The Cavaliers' weekend was bookended by buzzer-beating shots, one for and one against them. There are plenty of juicy storylines to dive into - Kyrie's myriad of injuries, Joakim Noah's unfortunate interactions with fans, LeBron's headband disappearing before reappearing again, the Cavs' struggles to inbound the ball, David Blatt attempting to call timeout when he didn't have one to burn, questionable calls and non-calls by officials, whether Pau Gasol's injured hamstring makes the Bulls better somehow, J.R. Smith knocking down big shots after being suspended for the first two games of the series, Iman Shumpert's injury status, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller falling out of the rotation entirely, the dramedy of LeBron overriding his coach's end-of-game play call in favor of his own...
Each of those tidbits are receiving various levels of attention in the wake of the Friday/Sunday split. Lost in all of the fuss and drama of LeBron "versus" Blatt, and other talk radio segment fillers, is the fact that Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova played tough, smart, physical, high-effort basketball in both games (as they almost always do), giving the Cavaliers exactly what they needed to hang with the Bulls.
It's obvious why LeBron, Kyrie and J.R. Smith draw most of the attention from fans and media. Nearly two-thirds of the Cavs' shots in games 3 and 4 were taken by that group, with the trio also scoring 56% of the team's points. On the other hand, Mozgov, Tristan, and Delly collectively took 22% of the team's shots and scored less than a third of their points over the same stretch. And while it's true that Cleveland would be nowhere without their top three scorers, the other main cogs of their rotation are proving themselves invaluable in ways that don't often show up on the box score.
Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov are classic examples of that. Thompson averaged 26.8 minutes per game during the regular season and 25.8 minutes per game during the first round series with Boston, but in the wake of Kevin Love's shoulder injury, he's seen his playing time increased to 35.8 minutes per night. The result? In terms of Net Rating, he is Cleveland's top player. They're plus-10.6 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor in the Eastern Conference Semis, the best mark on the team. Mozgov had even more gaudy plus/minus numbers in the Boston series, posting a plus-21.9 Net Rating in his four games versus the Celtics, and is third on the team with a plus-7.8 mark against Chicago.
The main contributions of Cleveland's frontcourt are (unsurprisingly) cleaning the glass and protecting the paint. However, both Thompson and Mozgov have taken their efforts in both of those categories to another level since the playoffs began. During the regular season, Mozgov grabbed 48.9% of contested rebounds, per NBA.com. Tristan, who was one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, snatched 47.5% of contested boards. Both marks were top-30 in the league. In the postseason, however, Mozgov's percentage jumps to 60%, and Thompson's to 50.7%, two of the best marks posted by rotation players among all playoff teams.
The Cavs' rim protection has also seen a dramatic improvement. During the regular season, Mozgov allowed opponents to shoot 46.6% at the rim, and Thompson 52.2%. In the playoffs those figures have dipped all the way to 33.9% and 37.5%, respectively. Mozgov's blocks per-36 minutes in the playoffs is nearly double his career regular season rate (up from 1.9 to 3.5).
While the Cavs' opponents factor heavily into this (the Celtics lack a true inside force, and the Bulls employ a center who has been very mediocre at finishing around the basket this season), it's a noteworthy improvement nonetheless. Derrick Rose hit 53.3% of his shots in the restricted area in the regular season; versus the Cavs, that number has dipped to 44.8%. Jimmy Butler's drop has been even more precipitous, from 60.0% in the restricted area all the way down to 45.0 in this series. (Joakim Noah? 49.7% in the regular season, 21.7% versus the Cavs in the playoffs. Eesh.)
The series is being played at the Bulls' preferred pace, which is a euphemistic way of saying that it's ugly as hell. Game 4 featured 10 total fastbreak points, and Cleveland is averaging just 7 fastbreak points per game in the series, a significant drop from their regular season rate. On the plus side, the Cavaliers are doing a very good job of getting back in transition, an issue that plagued them all season long.
Matthew Dellavedova sets the tone for Cleveland's hustle. While he's somewhat of a divisive player given his playing style and offensive limitations (I've been especially critical of him a time or two), he has been pretty good in the playoffs, and especially so the past three games. He notched 9 points and 9 assists in the Cavs' game 2 victory, chipped in 10 points on just four shots in the game 3 loss, but it was his defense in the ugly game 4 that really caught my eye.
The way he pressured Derrick Rose on inbounds plays caused three or sometimes four Bulls to hang back. While Delly never recorded a steal in those situations, the ripple effect of his effort was a positive nonetheless. Since multiple Bulls were later than usual getting to their spots, the Bulls weren't getting into their sets until 13 or 14 seconds remained on the shot clock. This effort was especially vital early in the fourth quarter. Delly started the final frame on the floor and subbed out at the 7:00 mark, and during that time, Chicago scored just two points. The team defense was excellent, but it began with Delly guarding Rose all 94 feet.
As the series goes forward, LeBron, Kyrie and J.R. Smith will continue to be the focus of broadcasters and pundits, but the play of Timofey Mozgov, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova will be vital to Cleveland's success as well. If they can keep up their subtle, splendid play, the Cavs ought to have a good chance to pull this out.