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NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Miami Heat

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One play that explains Cavaliers-Heat: Turning the ball over under pressure

Cleveland lost Friday in large part due to turnovers.

Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

Turnovers, more than anything else, cost the Cleveland Cavaliers in a 117-105 loss to the Miami Heat.

In Friday’s game, the Cavs turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 30 Heat points. By comparison, the Heat committed nine turnovers leading to 10 Cavs points. Cleveland’s turnover percentage (18.6%) was more than double Miami’s (9.2%). It was also 4.2% above their season turnover percentage of 14.4%, per Cleaning The Glass. (For the record, the Cavs’ season turnover percentage is one of the top-10 in the league. They’ve overall been good at limiting mistakes.)

A large chunk of Cleveland’s turnovers were like this clip below. The Heat’s defense — fifth in defensive rating on the year and third in turnover rate per Cleaning The Glass to carry the best team in the Eastern Conference — pressures teams. It makes you work for your points. They then turn it into offensive opportunities that you have to scramble to stop.

The Cavs, as they exist right now, are a team that sometimes is bogged down. When they push the pace more and move off-ball, the offense performs and looks better. But at its worst, it’s stagnant and they hunt mismatches that aren’t really mismatches. Case in point: trying to post Lauri Markannen, who is seven-feet tall, but ineffective on the block. Markannen is fine when he can catch and go right up. But ask him to establish position and create from there and he struggles.

Look how the Heat pounce on him. Love tries to throw an entry pass over Kyle Lowry fronting him, but Bam Adebayo helps and pokes the ball away. Lowry gets the ball and pushes. It’s a simple fastbreak from there. Jimmy Butler had two steals later in the game that were more of the same.

It’s also clear, at least in part, why the Cavs are in this position and had a performance like this. Right now, Darius Garland (who had seven turnovers on Friday) is the one player on the team who can really handle the ball and run the offense well. This is a team that worked better with Ricky Rubio, but lost him due to a torn ACL. They traded Rubio for Caris LeVert to play with the ball in his hands, but he’s played four games due to a sprained foot.

Collin Sexton, lest we forget, is also done for the year due to a torn meniscus. It’s not hard to imagine his best offensive skills — shooting, cutting, attacking downhill — making the Cavs’ offense work better. Rajon Rondo and Brandon Goodwin each provide something, but they don’t replace what was lost.

So where the Cavs are now is reliant on Darius Garland (who, by the way, also doesn’t have him primary lob threat in Jarrett Allen due to injury) to create and keep the offense humming. Kevin Love helps with outlet passes and some passing in the halfcourt, but it has limits. Evan Mobley is doing more on offense of late and showing passing flashes, but he’s not there on offense yet. This makes for an offense prime to get squeezed by a defense like Miami’s.

There are counters the Cavs can go to. More cutting off-ball into space would help — too often Cleveland stands around on offense with no one really moving. (Looking at you, Isaac Okoro in the corner.) Off-ball screening would help, albeit less so than if the Cavs had a movement shooter to play with. And as Cleveland did Friday, running Garland off of screens to get him free from his defender can help too. It can be easier to get the offense working if he doesn’t just bring the ball up every time and instead offers different looks.

But these tweaks can’t solve everything. The obvious fix for the short term is to get LeVert back, move more and hope that’s enough to make the offense less susceptible to a defense like the Heat’s that can dominate a game by forcing turnovers.

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