Loveless: Cleveland’s Downfall

Let’s get one thing straight from the jump, I am terrible at predicting games. When I say that tonight’s game has the feeling of a season finale, it’s probably a good sign that you should bet the house on Cleveland. I can’t shake this feeling though. It feels like all of the great stories that were going to be told in these Finals have been told and now there is nothing left except the Warriors getting this last win and putting the cherry on top of the single greatest season in NBA History.

It was so much fun watching LeBron and Kyrie turn back the clock and play 48 minutes of pure, unadulterated Hero Ball in Game Five. To see LeBron James get their one last time in a Finals game was a real treat, and watching Irving ice the game with an incredible scoring binge felt like watching a young Kobe. Those two performances were enabled by Draymond Green’s suspension, and will almost definitely not be replicated tonight. The illegal screens that Tristan Thompson was setting on a regular basis on Andre Iguodala will not matter as much when Green is their to switch on to James. The impossibly difficult shots that Irving was hitting in Game Five will still be impossibly hard to hit tonight.

The Splash Brothers will probably be better tonight with Green back on the court. Curry is a not nearly as good without Dray, the Warriors main playmaker, on the court. Harrison Barnes is not the same kind of payer that Green is, he can not be relied upon to keep the offense moving when Klay and Steph are tied up. This has been my main argument against Barnes being a max contract kind of player. Barnes can hit open three’s and occasional go to the rim for a big dunk, but he does have the offensive tool box to orchestrate an offense. With Green back in the lineup the Warriors go back to being nigh impossible to defend.

Maybe I’d feel differently about tonight’s game if the Cavs had a third player that they could reliably count on to get baskets down the stretch. I don’t want to poor any more dirt of Kevin Love’s grave, but the fact is he has been horrible in these Finals. For a player of Loves ability to only shoot one of five in a Finals game is insane. Is there any chance that Love is still on this team come next May? There have now been two head coaches that could not find a way to get optimal efficiency out of Love in Cleveland. His defense has improved, but he will always be a target against teams that run a lot of pick and roll, which is most of the league at this point. Kevin only has one game in which he’s grabbed more than five rebounds in this series, which takes away about half of his value as someone who can spark fast breaks out of his outlet passes. He spends more of the Cavs possessions standing in one of the corners waiting for a pass that is not coming. He has only had 18 field goal attempts in the last three games he’s played. There’s a real argument that can be made that Love should not play if Cleveland is not going to make a concerted effort to get him shots.

I feel bad for Love. No kid grows up dreaming of being the scapegoat for a team losing in the NBA Finals. If the Cavs go down tonight or in Game Seven, Kevin Love will be the subject of hundreds of takedown pieces. I’m hoping that Love has a great game tonight and pushes the series to a seventh game. There’s no way that the Cavs are going to be able to get by with LeBron and Kyrie hitting over 60% of their shots tonight, and there is no other player on this roster capable of scoring on the same level as Love (no offense to you Richard Jefferson). This means getting Love looks in the post, and actually running plays through him. I’m not sure that Coach Lue has it in his playbook to do more than runs high screens for LeBron and Irving, which, to be fair, is a really strong play.

Against most of the teams in the league you can rely on the greatness of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to win a seven game series, but when you are playing one of the best teams in the history of the league you have to find ways to get your other players more involved. I tip my hat to Tristan Thompson for being such a monster on the glass throughout the playoffs. He has proven himself a max level player as a 6’9″ player who can play as a Center in small lineups. His offensive rebounding and screening ability has singlehandedly kept Cleveland in some of these Finals games. It feels like the Cavs have three pieces of a championship team, but is one short. That fourth piece should have been Love, but in a world where the Warriors exist you just can’t have two defensive liabilities on the court at the same time. Kyrie and Love are both defensive liabilities. Irving has proven that he can get hot enough on offense to compensate for his decencies on the other end, Love has not. This Cleveland organization tried to jam Love into their lineup like it was a fantasy sports team. It didn’t work. As they watch the Warriors celebrate their second title they will no doubt be thinking about how important it is to make sure that all the pieces fit.

The Spurs and Cavs just played some great basketball

i.jpg
photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Last night the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers played a meaningful game in early January, with the Spurs pulling out hard earned 99-95 win.

