Would-Be Kings Can't Dethrone LeBron and the Cavaliers

They leave their clothes all over the floor, never take out the garbage and would sooner split open their femoral artery than hand over the remote.

At some point in most relationships there comes a time where you’re confronted with three options: Either accept your partner’s faults and attempt to live with them, continue to expect change that’s apparently not forthcoming while slowly driving yourself insane with anger and frustration, or move to Golden State and start rooting for the Warriors.

Despite a new coach, some new players and the nearing playoffs, the Cavaliers most enduring feature is their maddening inconsistency. Perhaps like a child as he grows, we’re too close to recognize the small scale changes going on.

It sure wasn’t apparent watching the Cavaliers struggle for three quarters before finally seeming to flip the switch in the fourth quarter against the lowly Sacramento Kings (25-38, 11th in Western Conference), in their 120-111 victory.

It felt more like some wretched network sitcom mining the same stereotypical situations night-after-night to the same stale laugh track. Kevin Love misses a wide open 3? [*GUFFAW*] Bad pass for a turnover? [*LOL*] LeBron bricks a 3 in transition? [*CHUCKLE*] Kings guards Darren Collison/Rajon Rondo cut thru self-serve lane for layup or dish & dunk? [*TITTER*]

The Kings made dozens of forays down the lane, coming and going so quickly the DEA had it circled as a potential drug den. Sacramento outscored the Cavaliers 52-44, and Cleveland might not have won had the West Coast’s answer to J.R. Smith not had a mini-meltdown in the fourth quarter.

Thankfully DeMarcus Cousins got upset and took himself completely out of a game he was dominating (19 pts, 12-18 FTs, 11 boards, 2 steals) for the first 42 minutes, to the Cavaliers great relief. With Timofey Mozgov sick and unable to go, Tristan Thompson was the Cavs only physical big. He acquitted himself extraordinarily and played the last 4:42 with five fouls without fouling out and exposing the Cavs to Cousins without any real big.

It was another poor shooting night for Kevin Love, who as we noted in our last column has been on a steady slide for the last 20 games.

As has been the team’s modus operandi since Lue took over (and really since Irving came back), Love saw the ball early in the post, then had to take most of his shots from the arc. In the first period Love was 2-6, with one missed three and two free throws. Until the final 2:40 of the game, Love was 1-5, all from the arc, and had only shot two more free throws.

With the Kings trailing by one, Love drew a foul after receiving a pocket pass from LeBron off a pick-and-roll with J.R. Smith. He hit both free throws and the next time down hit a three while drawing a senseless Kings foul — after two offensive rebounds (Thompson, James) saved two prior errant three attempts by Irving and Love.

That made it a seven point game and punctured the Kings hopes. The next time down Cousins bricked a three and J.R. Smith sunk one to put the game out of reach. The Cavs closed the game on an 11-0 run, excluding a garbage time Cousins three at the end of the game.

There was a lot of emotion. Hell just looking at the picture, they’re so pumped they look pissed. It was a big shot at a big time, and after the game everyone was asking if this was the sign of a turnaround. They’ve been asking the same thing of the Cavs every time they have a big win. Even Love seemed to tamp down expectations.

“The last about half-dozen games I haven’t shot it particularly well,” Love said after the game. “I’ve done it my career – shooting from outside – I’m not going to act like it’s the biggest thing in the world but it was a big shot for us tonight.”

The Game

Despite talking before the game about their slow starts, the Wine and Gold came out shooting poorly and playing no defense. Only the team’s offensive rebounding kept them in the game as they finished with 15 offensive boards and a +6 overall advantage on the glass.

The defensive troubles were bad in the first quarter and grew worse in the second as the Cavs allowed the Kings to make seven straight shots after they missed the first of the quarter. By halftime Sacramento held a six point lead that could’ve been much worse given that Sacramento shot 56% and the Cavs shot 41% with the same number of threes as the Kings but with nine more attempts.

In the third quarter the Cavs turned it on shooting 65% on balanced scoring from Irving (10), James (9), Tristan (7) and Smith (6). They held the Kings to 42% in the third and an even stingier 38% in the fourth.

“In the third quarter [I said] ‘We want to play at our pace. We want to attack downhill. We want to get people easy open 3s. We want to get to the basket. If we don’t have it we want to pull it out and run something.' I thought in that third quarter they scored, but we were able to score also.”

They might have put the Kings away earlier if the Cavs hadn’t shot 33% in the fourth, driven by 4-17 shooting from three and just 5-10 inside the arc. Even so, the Cavs needed Kings star DeMarcus Cousins to lose his cool to finally put the game away.

Every bit as beloved by the referees as Smith, DeMarcus Cousins was in the process of plowing through the Cavs defense like a German blitzkrieg. When he didn’t get a shot up on the rim he drew a foul. He’d drawn consecutive fouls on the Cavaliers and made three out of four free throws to tie the game with eight minutes left in the fourth.

Then after a wild sequence featuring two Cavaliers turnovers, a couple open Kings misses and finally an improbable LeBron James pull-up transition 3 (1-5 from 3 on night, 25pts, 11 reb, 6 assists 5 turnovers), Cousins missed a shot at the rim. Then in frustration Cousins fouled Tristan Thompson who’d grabbed the rebound.

(On the night Thompson finished with 15 rebounds, seven of them offensive and 18 points, including a very solid 6-8 from the line. Over the last dozen games, Thompson’s shooting 69% from the charity stripe. It's a nice bounce back in a vital situation, after several down games.)

Cousins then compounded his mistake by drawing a technical. A few moments later he was involved in a little push of Kevin Love that almost drew a flagrant before being reduced to nothing, immediately after Cousins made a short hook to cut the lead to four. Those were the last points he’d score other than that three in the final seconds.


