Feb 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) looks on during the second half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
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The Cleveland Cavaliers are starting to come together again in a tough time to keep focused, with All-Star weekend around the corner and a number of contributors with health concerns.
We all know what a disastrous January it was for the Cavs, who went 7-8. I’m not going to rehash on that, though, as the calendar is now approaching mid-February faster than you think. Thanks to mostly outstanding efforts from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won five of their last six games. It hasn’t been perfect but there have been some encouraging signs that the Wine and Golders may be out of their midseason funk.
The Cavs need to be able to win the games they should win; I know that a LeBron James-led team seemingly never has that issue but it is important so you can have consistency as a season progresses. Cleveland is still comfortable atop the Eastern Conference standings, it would just be nice if they could be better on the road. The Cavs are drastically better at home, with a 22-5 mark; on the road they are a pedestrian 13-10.
The last two games, however, have had a much better pace and effort to them on the part of the Cavaliers. The Cavs buried the New York Knicks on Sunday in the Garden, highlighted by hot shooting from LeBron and company with Irving sitting with a quadriceps injury.
Last night, it was a bank shot heard round the world from The King to take the heart out of the Washington Wizards, and Uncle Drew and Kevin Love got the job done in overtime en route to a thrilling 140-135 win. Nonetheless, the Cavs still have a long way to go if they want to repeat. It starts on the defensive end tonight against the Indiana Pacers on the road.
Feb 4, 2017; New York, NY, USA; New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (7) drives to the basket past Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Major Key #1: Stopping Dribble Penetration
The Cavs must stop the ball better; this has been an issue all season long with individual matchups defensively. Often times, the defense is overcompensating in their respective rotations due to people being beaten off the bounce. Guys are going to beat, you can’t stay in front of your guy the whole game. It’s understandable, especially in the case with Irving and James; they have such a huge responsibility on the offensive end of the floor.
However, there are huge stretches of games that the on-ball defense is lackluster. Guys are getting beat constantly, and it’s causing the Cavs to have to outscore their opponents seemingly every night. Some of this has to do with players nursing nagging injuries, with Irving having some issues of his own and Love having back soreness defense does take its toll at times.
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That said, as you could see yesterday, John Wall did a number on the Cavs interior defense on many occasions because he got right by Irving and others off the dribble.
The Cavs are not going to win many games when they give up 135 points, as they did last night versus the Wiz. Regardless, defense still does win championships, and players need to be able to guard their position when it matters most in the waning moments of games. You can’t always rely on bigs to help you get stops as a guard.
With teams attacking Irving and Love in pick-and-rolls, it makes it more difficult for players like Kyle Korver and Channing Frye to be effective in defending their position and crashing the glass to help out the likes of Love and Tristan Thompson. When these guys are forced to help weak side, opposing teams are getting open looks on kick-outs from dribble drives.
These guys are not on this team to do the dirty work. The bench production needs to improve on both ends on a nightly basis.
Nov 15, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and forward Channing Frye (8) and guard Kay Felder (20) during the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Major Key #2: Bench Production
It’s clear that the Cavs bench is not among the league’s best right now, and the lack of depth is obvious. Things will turn around in the long-term, though, as the depth has been compromised with injuries, particularly to J.R. Smith. With Smith out until April, though, according to KJG’s own Quenton Albertie, the Cavs need to find away to hold down the fort.
With the Cavs playing 53 minutes yesterday, you need your depth to be there throughout the case of the game. LeBron James is still averaging 37.6 minutes played per game, according to sportingcharts.com, which ranks as second in the league to only Kyle Lowry. To people that say LeBron is not a great competitor, just check the minutes logged in his career, and get back to me.
This team needs their bench to pick up their production, as LeBron, Irving, and Love account for 70.5 points of the 110.6 the Cavs average per night. That’s a huge load on your core players, and it is physically taxing game-to-game for your key guys to do that night-in and night-out. It’s in key moments that there’s been an issue with turnovers, especially in the case with James, who is the ultimate Swiss-army knife. Last night’s game was a lot more interesting from a turnover on the part of LBJ with under one minute left that led to a Bradley Beal three in transition on the other end.
To summarize, the Cavs need players such as Kay Felder, Korver, and Frye to be more consistent. There have been far too many instances when the starters get a lead, and the bench gives it up, and the pressure is back on the core guys.
Against the best teams in the NBA, this issue has killed the Cavs. In this last few games, though, team offense and ball movement have been much better. The Cavaliers need to keep that up tonight.
Jan 20, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James (23) passes around Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez (11) during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Major Key #3: Team Offense
When this Cavs squad moves the ball around the horn, they are so difficult to defend. This is a huge reason why the Cavs have scored an average of 121.4 points in their last five W’s. In two of the last three games, Uncle Drew and LBJ have had their career-highs in assists, with 14 (in three quarters) and 17, as a result of shooters getting the ball in their shooting pockets. The Cavs had 31 total assists last night, and Korver is beginning to emerge as the x-factor with his shooting prowess.
Korver had 13 points and four threes, and this gave the Cavs a huge lift in key moments. He and Channing Frye are starting to play off each other’s game, and if they can get going, it opens up the lane even more for the playmakers to do their work. Love was a key benefactor of defensive scrambling from this penetration yesterday, as he had a 39-point explosion, with six threes.
There’s no doubt that the Cavs can always get production out of their isolations from the Big Three, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t go to that when it’s there. LeBron and Kyrie are unique talents, so when you have those guys you have to let them do their thing.
However, when the Cavs are at their best, they are playing unselfish basketball and getting everybody involved. It’s obvious that when the ball isn’t moving, the other guys don’t score, and the team usually loses. The formula is pretty simple: keep the ball hot, and hit the open man.