy thing is Kevin told me before in the timeout it was going to happen and you’re going to be open, you’re going to be open. I was like ‘Yeah okay, Kevin. You’ll shoot it off the glass and make it. I’m going to say great shot.’ Then sure enough it was there and I made the shot.”

Love had a very efficient night scoring 20 points on just 10 shots and 6 free throws. He also grabbed twelve rebounds as three Cavs clocked double figures. His offense was great.

“For me, I have to continue to be aggressive. These two guys over here (James and Irving) have been constant on me about that. So, when they’re coming to the double team I just face up to see what they are going to give me and make a play,” Love said. “A lot of times, I was looking weakside when I was able to get to the middle, split the double team, kick out to LeBron (James), kick out (Matthew) to Dellavedova. We can get the swing-swing action we’ve been grabbing at the last month, two months of basketball since the break.”

We don’t want to overlook the fact that while Love was good on offense and made a number of solid defensive plays, he was also exploited by Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris off the dribble in part because of bad close-outs that felt in at least one case somewhat perfunctory. We counted four times Love got beaten off the bounce
Then there’s this where it appears that J.R. Smith is late in recovering to his man, and Love figures he’s served his time and is going to return to his man, despite the fact that means leaving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wide open from the three line. We’re not sure how anyone could see this as acceptable defense.
Finally there's this play, where Love is clearly fouled by Stanley Johnson. He complains and pouts for a moment - not long mind you - but long enough for Johnson to beat him up the court and score. This CANNOT happen against better teams.
It sort of is what it is, but we wanted to point this out because the success the team has offensively with Love, especially in small lineups, is going to be tested by what he surrenders at the other end.

LeBron James, Lesser Scorer. While nobody would utter such a thing out loud, everyone who knows basketball knows in their heart of hearts that there would have to be a day where LeBron became more facilitator than Alpha Dog scorer.

We aren’t really there yet, but Kyrie’s golden handles and stalwart distance toss has made them more equal than ever. For the series, Kyrie’s outscoring him by ten and LeBron’s only outscoring Love by five.

The amount of time LeBron is spending off the ball this year is a sort of tacit acknowledgement as much as it is an attempt to take advantage of a pronounced advantage. While LeBron is still great, his reliance on his high-efficiency inside game over his increasingly wonky jumper has made it more difficult for him to score since opponents are begging for jumpers by packing the paint.

On Friday LeBron obliged shooting way too many jumpers and stalling the ball much more than any game in the last month with excess dribbling and deliberating. In three postseason games LeBron has taken 20 shots out of situations where he held the ball for 6 or more seconds, 11 of them came in Game 3. (He was 3-11 on those, 8-24 overall.)
Compare his shot chart for Game 3 from Game 2. Now part of this is, of course by design. The Pistons want to keep LeBron out of the lane. In Game 3 he obliged. James needs to do a better job of involving others. Tyronn Lue noted before the game that during Game 1, when Love and Irving took up the scoring load, it allowed James to focus more on defense, and when he does that it’s infectious.

It’s good news when LeBron can have such an inefficient shooting night and the team can still win. Nor did James sound uncomfortable doing whatever was necessary to win.

“For myself I play off these guys,” he said. “I wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well from the field and I focused on what else I could do to help the team be successful. I know guys carried the load offensively and it was a good game plan for us tonight.”

The Minor Third

If the Three Cavaliers had three trusted roadies, it’d be Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova, guys who offer as much heart and moxie to their play as the Big Three do scoring. While they’re overlooked because they don’t score, it’d be impossible for someone that’s watched them to overstate their role as supporting players.

Tristan Thompson is the kind of guy that never quits. He got beaten twice by Andre Drummond in the first 120 seconds, but the rugged Canadian stuck with it, and turned in a great night led by an absurd eight offensive boards.

He hit a short jumper on an inbounds play as well with just a couple seconds on the shot clock. Everyone left him alone after he set a pick, assuming nobody would throw him the ball. LeBron did, and Thompson repaid the faith by hitting a face-up 10’ jumper.

In the fourth quarter with the Pistons making a run, he perfectly trapped Jackson with Kyrie, then got back to Morris (who’d been beating Love all night) in time to stop the drive and poke away the ball.
Thompson also recovered a key loose ball with two minutes left, one of three loose balls he recovered in the game. The Cavs beat the Pistons 9-4 on loose balls and the Minor Third grabbed 6 of them. Delly had two.

If you don’t love Matthew Dellavedova then you can’t be much of a Cavs fan. Whenever he steps on the floor, the quality of the team’s offensive play increases. It’s hard to explain, and simple too. He runs the offense at the right speed, such that space opens up. He’s sort of like the veteran QB who has developed keen timing. He doesn’t beat people with his footspeed, he does it by knowing what’s going on and pressing his advantage when he has one.

Mostly he seems to have great dharma as a consequence of his team-oriented play. The ball is always finding its way back to him because he likes to share.
Delly dished 5 dimes and scored 12 points including a nifty double-pump in paint traffic. Iman Shumpert was much quieter and indeed played less than twelve minutes. Part of this, we suspect is his struggles on the defensive end where the Pistons seem to be going right at him, and Shumpert’s handled it inconsistently.

We posted video of Shumpert getting beaten to the left in Thursday’s column and wonder if he’s fully healthy. The limited minutes may be health or matchup related as well. The Pistons were getting Shumpert switched onto Harris and Morris then posting him up.

Shumpert’s health and play are something to watch because without his defense, the Cavs lack a lockdown perimeter defender, which will make life more challenging in the playoffs.

Final Analysis

The Cavs didn’t win going away, but the Pistons are a pretty good team playing for their lives at home, led by a very good, Finals-tested coach, it isn’t going to be roll-over easy, particularly in the deeper Eastern Conference.

As with the regular season, they have some trouble finding the on switch. Against the Pistons they’ve discovered it consistently at halftime and the difference in first and second half shooting percentage. The Pistons are shooting a playoffs-leading 57% in the first, and 38.5% in the second.

Some of that is inattention and focus, but some of that is just strong offensive play by the Pistons, who were contested on 46 of their 74 shots. The Pistons still made 54% of those contested shots, and only 39% of the open ones. (The Cavs can sympathize, they were 56% and 43% respectively.)

The small lineups that Cavs used made Drummond a practical non-factor in the second half, scoring just six points and playing just twelve minutes, only 90 seconds in the final frame. That’s a positive sign going forward, even if Love’s defense is still worrisome.

On offense, the Cavs have a worrying tendency for the shot selection to suffer when they get a lead. They start settling for jumpers and before you know it the opponent is on a run. On the other hand, they'd shown great adaptability attacking defenses in a variety of ways and sets with little of the outright stagnation we saw in the regular season

The playoffs are a process and the team’s defensive intensity seems to have gotten better over the course of the series. Obviously the first half is still an issue but give some credit to a good team playing for their life.

“We came in focused on getting off to a good start and they played extremely well,” Jones said. “They’re extremely prepared. They competed, played hard and executed. For use to come out with the win is huge for us, knowing that’s a very good team over there.”

We expect the Cavs to close it out today. James had an off-game and we don’t expect that to happen two games in a row. Nor do we feel the Pistons can stop two of Love, Irving or Smith from having big nights.

We’ll be at the Palace in Auburn Hills providing live coverage. We’ll be posting analysis, video and snark. Follow along with us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, then look for our postgame analysis Monday morning.
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