The Cleveland Cavaliers finally look frightening in win over Spurs
Cleveland gets its biggest win of the season while the Spurs continue to struggle without Tim Duncan.
The Cleveland Cavaliers didn't need to win Saturday's game over the San Antonio Spurs. They'd had upheaval in the last 10 days, with the firing of David Blatt and questions regarding their chemistry to fit and everything in between. Losing to the second-best team in the league, the one with the best net rating in the league, would have been acceptable.
At the very least it wouldn't have hurt that much, after losing the previous three times to the Warriors and Spurs, including Golden State's destruction at the Q two weeks ago.
Instead, not only did the Cavaliers prevail, they put together their most complete performance in their best win of the 2015-16 season and looked -- really for the first time against a top-tier team -- like a scary team, in beating the Spurs 117-103.
See, even when Cleveland had racked up their gaudy win-loss records and offensive numbers over the past 15 months, they had never seemed like an intimidating team. They weren't a team that just overwhelmed you, caught you on your heels, backed you into a corner, and just wailed on you. They would outclass you with offense, and beat you with talent. They wouldn't deliver wrath mercilessly.
This was merciless.
It wasn't just that Cleveland's Big 3 posted its second straight game with all three scoring more than 20 points (Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and Kevin Love combined for 71 points). It wasn't just the 52 points in the paint or the way the Cavaliers controlled the glass. They were aggressors. Advanced metrics tell a huge part of the story, breaking down plays gives you examples, quotes from the players can provide insight if you find the right ones tucked away amid the cliches. But there is a feel to the game of basketball and on Saturday night, for the first time since LeBron James arrived home, the Cavaliers played a game that felt like they were on another level.
Cleveland overwhelmed the Spurs from the get-go in a performance that seemed oddly reminiscent of how the Warriors attacked San Antonio, which was without Tim Duncan as he continues to struggle with a sore knee. LeBron did his thing, to be certain, pushing the ball and attacking constantly. We saw the Cavaliers finally bring their A-game and they did so with urgency and intensity.
Irving was attacking out of the pick and roll and not isolating. Tristan Thompson challenged LaMarcus Aldridge at every turn, Matthew Dellavedova continued what has really been an overlooked season from him.
The Cavs brought it, finally, in a big-game environment, and San Antonio could do nothing about it. The Cavaliers finally look truly scary. Better late than never?
Five other notes:
1. Spurs struggling without Timmy: OK, let's deal with the elephant not in the room. Duncan sat out this game, and while the win over the Rockets earlier this week was fine and dandy, the Spurs are now 1-2 with Duncan sitting. The two losses were to the best teams in the league, both on the road. Tough games for sure. It's January, what do these losses mean to the mightiest franchise over the past 17 seasons?
Well, for starters, this. This season the Spurs have given up 94.8 points per 100 possessions. In the two losses without Duncan, they surrendered a stunning 119 points per 100 possessions. When the Warriors blew out San Antonio, I pointed out the problems the Spurs had in protecting the rim. Guess what? That same problem popped up again.
This season the Spurs are allowing 50 percent shooting in the paint and at the rim. In the two losses with Duncan out, against two of the best offenses in the league, they gave up 62 percent. How does this happen? Well, there are a lot of factors. The Spurs tried out zone vs. the Cavs, especially in the third quarter (more on that coming), their perimeter defense was off, but ... it cannot be overstated how much Aldridge has struggled in these games defensively.
Because Love completely cooked him. Watch how off-balance Aldridge is on this entire possession trying to contain in the pick and roll and then recover on Love.
Aldridge struggled to keep pace vs. the Cavs' pace pressure. He's just trying to catch up here, and Love cooks him.
Duncan's absence wasn't just about rim protection, it's about communication. Whether it's Aldridge (who never turns toward Love here) or David West, it's an issue.
Aldridge's problems aren't the direct result of Duncan's absence, but it's becoming more and more apparent that the Spurs are going to need Duncan to coordinate and manage the defense. That has concerns for this season if Duncan is limited by the knee injury but it brings even more concerns when you ask, "What happens when Duncan retires?"
2. Tristan Thompson's value was huge in this game: Thompson only finished with two offensive rebounds but his presence was everywhere, which disrupted the Spurs' ability to get out in space. His defensive presence was big and Thompson finished with a plus-15, the best on the Cavs.
3. The Cavaliers earned this win on a back to back: That makes the performance that much more impressive. Still, under David Blatt, James would routinely go into the 40s on back to backs. James played just 35 minutes. The blowout helped, but it seems relevant to note.
4. Kawhi Leonard was more assertive in this game than against the Warriors: He scored 24 points, and his defense was great as usual, but the lack of rim protection and strange personnel shifts caused complications. In the last two losses, Leonard has been a minus-33 when on the floor. That's not indicative of Leonard's play, he's not the problem. However, it does reflect an inability for Leonard to simply raise the team around him on his own.
5. There were a lot of weird things in this particular game from Pop: It's stuff like this that makes people think he tanks regular-season games. There was a stretch in the third quarter where Popovich left a lineup featuring Boban Marjanovic, Kyle Anderson, and Jonathan Simmons going up against the Big 3 for Cleveland. The Spurs played zone, but via Synergy Sports, all but three of the 19 possessions they used it came in the third quarter.
Via Synergy, the Spurs had only used zone defense in 18 possessions the entire season prior to Saturday.
That might sound a whole lot like Popovich was testing ideas out.
Again, that's not to say that Popovich threw the game or didn't want to win. But it was pretty clear that whatever the Spurs would use in a hypothetical matchup with the Cavs was not what they brought to the table Saturday. It likely wouldn't have mattered since the Cavaliers played so well, but hidden in the blowout were several bizarre dynamics.
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