Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Mavs vs. Cavs

This was a back-and-forth classic that featured a fascinating chess match between Rick Carlisle and David Blatt and ended with two of the greatest players of all-time going 1-on-1 against each other. It was all you could ask for in an NBA game and there were a ton of interesting storylines for both teams to come out of this one.

1) The Cavs closed out the game with Kevin Love at the 5

Cleveland went to an unusual line-up in the final minutes of regulation and most of the OT, with LeBron at the 4 and Love at the 5 and three perimeter players around them. It worked like gangbusters and it was probably the difference in the game. Playing Love at the 5 makes him much more effective on the offensive side of the ball. When he's playing as a 4, there's still a big man clogging up the middle of the lane and he's just one of three shooters spotting up off the ball. When he's playing as a 5, the floor is spread wide open and there's no one for the opposing big man to guard.

The match-ups work out a lot better for Cleveland. At the 4, Love has to try and use his size to score in the post and clog up the Cavs offense. At the 5, he can play pick-and-pop against a slower defender whose not a comfortable guarding him on the perimeter. There's also a domino effect - Love/LeBron + 3 shooters is by far the Cavs most dangerous offensive line-up and there was no one for Dirk to guard. He ended up on either Iman Shumpert or Matthew Dellevadova and they were both able to take advantage of him. There's nowhere to hide a big man against that line-up and the Cavs can run a lot of them off the floor, which is what ended up happening in this one.

Of course, the concern with Love at the 5 is what happens on the defensive side of the ball. The Mavs weren't able to take advantage of his individual defense because neither one of their C's - Zaza or JaVale - is a threat to create their own shot. Love isn't much of a rim protector either but the Cavs can play enough perimeter defenders around him to where they should be able lock up their man and keep him out of compromising situations. A really interesting twist is that LeBron became more of a rim protector in that line-up, with a couple of thunderous blocks and an incredible defensive sequence where he recovered on Dirk and bothered him enough to miss a point blank shot at the front of the rim.

2) There was a sequence late when the Cavs went full YOLO and played LeBron at the 5

The logic for playing Love at the 5 goes double for playing LeBron at the 5. The modern NBA is all about shifting guys down a position in order to take advantage of speed at the cost of size and no player in the league is more indefensible in that scenario than LeBron. He's also a fantastic interior defender when he wants to be and he's bigger, stronger and faster than either Love or Tristan Thompson. We didn't see it for very long but it's a hole card that David Blatt has in his pocket and it could be really important in a potential NBA Finals rematch with the Golden State Warriors. If the Cavs are going to beat the Line-up of Death, this is the line-up they are going to have to go with: Kyrie - Delly - JR - Shump - LeBron.

3) The Mavs responded by moving Dirk to the 5 and it was anarchy

I like to think of coaches taking big men off the floor like two poker players playing heads up and continually upping the ante. Going 4-out is a modest raise. Going 5-out is going all-in. When both coaches go 5-out and there are 10 shooters and 10 ball-handlers on the floor, you can throw all the normal rules of basketball out the window. It didn't last very long on Tuesday but the result was complete chaos, with the ball flying around the floor, the defense scrambling like crazy and open 3's for both teams.

4) Love at the 4 didn't work very well

The flip side of moving Love to the 5 was that it was a last ditch effort by Blatt to salvage his performance tonight because the Mavs ruthlessly exploited him when he was at the 4. It didn't matter who he was guarding, whether it was Dirk, Parsons or Zaza, but all 3 had the green light to go right at him on defense and they all attacked him in a different way as if they were trying to highlight all the different ways that he can't play defense. Zaza bullied him under the rim and grabbed a few rebounds on him, Dirk faced him up at the 3-point line and Parsons ran him off screens.

On the other end of the floor, the Mavs were comfortable letting Parsons guard Love in the block and living with the results. It was kind of shocking to see how ineffective he was at exploiting the biggest weakness on the team - their defense at the 4 position. A PF isn't going to see a worse series of defenders than what the Mavs throw out there on a given night, although it does appear that the comedy stylings of Dwight Powell and Charlie Villanueva have come to an end.

The Cavs tried to anchor a 2nd-unit line-up at the start of the 2Q with Love at the 4 and it didn't work at all. They ended up having to bring Kyrie back in early in the 2Q and they switched things around in the 2nd half to where he was the lone member of the Big Three on the floor at the start of the 4Q. What was really jarring was the sequence towards the end of the 2Q when they brought in Delly for Love, kept the other 4 players out there and suddenly started playing a lot better.

Take a look at these line-ups and ask yourself which one is more effective and what exactly is Love bringing to the table that Delly is not:

Kyrie                         Kyrie
Delly                         JR
JR                              LeBron
LeBron                     Love
Tristan                      Tristan

The line-up on the left spreads the floor just as well as the line-up on the right except they have an extra ball-handler and defender on the floor while LeBron gets a more advantageous match-up on both ends. This is what I was talking about when I was saying that Love at the 4 can only be so valuable because all he's basically doing in these line-ups is being a really slow 6'10 guard who can't create off the bounce. I guess he gives you more rebounding and post defense but that's what you pay your C for.

