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Milwaukee Bucks v Cleveland Cavaliers

What we learned about the Cleveland Cavaliers: Dec. 19 - 31

The Cavs ended 2022 on more of a whimper than a bang.

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers closed out 2022 with inconsistent play as they went 3-3 over their last two weeks. Here’s what we learned from that stretch.

Three-point defense is an issue.

There’s a debate amongst basketball intelligentsia over whether opponent three-point shooting is something that can be controlled. Some will argue that it’s mostly luck based and a good three-point defense will eventually regress to the mean and vice versa. Others believe that opponent three-point shooting is closely tied to defensive scheme with some luck involved.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, the Cavs’ three consecutive losses were all due to exceptional opponent three-point shooting.

The Toronto Raptors, Brooklyn Nets and Indiana Pacers combined to shoot 57.1% from deep on 32.7 attempts per game. They also connected on 68.4% of their 14.3 wide-open threes per game during that stretch. Wide-open threes are defined as having the closest defender more than six feet away at the time of the shot.

To put that in perspective, the San Antonio Spurs have the worst opponent three-point percentage against on the season as the opposition is hitting 41.8% of their wide-open looks against them. Furthermore, giving up 14.3 wide-open threes per game on the season would rank second lowest behind only the Sacramento Kings who give up 13.2 wide-open looks per game.

The best defense against the three-ball is to not give up three-point shots in general. The Cavs have done a good job of preventing three-balls for the most part this season as opponents are shooting 32.1 threes per game against which is fifth fewest in the league.

The Cavs ran into hot shooting teams at the wrong time. That is unavoidable. But, there is a common thread among all three teams that lit the Cavs up from beyond the arc.

Going small may be the way to expose the defense.

The Raptors, Nets and Pacers all played predominately small lineups for the better part of their matchups with the Cavs showing how they’re susceptible to giving up quality three-point looks.

Going small forces the Cavs to get away from what they’re most comfortable doing. The defense the past two seasons has been predicated on guards and wings running shooters off the three-point line and funneling them into the paint for Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen to clean up the mess. This has worked well as the Cavs boast the best defensive rating in the league and were a top five defense last season.

That strategy can fall apart quickly if Mobley and/or Allen aren’t available in the paint to contest shots. Their (Mobley’s in particular) natural instinct is to collapse to the paint in help, which leaves their man open at the three-point line or allows the offense to generate a good outside look after a few passes.

The below play is a good example of how going five out against the Cavs can be successful. Donovan Mitchell closes out on Andrew Nembhard, but loses him in the process. Allen is at the top of the key guarding Myles Turner, who’s shooting over 40% from deep this season, and isn’t able to help out. Mobley correctly comes from the weakside corner, but Lamar Stevens isn’t able to recover in time to contest the wide-open corner three.

Here, we see Mobley’s instincts to protect the paint backfire against him. Fred VanVleet barrels his was to the basket with Allen in good position to contest the shot at the rim. Mobley incorrectly leaves the strong side corner to contest leaving OG Anunoby, who hit 46.6% of his corner threes last season, open in the corner.

Lastly, Kevin Durant was able to get off a clean look due to a moment's hesitation from Mobley. Cedi Osman falls over trying to pressure Ben Simmons at half court. Simmons promptly rushes to the top of the arc. Mobley takes a step away from Durant. That’s all the room he needs.

You’re going to give up open threes. That’s part of the game. But, this losing streak illustrated how the Cavs haven’t always given up the right threes. Finding ways to get Mobley and/or Allen out of the paint increases opponent’s opportunities to generate those quality opportunities offenses thrive on.

Donovan Mitchell is in the midst of his first slump with the Cavs.

Mitchell’s game hasn’t been what we’ve come to expect since his tremendous 36-point outing to topple the Milwaukee Bucks. In his four games since, he’s averaging just 17.5 points on .239/.289/.688 shooting splits with 3.3 turnovers per game.

Cleveland’s offense will ultimately go where Mitchell and Darius Garland take them. This is especially true in late game situations where Mitchell has struggled most recently. The Cavs have been outscored by 12 in nine clutch time minutes in their last three games as they’ve only registered 6 clutch points on 27.3% shooting. Mitchell has attempted just three shots and recorded no points during that stretch.

This was most on display in their win against the Chicago Bulls. The Cavs grabbed a 103-96 lead with two minutes to play. The Bulls came roaring back and had a chance to win at the buzzer. The offense didn’t score a point in the final two minutes as Mitchell passed up on three separate opportunities leading to three straight team turnovers to close the game.

This slump and his lack of assertiveness down the stretch against the Bulls isn’t something to be too concerned about long term. However, the Cavs will have a tough time scratching out wins depending on how long Garland will be sidelined.

Darius Garland regained his confidence prior to his hand injury.

The Cavs have had a tough time getting great play from both members of their All-Star backcourt simultaneously this season. As one surges, the other seems to take a step back in both confidence and production. Mitchell’s regression has coincided with the resurgence of Garland.

Garland was sensational in his five games prior to his injury against the Pacers. He’s averaging 24.2 points on .595/.542/.800 shooting splits with 6.8 assists. This included a dominant 46-point performance on 14-20 shooting in a loss to the Nets.

The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for Garland. He was in the midst of playing some of his best basketball of the season. Hopefully this setback doesn’t keep him out of the lineup too long.

It’s a five-team race in the East.

The Cavs have been one of the best teams in the conference this season despite the recent 3-3 stretch. We’re closing in on the halfway point of the season and five teams have separated themselves from the pack.

There’s currently four and a half games currently separating the fifth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers from the top ranked Boston Celtics. Things change quickly in the NBA, but at this point it feels like the current top-five teams will finish within the top five in some order.

January has the potential to be a defining month for the Cavs. Eight of their 16 games are on the road against Western Conference teams. How they fare in those contests could go a long way in determining where they finish in the standings.

The East is too tight at the top to afford a prolonged stretch of inconsistent road play. We’ll see if they can exercise their road demons in the coming weeks.

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