The popular assumption was that the Cleveland Cavaliers would produce a cacophony of bad basketball this season without LeBron James orchestrating, conducting, and playing all the Cavs’ instruments, as he’s done in the past.
However, on the basis of Cleveland’s 93-91 victory over the New Jersey Nets, there is some short-term hope for the Cavs, as they look like an early favorite to capture one of the last two playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference.
Cleveland’s formula is similar to the Charlotte Bobcats’ formula from last season—exceptional defense combined with a well-coached offense, and a tinge of creative scoring.
Being that the Cavs don’t have a roster laden with players who can create their own shots, they make sure to manufacture their points whenever possible. They aren’t a transition team by any means, but wings and guards like Jamario Moon, Antawn Jamison, and Mo Williams will leak out on jump shots and punish defenses who are sloppy in their floor balance—like the Nets.
Cleveland’s point guards, whether Williams, Ramon Sessions, or Daniel Gibson, also make it a point to never walk the ball up the court. While the Cavs are by no means a fast-paced team, the extra seconds the Cavs save by simply getting into their sets quickly saves a precious pair of seconds on the shot clock. This came into play when Cleveland’s offense generated several last second makes that would’ve been shot clock violations had the Cavs gingerly walked the ball up. Also, the Cavs can take advantage of unset defenses by getting into their action earlier.
The Cavs frequently ran three sets against the Nets. They ran a high post set where a double screen was taking place on the weak-side with the continuity leading into a handoff/roll, usually involving a point guard and Anderson Varejao. The Cavs also ran some Princeton/weave action, usually with Jamison in the game, taking advantage of his familiarity with the set from his Wizards days, and the relative abundance of three-point shooting the Wizards offer when Daniel Gibson plays the two-guard.
Finally, the Cavs—like virtually every team in the NBA not named the Utah Jazz—ran basic high screen/rolls, usually with Sessions running the point. The Cavs ran more screen/rolls in the second half, with more of their weak-side double screen, strong side handoff-rolls in the first half.
With the exception of Williams forcing several shots and drives, the Cavs ran their offense diligently, generating 27 assists to eight turnovers on 36 made baskets, excellent ratios all around.
However, the Cavs beat the Nets on the basis of their defense, one which has been honed over the past half decade by Mike Brown as a major point of emphasis.
While Cleveland’s defensive execution varies wildly from player-to-player, they succeeded in the basic tenements of their gameplan—limiting the post production and dribble-drive production of New Jersey’s two best players, Brook Lopez and Devin Harris.
The Cavs only double-teamed Lopez once in the post, succeeding with Varejao playing Lopez straight up. The Cavs also successfully soft hedged on New Jersey’s screen/rolls, with the screen defender fighting over the top. This (along with foul trouble) kept Devin Harris from going off, while really curtailing Jordan Farmar.
The Cavs also provided excellent ball pressure when Harris and Farmar tried to set up their offense, closed out hard on Anthony Morrow, generally played excellent screen-defense and provided on-time interior rotations—all harbingers of a solid, veteran, well-coached team.
From an individual basis, Anderson Varejao is clearly the Cavs best player, despite being a limited offensive guy—4-9 FG, 2-4 FT, 10 PTS.
Varejao is an exceptionally smart player who consistently makes the right plays needed to win games. He was the player usually stationed at the high post making the decisions to pass to the weak-side curler, or go into the handoff-roll. After running the same action continuously in the first hand, Varejao showed his ability to adapt on the fly, reading Lopez cheating over to hedge on the screen, before faking the handoff, driving to the basket, and drawing a foul.
Varejao’s screens were consistently solid, he made a nifty pass while catching the ball on a screen/roll, he tapped out numerous loose balls, and he stole several points by running the floor, getting early post position, and either getting a quick score or drawing a foul.
Varejao’s interior defense and screen/defense were nothing short of exemplary, with only one poor defensive possession weighed against innumerable well-timed interior rotations and smart soft-hedges on New Jersey’s screens.
Varejao also played outstanding individual defense in the post, mostly against Brook Lopez. Varejao was posted up 11 times by Nets defenders, 10 times by Lopez, once by Derrick Favors. On one occasion, Varejao stripped Lopez but the Nets regained possession. The other ten possessions saw the Nets shoot 1-9 against Varejao, with a pair of free throws. Needless to say, four points allowed in ten defensive possessions is exceptional.
In fact, while Cleveland’s projected record will likely hold Varejao back, plus the Cavs may not be a better defensive team that this season’s Magic, Heat, or Celtics, Varejao deserves to be an early candidate for defensive player of the year, if his performances against Lopez can be duplicated.
Elsewhere, Mo Williams doesn’t have the open shots he was provided with James in tow, and as a result, is prone to forcing shots to generate his offense, launching several ill-advised attempts in the game at hand, before sitting out the fourth quarter. His overall defensive efforts were good but not great, but he was able to provide a steady supply of ball-pressure, and drew a key charge.
J.J. Hickson—8-14 FG, 2-2 FT, 18 PTS—can’t handle except in a straight line, and he’s a ball stopper on offense, but he makes well-timed cuts, can hit mid-range jump shots, is active around the boards, and made several solid shows and rotations on defense.
Anthony Parker didn’t try to do to much, and therefore didn’t make many mistakes. He had trouble guarding the longer, more athletic Travis Outlaw, but did a smart job of closing out hard on Morrow, while going well under any screens involving Quinton Ross. He also earns praise for making a desperation three late in the fourth, and knocking down two free throws to effectively ice the game.
Jamario Moon was active on the defensive glass (6 REB), but his lack of range—1-2 3FG—hurt Cleveland’s overall offensive schemes.
Antawn Jamison may be among the worst defensive players in the game, as numerous botched screen defense-assignments, and ineffective rotations yielded the majority of New Jersey’s points.
However, for a team that lacks offense, Jamison can create his own shot so long as he doesn’t put the ball on the floor more than two dribbles, and he can hit wide open jumpers. Plus, his quick-handed flippers in the paint can salvage broken plays off of loose balls or offensive rebounds.
Daniel Gibson can’t create offense or get to the basket, but he’s as solid as they come defensively, and an excellent three-point marksman—4-5 3FG, 14 PTS.
Ramon Sessions is a player—6-11 FG, 5 AST, 0 TO. While he’s strictly a screen/roll drive-and-kick point guard, he makes terrific decisions around the basket, and has a nice array of floaters, long-armed layups, and short jumpers to punish bigger defenders trying to hang with him.
The point is that Sessions has a good ratio of getting into the lane on penetration attempts, and his playmaking and decision-making abilities make him a valuable backup. His performance was so sound, that Byron Scott left him in to handle the fourth quarter, while leaving Williams on the bench.
Jawad Williams hit a wide-open three, and played surprisingly good screen defense.
Ryan Hollins’ lone highlight was an exemplary show on a Nets wing screen/roll, forcing Devin Harris into a turnover. However, Hollins is too lean and too weak to provide any defensive impact near the basket, and he was born in foul trouble.
On the whole, though, Byron Scott has kept the Cavs playing sound defense, while the team employs much more motion than it ever did during the Mike Brown/LeBron James era.
Unlike, say the Bobcats, the Cavs have enough players who can create their own offense, and enough three-point shooting to augment their willing defense. This could allow the Cavs to find themselves in a familiar place at the end of the regular season, even with their most familiar face in Miami.
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