The Cavs sure seemed happy with the win, but given the history of both Love and the Cavs we find it exceedingly difficult to take any isolated triumph as some kind of turning point in the season, given how many times we’ve passed this same lightpost with both.

It was a good win. The team’s offense was much better in the second half – to a point. They shot 13-22 inside the arc in the second half (after 10-24 in the first). There was a good amount of ball movement and some crisp cuts. But they shot an awful lot of 3s without making very many of them (13-44, 29.5%).

Though they finished with only 17 assists on 39 buckets, there was some good ball movement. Here the team finds Delly for a three in a perfect example of how to find the open man.
On another occasion, we saw the Cavs work the backdoor on the 1/4 pick and roll to get LeBron an open shot, but swinging the ball to Love from Kyrie before going in to James, to get a better angle.
Lue was satisfied with the shots, as he typically is, arguing that they were open and they’re part of the drive & dish offense so they should take them, even if they're missing them. We aren’t going to linger too long on that but to note that there are plenty of teams that play drive-and-dish but drive multiple times before settling on the 3, forcing multiple rotations. But we digress.

“I thought for the most part we got great shots with Kyrie and LeBron and Delly creating shots driving into the paint,” said Lue, explaining it was dictated by how they were being defended. “You’re going to get open shots like that, especially posting Kevin on a three man, them coming and doubling, they were switching a lot. We posted LeBron, he had a PG on him. So they’re going to come and double-team you’re going to get open shots but you have to knock them down.”

That’s the thing about assists as a measure of ball movement – if they don’t hit the shots, you don’t get the assist. However, even corner 3s (they were 1-12, Love’s being the lone make) are only a 37% shot, and they took 32 non-corner 3s (about 35% league average). So is it so surprising the team only shot 39% on uncontested shots (made half of contested ones) when half their shots came from beyond the arc?

But the concern about taking too many threes is counterbalanced by the fact the Cavs got to the line 35 times. Nobody seems to be talking about this, but over the last three games the Cavs have shot 98 free throws. That’s their best three-game stretch of the season. This came after a long stretch where the Cavs under Lue were averaging two less free throws than under Blatt despite averaging four more possessions.

The Cavaliers have now broken 30 free throws four times under Lue after doing it just once under Blatt, including three times in the last six games. So there are some positive signs on offense. Kyrie’s offensive arsenal seems to have shaken off the rust.

If only we could say the same about his defense. Their defense at the point of attack was awful and once the Kings guards got into the lane they found open guys for easy buckets, particularly in the first half.

It hardly seems fair singling out Kyrie. There was bad defense all over during the first half. There was this slow rotation by Richard Jefferson for Rudy Gay’s second three.
Then there was this sad display of defense by the usually solid J.R. Smith. Though he’s been very good all year, he’s been exploited off the bounce on several occasions the last few games. However none have been quite as sad as watching Omri Casspi leave him in the dust. It was like watching a Ford Taurus go by a Dodge Viper.
The Kings made 13-17 in the paint in the first half, getting to the rim at will. In the second half they drove even more, though with less success going 9-24 in those situations as the defense toughened. On the other hand getting 24 of their 45 shots in the paint in the half (when they took 11 threes) seems like an awful lot. Some games the Cavs don’t have 24 shots in the paint all game.

“They showed me a lot of toughness and a lot of grit in the second half,” said Lue. “First half we let them play too free. Because we weren’t making shots they were able to get out in transition, but I thought for the most part in the second half we were able to attack them early and play with our pace.”

Final Analysis

One game after losing for only the second time in a game where they had 23 assists, they won and scored 120 while garnering assists on just 17 of their 39 shots. They settled for a lot of jumpers, yet continued a terrific three-game stretch at getting to the line. And when they really had to, the team found a way to get stops. After allowing 56% in the first half, they held the Kings to 40% in the second.

There are positives. But at the same time it’s disconcerting that on the first day of a four-game road trip and six of seven on the road the team came out flat. Indeed they’ve come out flat more often the not the last two weeks. This lack of focus and attention to detail were hallmarks of the team under Blatt, and maybe should just be considered their trademark until the playoffs start.

They aren’t playing for the record in wins like the Warriors, and with a 2 game lead on the Raptors, they haven’t frittered away first place in the Eastern Conference while trying to find themselves. As bored and indifferent as they look at times, it hasn't substantially hurt them. 

So as poorly as the Cavs have played for stretches, particularly on defense, it seems unfair to find too much fault. Are they underachieving? Without a doubt. Do they seem to almost intentionally make things tough on themselves, as if in love with the drama? Certainly.

It’s true their attempts to turn it on in the fourth quarter have been somewhat hit-or-miss, but they also have something like ten wins coming from double-digits down. They’ll dig themselves out of a lot of holes, almost miraculously.

Finally, it’s hard to forget James otherworldly postseason performance last year, the likes of which the NBA’s probably never seen. How do you lose faith in that over a few stupid regular season games?

The thing’s this – if you can’t change a scoundrel nor leave them, the only thing left is to love them for who they are, an infuriatingly inconsistent team that nonetheless already has everything they need to bring Cleveland its first championship, if they can only tap into it for long enough at the right time. 

That's why it's playoff basketball.

There’s no rest for the wicked, as the Cavaliers head to Los Angeles tonight for a game against the resting Lakers. They’ve been playing much better since Coach (*cough*) Byron Scott put DeAngelo Russell into the starting lineup, even beating the Warriors last week. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for the Cavs to overlook and subsequently play down to an opponent, especially after an emotional win.

We’ll be following along with the broadcast, posting commentary, video and snark. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and you can read our postgame analysis on Friday morning here in the Scene and Heard blog.
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