The Cleveland Cavaliers are one win away from reaching their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2008-09. It’s been six years, but it feels like a whole hell of a lot longer.
After the loss of Kevin Love for the rest of the playoffs in round one; injuries by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Iman Shumpert; and the two-game suspension of J.R. Smith; the Cavs were able to #grit out wins in games two, four and five.
The series will head back to Chicago where the Bulls face elimination.
The Cavs seemed to be okay with ping-ponging series position with the Bulls since no team could get a string of two wins together. The Bulls had the only leads in the series after games one and three.
But the Cavs decided in games four and five that they would plant their flag in this series and force Chicago to win two straight of there own or go home and watch the Cavs face off between the winner of the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
With Kyrie noticeably hobbled, the Cavs had to find some way to win games four and five. LeBron needed to be more aggressive and needed some help on the offensive end. Thankfully, we’ve seen both at varying points.
While LeBron wasn’t terribly aggressive in game four, he almost came away with a triple double with 25 points (on 30[!!!] shots [only four free throw attempts]), 14 rebounds, and eight assists. He was sloppy with the ball in the first half, but was able to seal the game on a buzzer beating shot in the corner to even up the series once again.
For my money, game five was the best game LeBron’s had in the playoffs, and perhaps since he’s come back to Cleveland.
LeBron talked about how, with all the obstacles mentioned above, he needed to be more assertive even though his M.O. is to be efficient. In game five, he was both. And he was fantastic.
It’s no secret that LeBron fell in love with his jump shot a too much in this series. On Tuesday night, while he still put some up, he did so in a decisive fashion. There were less jab steps to create space/ball-hold and more quickness towards the rim.
In the first four games of this series, only 18.9% of LeBron’s shots came after holding the ball for less than two seconds. Most of his shots, 46.2% to be exact, came after holding the ball for more than six seconds. Not ideal.
In game five, there were more plays like this:
LeBron took 25% of his shots when he held the ball for less than two seconds. The amount of shots he took when he held the ball for more than six seconds dropped to 37.5%. I think part of this definitely had to due with the fact that Jimmy Butler was in early foul trouble, but I also think LeBron just flat out wanted to make that adjustment (or at least I hope so).
Even from the naked eye, it seems LeBron is able to make more buckets when he’s in rhythm. Him receiving a pass and taking four jabs steps, holding the ball for seven seconds, and heaving a long 2-pointer just isn’t a good shot. This is especially true for him since he isn’t the purest shooter in the world.
LeBron’s efficiency/aggression combo showed up in the box score as well, to the tune of 38 points on 24 shots and 12 free throws, 12 rebounds, and six assists. And…
0 turnovers for LeBron tonight may be the most important stat tonight
— Jared Mueller (@JaredKMueller) May 13, 2015
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Thankfully, LeBron had some help the last two games of this series.
Mozgov was pretty bad offensively in game five. He was 0-7 in just 23 minutes of play, committing three fouls and three turnovers. Three of his seven shots were from 10 feet or further away from the hoop. He did contribute a six rebounds and a block.
Mozgov made his positive impact in game four.
Part of this is due to an adjustment probably made by David Blatt/his staff.
In game one, Mozgov looked like a defensive liability. Part of his duty was to guard Pau Gasol, which just doesn’t suit his style. Gasol finished that night with 21 points on 10-16 shooting and a bazillion mid-range jumpers.
In games three and four, Mozgov was never on Gasol (who was out with a hamstring injury in games four and five). Mozgov was usually either on Noah or Taj Gibson, where they primarily make their offensive plays in the paint – or in Gibson’s case, more so than Gasol and Nikola Mirotic.
Mozgov played much better in this role and it really stood out in game four on Sunday. Even when Noah was setting high screens for the guards, Mozgov hung out in the paint, knowing Noah isn’t much of an offensive threat, even close to the basket.
This remains true when Noah receives the ball. Mozgov just stays back and baits Noah into these types of decisions
Shots like these and defense like Mozgov’s led Noah to shoot 4-12 in game four. Noah’s just not a good pick-and-roll player unless he keeps the ball moving.
Noah’s liability on offense let Mozgov stay in or near the paint at all costs. This helped the Cavs defense hold the Bulls to 37.9% (11-29) in the restricted area. Which, uh, isn’t good.
This block on Derrick Rose pretty much sums up how Mozgov was able to be effective. Noah had the ball between the elbow and the wing. Since there’s no reason to respect his shot, Mozgov sagged off. Once Rose got the ball and drove, Mozgov was in position to funnel him to the backside of the rim and had the athletic ability to block him from behind.
J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert
Even though the Cavs came up short, Smith was a clutch contributor in game three, hitting three of five shots in the fourth quarter – all 3-pointers. This came in his first game back from his two-game suspension.
In game four, he added three more 3’s, all of them coming in the fourth quarter. When the Cavs needed him the most, J.R. Smith showed up. J.R. Smith.
Smith was performing so well, he forced me to defend Blatt for possibly having LeBron inbound the ball on the last possession of game four. Had the Cavs been down and needed a bucket, Smith should’ve been the one to shoot it. He was doing that well; head and shoulders above his teammates.
It can’t be understated how important J.R. is to this team right now, especially if Kyrie’s foot bothers him like it did on Sunday. He looked much better on Tuesday night, but if it starts to act up, Smith will be the one the Cavs have to look for to get some points.
Shumpert has been just as important on the defensive end. And while he had his way with the mid-range jumpers in game five (4-4), it’s been his defensive ability that the Cavs have been able to lean on given Kyrie’s injury.
Even with Shumpert’s groin problem, the Cavs have asked a lot from him recently on the defensive end. He’s done everything from guarding Jimmy Butler at the start of games to defending Derrick Rose to switching on pick-and-rolls and playing tough in the post.
Since J.R.’s return to the lineup this series, in the last three games Shumpert has played some of his best defensive basketball for the Cavs, given the circumstances, and the numbers reflect that.
(Click to expand the image if it’s blurry)
Above are Shumpert’s diff% numbers. It’s a small sample, just three games, but the numbers are pretty striking. He’s held his opponents to a worse percentage than normal in every area of the court.
This is huge because it gives the Cavs more options on to do with the defense. When Kyrie was hurting, they put him on Mike Dunleavy and Shumpert on Rose. When the Cavs wanted to switch on PnR’s, Shumpert’s shown he’s able to hold up on a guy like Mirotic in the post (which admittedly isn’t Niko’s forte).
The Cavs have been battered and bruised since game four of the first round. They’ve been able to gut out a few wins against the Bulls and are another away from meeting the Hawks or Wizards for a chance to go to the NBA Finals.
Did you just get chills? Well you should’ve.
All stats are courtesy of stats.nba.com (because it is really awesome) unless stated otherwise.