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Do the Cavs really have problems closing games?

What happens in the last few minutes often obscures what came before.

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers have not had a January to remember. They’re 8-7 this month and are 9-10 in their last 19 games. Part of those struggles have come on the road as they’re 4-7 during that stretch and 10-16 on the road this season.

The execution late in games has come under fire recently as well. Cleveland had a tough time manufacturing offense late in recent losses to the New York Knicks and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Cavs scored only 3 points in the last two minutes at Madison Square Gardens while being outscored 34-22 in the final frame in OKC.

These two losses have brought up a question that has been lingering in the background all season. Do the Cavaliers struggle to close games?

A quick look at the numbers suggest that this isn’t the case. Cleveland has the best fourth quarter net rating in the entire league as they’re outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with a 115.9 offensive rating and a 108.1 defensive rating.

The good fourth quarter net rating doesn’t paint a complete picture. The Cavs have a 16-14 record in games that reach “clutch time.” A clutch scenario is when the score is within 5 points or less with less than five minutes to play. The Cavs have played 30 games that have reached these situations which is fourth most in the league. They’re 12th in net rating (2.8) and win percentage (53.3%) in clutch scenarios. Cleveland is also 6-0 in games that reach overtime.

Those numbers aren’t bad and are buoyed by the OT record. The process to those results haven’t always been clean.

The Cavs have:

  • Gone to overtime three times after surrendering leads of six or more in the final two minutes.
  • Lost five games when up by five or more in the final two minutes.
  • Blown a 13-point third quarter lead to the Minnesota Timberwolves just over two weeks ago.
  • Narrowly escaped with a one-point win against the Chicago Bulls on New Year’s Eve, thanks to a foul that wasn’t called on a DeMar DeRozan game-winning shot attempt, after being up by seven with less than a minute and a half to play.

These four categories account for 10 of the 52 games the Cavs have played this season. Though only six of those 10 have accounted for losses.

While the manner in which the Cavs have blown losses this year have been bad, the come-from-behind nature of their wins more than even out those bad losses. Cleveland has rallied from down double-digits 11 times this season. They’ve also ended up just short on a fair share of come-from-behind efforts including narrow losses to the Timberwolves in November and the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers in December. These comebacks are why the point differential has been so good in the fourth quarter.

The greater issue, and why the Cavs have been so lackluster over the last month, is the way the start both halves. In the 18 games prior to their beatdown of the short-handed Los Angeles Clippers, the Cavs had been outscored by 7.2 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter which is 25th in the league. On top of that, they’ve posted a posted a -1.3 defensive rating in the third. This is something that has happened all season as Cleveland has registered a middle of the road first quarter net rating of 2 and a -0.4 net rating in the third.

What happens in the last five minutes of games is often more memorable and more scrutinized than what happens in the previous 43. The Cavs have had some regrettable losses due to poor execution late in games, but the issue hasn’t come up as much as you would initially think. The mediocre play to start both halves are more to blame for the inconsistent performances than the late game execution as a whole.