This week, we saw the Cavaliers play four games, win two of them, and compete in three of them (they got blown away in the second half by Chicago and the fourth quarter against Houston). In two of them in particular, I saw glimpses of what I envision with the Cavaliers as they strive to compete night in and night out. It starts with defensive focus and getting into passing lanes, and it usually ends with fastbreak buckets. Let’s get visual to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
Starting in Charlotte, the Cavaliers got out to a big lead, only to see it evaporate, needing a Kyrie Irving game-winner to escape with a victory. Near the end of the first quarter, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist grabs a defensive rebound and heads up the court.
There are just under seven seconds left on the clock, so MKG is in hurry-up mode to get the ball ahead and get a decent look before the buzzer. The Cavaliers get back after the miss, and Kyrie has picked up Kidd-Gilchrist to slow him down.
MKG slows his dribble and looks to hand off to Ramon Sessions. This freeze frame shows pretty well how Kyrie anticipates the transfer.
Kyrie swipes the lazy pass by Kidd-Gilchrist and heads the other way with it.
Kyrie has the ball with three seconds left, and it’s a 2-on-1 (actually almost a 3-on-1 with Waiters creeping in on the left wing) with Gee. Kyrie could probably at least get fouled here if he doesn’t in fact lay it in the hoop. Instead, he sends Alonzo Gee up the elevator, after they had just missed on the same play about a minute and a half earlier.
It pays off this time as Gee stuffs it home and gives the wine and gold a 6-point lead after one.
In the second quarter, I thoroughly enjoyed this defensive sequence where the Cavaliers played solid defense for the entire shotclock and then got a steal at the end of it. The Charlotte possession starts with a quick Ben Gordon foul line jumper where he grabs his own offensive rebound.
As Gordon (in the right corner above) passes out to Kemba Walker to restart the offense, we watch this possession unfold.
Walker tries to shake and bake Waiters, but Dion does a good job of staying in front. Kemba actually loses the handle as shown above, and Dion lunges for the ball. We’ve seen this instinctual play from Dion countless times this season as he still has habits from his role in the Syracuse zone as the steals guy. Sometimes, it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t.
This time, it doesn’t as Walker recovers and starts to drive. Tristan Thompson’s man is beyond the arc, so he steps up and tries to stop Walker.
With the shotblocking threat from Tristan, Walker chooses to dribble under the basket and fire it to Gerald Henderson in the corner on a bounce pass.
Henderson catches, takes a dribble, and shot fakes, but Kyrie closes fast and Gerald regroups.
Henderson passes back out to Walker in the corner. After holding it for a few seconds with Kyrie up on him, Walker throws it out to Ben Gordon at the top of the arc to reset.
There’s only 6 seconds on the shot clock at this point, so he’s got to make something happen. Shaun Livingston is sagging into the key quite a bit, and Henderson has now relocated and is calling for the ball on the right wing.
Gordon waits for a screen, then tries to take crossover in front of Waiters. This time, Dion’s gamble pays off.
Waiters pokes the ball backwards, Gordon loses his balance, and it’s off to the races for a breakaway slam.
The Cavaliers finished with 9 steals, 20 fastbreak points, and 12 points off turnovers in this game.
The next night at home against Atlanta, I saw a lot of the same in the first half. In particular, there were two back-to-back defensive possessions that were just spectacular for the young Cavaliers.
In the first play, we begin late in a Rockets possession with Marcus Morris trying to back down Kyrie Irving after a pick and roll switch of Tyler Zeller onto Jeremy Lin, which he handled well.
Both Tristan and Zeller can see this is trouble. Tristan has Asik, so Zeller leaves Lin opposite ball side and comes to help Kyrie.
Kyrie anticipates that help will come, and Zeller approaches just as Morris beats Kyrie and prepares to take it up strong.
Kyrie swipes, and the ball comes free. The Cavaliers head the other way with Kyrie pushing.
Look at how far from the basket Gee still is, where Kyrie releases this ball himself (well beyond the three-point arc), and the obvious chemistry with how on point the pass is.
<Insert overused but lovable A.C. catchphrase here>
The very next play, we begin halfway through the shotclock, and Jeremy Lin has just passed it to Omer Asik down low. Notice that Zeller is in good position, and Tristan along with Waiters are nearby enough that Asik has to at least think about someone chipping the ball away as it occurred with his teammate on the very last possesion.
Asik makes body contact with Zeller, but he toughens up and stands his ground. We’ll need to see more of this from Tyler as he looks to avoid foul trouble as the only true center healthy on the roster.
Asik eventually shoots, but Zeller meets his release, and the ball flies errant. Asik might have a case for a foul that was not called.
Thompson grabs the board, handing it to Kyrie. After having just struck in the long pass game no more than twenty seconds ago, Kyrie sets his sights on it again. Notice the eye contact between Kyrie and Zeller. We’ve seen this misfire plenty of times this year, but this time they run it to perfection.
Kyrie is right on target as Zeller catches it with enough space to still gather and finish with a nice left-handed layup.
There’s one more, too, that we must finish on because it’s such an encapsulation of what Kyrie is and can be. As Carlos Delfino pushes it up the court with just over 30 seconds left before the end of the first, he telegraphs a lazy pass to Toney Douglas up the left sideline.
Kyrie anticipates, grabs the ball, and heads the other way with it, looking to execute in the fastbreak once more.
This is where the eliteness of Kyrie comes into play. This spin move on Delfino not only gives the Cavaliers numbers, but it’s a play not every run-of-the-mill NBA point guard can make.
It’s a 3-on-2 (Kyrie, Dion, and Gee against Smith and Harden) break, but instead of giving it up this time, Kyrie takes it in himself.
He finishes the layup with pretty decent contact from Smith that probably should’ve been called a foul.
I thought an interesting stat to support this notion of getting steals and running was that the Cavaliers are actually sixth in opponents’ turnover rate at 14.78%. Essentially, turnover rate is a formula that measures the percentage of possessions ending in a turnover. Despite this favorable metric, the Cavaliers don’t take advantage of it nearly as well as they should as they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to pace at 94.5 (T-14th quickest). With players like Irving, Waiters, Gee, Thompson, and Zeller that all thrive or I believe can thrive in transition, the Cavaliers really ought to pick up the pace and look to run more, especially in the early parts of games.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s installment. Until next time, the film room is closed.
Kirk Lammers grew up on the Marblehead Peninsula and is a graduate of THE Ohio State University. He now lives in Northeast Ohio, and you can find him at the ballpark, at the Q, or far too often on Twitter (@WFNYKirk)."