Game Night Observations: Too Many 3s And Cutting Down The Rotation

Game Night Observations: Too many 3s and cutting down the rotation

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 Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and

The Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled to win games on the road all season long, and Tuesday night in New York was no different in a 105-103 loss to the Knicks.

Cleveland had plenty of chances to win the game, but ultimately gave up too many 3-pointers and spent too much time with lineups that didn’t work on the floor together.

This game was the 13th time this season in which an opponent of the Cavs has made 15 or more 3-pointers. The Cavs are now 1-12 in those games, with the only win coming in overtime. The Knicks made 17 3-pointers, with Julius Randle making eight of them on his way to a game-high 36 points. Some of them were tough shots, but others weren’t.

Maybe it was just one of those nights for the Cavs. Randle being a career 33 percent 3-point shooter and tying his career-high with the eight makes from deep could point to that. But there’s also little reason to not be concerned that this keeps happening against the Cavs. Unless some type of adjustment is made to further minimize the chances teams can light it up from outside, the Cavs are going to struggle when the games really matter.

The other thing on the court that really hurt the Cavs was the late-game offensive execution. The team was able to tie the game at 100 with 2:29 left in the fourth quarter. From that point on the Cavaliers were 1-of-6 shooting the ball, with the only make coming on a layup by Darius Garland following a timeout.

This has been an issue for the Cavaliers at various times this season. Sometimes the Cavs are able to survive in the clutch because Donovan Mitchell can take over a game and deliver the Cavs a win. Even in those instances, things tend to look a little more difficult than they should. When Mitchell isn’t able to make those big shots, the Cavaliers don’t really have much more to rely upon. There are times when the first option for what the Cavaliers want to do offensively doesn’t work late in games and a little too much chaos can ensue, which is rarely a good thing.

Thursday night, for one reason or another, the offense was a mess down the stretch of the game. Whether it was because there wasn’t enough spacing, Mitchell was dealing with the impact of his groin injury, or something else, that was part of the reason the Cavs lost.

It is worth noting that Mitchell found himself on the floor and appeared to be in pain following the final sequence in regulation in New York. Whether that is due to his groin injury or something else, it’s a situation to monitor.

Figuring out the rotation

Before the season started, Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff was asked about his ideal rotation size and responded saying that 10 is the perfect number. He acknowledged a little over a week ago that there likely isn’t room for a rotation that grows to be as large as 11 or 12 guys.

That’s going to lead to some tough decisions for Bickerstaff as he has to figure out the lineups that work. While this is happening, there are going to be rough patches during games, and that certainly was the case on Tuesday night.

Of the five starters for the Cavs, the only one that did not have a positive net rating on the night was Evan Mobley. When he was on the floor, the Cavs and the Knicks scored the same amount of points. The next lowest number belonged to Donovan Mitchell, at plus-12. In total, the Cavs outscored the Knicks by 16 points in the 22 minutes that all five of Cleveland’s starters were on the floor. It’s clear that the starting lineup is one that works. It's also rare to lose a game when a starting lineup has that much success. 

There are also some lineups that very much did not work for the Cavs against the Knicks, and many of them involved Kevin Love. Love played just 12 minutes in New York and the Cavaliers were outscored by 20 points when he was on the floor. There are times when a player’s performance doesn’t necessarily reflect what the plus/minus says at the end of the night. This wasn’t one of those times for Love. Offensively, he was a non-factor, missing the only shot he took and registering just one assist. Defensively, the Knicks placed a target on his back and were able to do seemingly whatever they wanted when he was forced to defend.

With Dean Wade returning to the floor recently, he could be an option to fill some of Love’s minutes. Wade is a better defender and certainly would be an upgrade from the 31 percent 3-point shooting Love has provided over the last two months of play. Love is a highly accomplished veteran and has earned the benefit of the doubt, but as the rotation tightens down, he could be someone that loses a bit of playing time.

The other options here are Cedi Osman and Lamar Stevens. While they both saw time in the first half as part of an 11-man rotation, neither of them (nor Wade, for that matter) played in the second half. Between those three and Love, there may only be room for two of them to play significant minutes.

More road woes

The Cavaliers are now 9-15 on the season away from Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Of the teams in the top six of the Eastern Conference, the Cavs have the worst road winning percentage.

After the loss on Tuesday night paired with Miami’s win, the Cavs are now the same distance away from third place in the Eastern Conference as they are to sixth. The early season success has built the Cavs a bit of a cushion in terms of avoiding the play-in, but if they were to miss Mitchell for any significant portion of time, things could get messy.

The good news for the Cavs is that this is their final road trip of the season in which they travel to more than two cities. They’re in Houston on Thursday and then in Oklahoma City on Friday before returning home for a game against the Clippers.

The remaining road schedule is manageable. The longest road trip left is a four-game trek that features a pair of games in Miami before a pair of games in Charlotte. The Cavs still have time to figure this out, even if they’re starting to be a little to close to the play-in for comfort.