Game Night Observations: Protecting the paint, second half adjustments, and beating bad teams
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and TheLandOnDemand.com
The Cleveland Cavaliers are off to the best start in franchise history for a team that didn’t have LeBron James on the roster. The team has now won eight consecutive games since losing on opening night in Toronto, tying the 1976-77 Cavs’ start.
It’s fitting that the eighth win came against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, 114-100.
It wasn’t always pretty, as the first half was not up to what the Cavaliers deem their standard of basketball to be, with the first quarter being an especially poor start. As has happened a few times on this young season, the Cavs went into the locker room, regrouped, and emerged looking much more like the team they’re capable of being.
The best way to sum up what happened at Crypto.com arena on Sunday might be one stat in particular: Cleveland allowed 36 points to the Lakers in the first quarter. It then allowed just 36 points total in the second half.
After allowing Los Angeles’ Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook to score 17 and 14 points, respectively, in the first half, Cleveland held that duo to a combined seven points after the break. The only member of the Lakers to score more than six points in the second half was James, who had 15 to finish with 27 against his former team.
Cleveland allowed 38 points in the paint in the first half against a Lakers team that is one of the worst offenses in the NBA and a historically bad 3-point shooting team, at that. In the second half, the Cavs allowed just 18 points in the paint. It wasn’t that the Cavs forced Los Angeles into more 3-point attempts, it was the quality of the looks on the interior for the Lakers that changed, not necessarily the quantity of them.
In the first half, the Lakers attempted 32 2-point shots, just five of those came outside of the paint. In the second half, Los Angeles attempted 28 2-point shots, 11 of those came outside of the paint.
Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has talked before about how defensively, the plan is often to force teams into shooting attempts they’re uncomfortable taking, and that turns out to be midrange attempts more often than not. In the first half, Cleveland didn’t do that, in the second half it did.
Part of the reason the Lakers were able to have success near the basket on Sunday early on was due to the Cavs dealing with foul trouble. Both Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen were on the bench for the final six minutes of the first half with three fouls. Neither of them played more than 13 minutes in the first half. In the second half, those two both played more than 17 minutes of effective defense, which likely accounts for why Cleveland had a much better defense after halftime.
The only reason that the Cavaliers were even in this game at halftime was due to stellar performances by both Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell. That duo missed Cleveland’s win on Friday over Detroit but came back firing against the Lakers. Both Mitchell and Garland scored 21 points in the opening half.
In the first 24 minutes there wasn’t another member of the Cavs that reached double figures, as Caris LeVert came the closest with eight points.
If it weren’t for Garland and Mitchell, the Cavs may have been trailing by 15 points or more at halftime, and that may have been too much to overcome. Instead, the Cavs trailed by just six points at halftime, opened up the third quarter on a 9-2 run, and there was immediately little doubt as to which team would ultimately win the game.
Mitchell finished the game with 33 points on just 17 shots while Garland totaled 24 points on 7-of-18 shooting.
That’s the type of Cavaliers team this is. If things can be kept close, there’s little doubt that they’ll have enough to get the job done at this point. There will certainly be bumps along the road, but this team appears to go into every game with the belief that it’s going to win. That belief, however, isn’t in a way that seems arrogant or cocky, it seems more matter of fact or inevitable right now for the Cavaliers. Much of that can be attributed to having one of the best backcourts in the NBA, and that was apparent on Sunday.
Second half team
The Cavs have gotten off to slow starts at times this year. It’s something that is understandable given the constant state of flux the starting lineup has been in due to injuries. After all, Sunday was just the third time this season the Cavs have been able to start Garland, Mitchell, LeVert, Mobley, and Allen together. It’s going to take some time for that group to figure out how to play its most effective basketball together.
With that said, even when the Cavs have created holes for themselves in the first half of games, they’ve been able to dig out of them. Through nine games this year, the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 83 points in the second half and overtime of games. That’s a recipe for winning. There’s only been one game this year, opening night in Toronto, where the Cavs were outscored after the break.
Cleveland has consistently been better than its opponents down the stretch because of a number of things, but conditioning and adjustments certainly standout among the reasons. Bickerstaff and the rest of the coaching staff does deserve credit in both of those areas.
Taking care of business
It’s odd to say this about a team that features LeBron James, but the Lakers are a team that isn’t very good and one the Cavaliers should absolutely handle. Even with James entering Sunday’s contest with a career 17-1 record against Cleveland, this was a game, at least on paper, that the Cavs should win.
With Cleveland now having won eight straight games, the highlights are certainly the wins over Boston and the other teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With that comes respect from national media and raised expectations. In addition to doing that, the Cavs have taken care of business against all the teams that they should beat.
In the NBA it’s easy to lay down a clunker and drop a game to a bad team that’s nowhere near the same talent level. It happens on a nightly basis across the league, but hasn’t happened to the Cavs. One of the things Bickerstaff mentioned following the team’s first win over the Celtics is that he would learn a lot about the team from how the group responded against the New York Knicks two days later.
After this start, and the big wins the Cavs have had, the expectations have rightfully shifted from a team that could compete for a playoff spot to a team that should be battling for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, if not a top two seed. Teams that earn those seeds typically lose very few games against teams below .500, routinely beat teams in their division, and win games at home.
Cleveland’s only loss this year is to Toronto on the road, is 5-0 against teams currently below .500, and has won each of its home games. The Cavs aren’t going to go unbeaten against bad teams or at home this season, but this start indicates that adjusting expectations for this team in the regular season is the proper thing to do.