There is no such thing as a must-win in the NBA at this point in the season but the Cavs really needed to take care of business at the Q Friday night before heading out for the first of two West Coast swings this season. They play four games in six nights and all four Western Conference teams are playing well at home. Thus it would have been a blow to take a loss at home last night against a game Bucks squad that has showed lots of life this year after a major cost-cutting offseason. The Bucks were coming off an OT loss to the Lakers, who received some favorable treatment from the officials, in which they showed lots of fight and looked very impressive against the league’s best team. It was the second meeting of the season between the two teams, as the Cavs won at the Bradley Center nearly two weeks ago in a game which featured a 29-0 run by the Wine & Gold.
There would be no such run in this game. It would have been nice to get a comfortable lead and rest some of the starters before the trip out West but that is not how things work this year with the Cavaliers. They had a few sustained cold streaks on the offensive end which amazingly included only two points scored in the final 6+ minutes of the game. As has been the case in the Mike Brown era, defense was the Cavaliers saving grace which propelled them through the cold streaks. An efficient game from LeBron and energy off the bench from Andy and Delonte led to a narrow 85-82 win.
Coming into the game, the Cavs had outscored opponents in the first quarter in 20 of 26 games with a +4.4 average differential in 1Q. That did not hold true to form against the Bucks. The Cavaliers came out asleep on both ends. Milwaukee is a smaller team which has a minimal inside the paint scoring threat. Shaq got Andrew Bogut into foul trouble early but the Bucks penetrated and kicked out to the wings all first quarter and knocked down a number of uncontested shots to start the game. The Cavs were quickly down by 11 points with Brandon Jennings scooting wherever he wanted on the floor, mostly off the pick-and-roll (6 assists in the first 6 minutes), and Ersan Ilyasova knocking down open shots. The Bucks shot 70% in the first 8 minutes of the game hitting open shot after open shot. They finished the first shooting 50% without getting to the FT line while the Cavs started cold going 39% from the floor but went 9 of 10 from the FT line to keep the game within two.
LeBron, as is typically the case, was a large reason for why the Cavs got to the line so much and he kept them in the game after the sluggish start. He asserted himself on the offensive end taking it to the rim and drawing contact. Coming into the game, LBJ had a 30.3 ppg average in 24 career games against the Bucks – at that point the highest against any one opponent. I thought he had an efficient game finishing with a 26-8-10 on only 13 shots. Brian Windhorst, however, wrote that LBJ might need an “offensive intervention” after witnessing the second consecutive end-of-game offensive breakdown.
The spacing was definitely poor and we fell into the old habit of running down the clock and jacking up a bad shot – in this case often a LeBron fall away. But LeBron’s teammates, including Jamario Moon, Mo, and Boobie, also simply failed to knock down shots they normally make. It all resulted in a 14-2 run by the Bucks who had a chance to tie the game on their last possession before the Cavs clamped down and Andy made a falling out-of-bounds save, smartly throwing the ball down the court to run out the clock – one of two key plays down the stretch by the Wild Thing which enabled the victory.
The Cavs do not win without the contributions of Andy and Delonte off the bench. Mike Brown praised Andy after the game and said he was “the difference even though you may not know from looking at the box score.” We are just over a quarter into the season but Brown was calling for Andy to start receiving some serious All-Defense and 6th Man consideration. Brown also praised Delonte stating that he created the team’s toughness and defensive identity off the bench. He did harass the Bucks ball handlers all evening and won the 50/50 balls that Brown values so much. It was also a welcome site to see him completely assert himself on the offensive end. He was both aggressive taking it to the basket in transition and demanding the ball while posting up Milwaukee’s guards and taking it to the rim from the back-to-the-basket post up. He must have had 4-5 of his trademark soft bankers off the glass from within 5 feet of the rim. He had a couple untimely turnovers but Delonte, who enjoyed his best game of the season against the Bucks earlier this month, was another difference maker off the bench.
The Bucks, to many NBA experts surprise, are a nice team that will likely make the playoffs. They are a small team with little inside presence other than Andrew Bogut who was in foul trouble all night. The Cavs countered with their smallest possible lineup as Z/Shaq played only a combined 36 minutes and LBJ often played PF with Andy at center. But Jennings works well with their PNR/dribble-drive and kick offense which sets up their guards and shooters from outside. Ersan Ilyasova shot well; Michael Redd is easing back from injury; and who thought Charlie Bell would be the most productive Flintstone in the NBA ten years after the trio won the national title? This combination led to the Bucks having an astonishing 17 assists in the first half but again it also results in few opportunities at the FT line. Coming into the game the Cavs had made more FTs than Milwaukee had taken all season long and the disparity continued with Cleveland going 24/31 from the line and Milwaukee just 11/14. The Bucks were legitimately jobbed in the Lakers game earlier this week but I am trying to remove all bias here when I say that there were not a ton of missed calls last night on either end (although the Cavs did whine as usual) and I think the FT disparity was a fairly natural occurence.
But when you struggle to score in the paint and get to the FT line, you are bound to go cold from outside the paint at some point or run into a stretch of defense which denies you uncontested shots from those same areas. The Cavaliers completely shut off the penetration of the Bucks in the first 15 minutes of the 2nd half which included a lowly 12 point 3rd quarter from Milwaukee. While the Bucks shot 50% in the first quarter, they shot 31% in the subsequent three quarters. The Cavs took advantage and went on a run in the 3rd behind the shooting of Mo Williams which got them out to a 13 point lead at one point. Luckily this streak was enough to maintain a lead as the Cavs suffered their own lowly 14 point 4th quarter due to the aforementioned offensive stagnation and cold shooting to close out the game.
It was the 9th straight win at the Q and a necessary victory before they head on this West coast trip. I am going to try and get an analysis of the daunting 4 games in 6 nights trip up Saturday afternoon – I think, best case, we are hoping for a 2-2 record come Christmas night which again emphasizes the important W against the Bucks.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)