5) Matthew Dellevadova was putting in work

When he checked in the game in the middle of the 1Q, the Cavs were down 23-7 and I made a crack in the press box that it was a good thing the Mavs were able to run up the margin when Delly was out. A few minutes later, the Cavs had climbed all the way back into a tie. It wasn't all Delly's doing, to be sure, but he was fantastic - he was +21 in 28 minutes in a game that the Cavs won by 3! He was only 4-11 from the floor but he was 4-7 from 3, he had 5 assists on 0 turnovers and he played great defense at three different positions.

He's gone from a novelty act to a bonafide NBA player and the only question now is just how important is he to the Cavs. I don't want to over-react to one game but he has been playing well all season and it's gotten to the point where I'm thinking he should be out there to close out most games. He's a fantastic outside shooter and a great decision-maker who garbages his way into a lot of rebounds and steals and who can defend 3 different positions. I don't want him guarding the best player on the other team like he had to in the NBA Finals but I'd be pretty comfortable with him guarding most 2nd or 3rd options on the perimeter.

To put it another way, he's better on defense than Kyrie and JR, he's better on offense than Shumpert and he's a more consistent two-way player than Love. The crazy part is that he's an undrafted free agent in his 2nd season in the league and he's muscled his way into the rotation of a title contender. You don't see that very often - what a find by the Cavs scouting department. It makes me wonder how much we overrate pure athleticism when it comes to scouting guys on the perimeter - as long as a guy passes a baseline of speed (which I will call the Andrew Harrison Line) it's more important for him to be strong, physical and smart defender.

6) Chandler Parsons at the 4 continues to work

Parsons was the Plains Capitol Bank Player of the Game and he had one of his best performances of the season - 25 points and 8 rebounds on 14 shots. A huge part of that is him getting to play in more space and against worse defenders at the 4 position. The move is all upside for Dallas - no matter what he is giving up on defense, it's not like he can be any worse than Powell or Charlie V. Carlisle first started trying these line-ups last week and there doesn't seem to be any reason to stop using them. Parsons at the 4 + McGee at the 5 raises the ceiling for this team significantly and I'd say it was the major reason why they were able to push one of the best teams in the league to the limit.

7) JaVale is officially a thing if he wasn't already

JaVale's plus/minus wasn't great tonight (-15) but it's not like it was an isolated number as Felton (-17) and Harris (-19) both had bad numbers and it was as much a matter of the 2nd unit getting caught in some bad match-ups against Cleveland as anything. He was 4-4 with 3 blocks in 18 minutes and he did a great job of rolling to the rim and shutting down the paint. The only issue was that he didn't get to play as many minutes as Parsons now that Parsons is getting the first stint as the backup 4 when Dirk goes to the bench early in the 1Q and 3Q's. He's an important cog on this team and his playing time should only increase as the season goes on.

8) The Cavs 2nd unit is stacked

Cleveland brings so many good players off the bench it's ridiculous, which I guess is what should happen when you have a $110 million payroll. They basically have 8 starters - Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert were starters on a 53 win team (that was playing like a 60+ win team after they were acquried) and Delly started in the NBA Finals. The Mavs typically have a huge edge with their 2nd unit thanks to Carlisle's creative staggering of minutes and their surplus of PG's and it was all they could do to stay in the game against the Cleveland bench, especially when they were playing with LeBron on the 2nd unit. Richard Jefferson is a very serviceable 9th man at the 3 and 4 positions and they can't even find minutes for Mo Williams.

9) Mozgov had his best game in a long time

This was the Mozgov who I remember watching in last season's playoffs. He had 10 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal on 6 shots in 20 minutes and he was +18 for the game. He's so freaking big and he has great hands and a soft touch and he can knock down free throws so he can be super, super effective as the release valve in a 4-out offense. If he catches the ball 5+ feet from the rim and has a lane he's throwing it down and there's not much you can do about it. I don't watch Cleveland all that often and I know he's had a bad year but games like tonight show what he can bring to the team that Tristan Thompson doesn't. If the Mavs don't get Hassan Whiteside in the off-season, I'd be happy with them bringing in Mozgov. He has Zaza's size and smarts on defense and McGee's finishing ability in one player and he'd look incredible playing in the amount of space and with the amount of playmakers that the Mavs could put around him.

10) LeBron James can still do this

Watch Devin Harris on that play. He jumps in the air, contests the shot and comes back down and LeBron is still hanging and re-adjusting for the dunk.

It's always fun to watch LeBron in person but he definitely doesn't seem to be as fast and explosive as he was at his athletic peak. While he can still get up and explode at the rim, his lateral quickness and ability to get side-to-side on the dribble didn't seem to be quite there. He couldn't just blow by guys off the bounce like he could 3-4 years ago or in his first stint in Cleveland. Deron Williams was able to stick with him a few times and there was even one sequence when he had Dirk iso'd and he settled for a pull-up J.

LeBron is mortal and I think the dynamic with him is no different than anyone else in the modern NBA - you want to put him on the slowest defender as possible while letting him play in the most space. What that means is the position he would be most effective at is the 5, It's the same thing with Draymond Green. I'm not saying that LeBron should be a full-time 5 anymore than Draymond should be but it's a shame to have that bullet in your holster and not be able to use it. What's going to happen is that if they don't win the championship this season they are going to have to do a lot of thinking about what it's going to take for them to get over the hump and they are going to have to put everything on the table, which means LeBron doing what's best for the team and being more willing to give up his body by sliding down an extra position on the floor.

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