The NBA Regular Season is long… probably too long, and it’s rare that one gets to see teams, especially veteran contenders like these two, come at each other with playoff level intensity in early January.

The Cavaliers are heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference this year. They were coming into this game on an eight game winning streak, on the heels of a great overtime win against the Mavericks on Tuesday night. They’ve been on the road for the past couple of weeks and have a huge game coming up next Monday against Golden State. You could forgive Cleveland for playing a little sluggish in this one, and yet LeBron and company came out of the gates swinging. James made a point to get to the basket early and often, scoring from close and setting up good looks for Kevin Love and J.R. Smith. The Cavs took an early lead and never trailed in the first half.

San Antonio grabbed an early second half lead by turning up the heat on defense and mercilessly attacking the paint. Tony Parker was the head of the spear, playing as well as I’ve seen from him in years. He finished the game with 24 points on 11-18 shooting, and was a magician in the paint. Parker is having one hell of a season. He’s coming off a 31 point game on Tuesday and is shooting at 53 percent for the season, a season in which most basketball minds thought he was going to fall off dramatically.

The Spurs got a ton of mileage by picking on Kevin Love in the second half. Tim Duncan hit a couple of huge shots down the stretch with Love trying to man him up one-on-one. It’s no secret that Love is a huge minus on the defensive end for the Cavs, a minus that can be hid against most teams, but when playing a team with as many talented bigs as the Spurs, it’s a mismatch that is going to be exploited time-and-time again.

The biggest boost to the Spurs in the second half came from Kawhi Leonard. After a poor shooting first half he finished the night with 20 points, 10 rebounds a slew of disruptive plays on defense Then there was this dunk late in the fourth quarter that was – well – see for yourself:

 

Leonard is the player that makes the Spurs newfound, defense first philosophy work. No loose ball is safe when he is within 10 feet of it. Coach Popovich has the luxury of throwing him at the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James knowing that he can hold is own without the need for double teams. Chuck said that Kawhi is the best player in the league right now, and while I think Curry and LeBron are still better, more polished players, it’s hard to argue that Leonard is not at very least the most disruptive player in the game.

The Spurs have now won 10 straight, and sit just 2.5 games behind Golden State. They have the best point differential in NBA history at the moment and against the Cavs they showed that they can put the clamps on one of the league’s best offenses. This was the biggest game of the regular season so far, and the Spurs played like a team hell bent on winning one more title.

Some Notes:

  • Has anyone else noticed that 90 percent of Matthew Dellavedova is driving down the right side of the lane and throwing a lob to whichever big man Cleveland has closest to the basket? Sure he can also hit an open three or two, and play gritty – read, dirty – defense, but the fact that Delly plays so many minutes for a championship contender is astonishing to me. The only player who irks me more by his very presence on the court is Austin Rivers, but I can at least see the – flawed – reasoning for him getting so many minutes on a contender.
  • It’s always fascinating to watch how Pop works in some of his less experienced players into these big regular season games. Kyle Anderson and Jonathan SImmons both got some run tonight, and both ended up positive in net +/-. San Antonio is like a factory that produces nothing but players that can contribute to a winning team.
  • It was so nice to have a game like this to distract me from the parade of hatred and stupidity that was the GOP debate. Coming to the game late gave me a good reason to stay off Twitter, thus giving me a reprieve from all of the foolishness.
  • My reaction to seeing Jimmy Butler’s stat line in the Bulls 115-111 OT win over the 76ers:

 

The NBA’s BIGGEST Big Three

 

chart via – NBA Reddit

I haven’t had a ton of time to watch Cavs games in the past couple of weeks, but it looks as if things have gotten interesting since Kyrie Irving has come back from his injury. Everyone has made a lot of noise (including me, just scroll down) about the Warriors lineup of death, and for good reason, but it seems as if Cleveland has it’s own trident of doom (copyright pending).

I have to admit that I was flabbergasted when I saw this chart. Obviously we are dealing with a relatively small sample size here, but it’s not very often you see trio of players have a plus minus of almost 18 points in 17 minutes. It makes you wonder what would have happened last year if Love and Irving would have stayed healthy throughout the playoffs.