It’s been a tale of two games for the Cleveland Cavaliers in their second round series versus the Chicago Bulls.
In game one, the Bulls handled the Cavs on 66 points from their big three of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, and Pau Gasol. Gasol, who rinsed the Cavs with a double-double of 21 points and 10 rebounds, tore the Cavs’ pick-and-roll defense apart with the help of Rose and Butler (more on that later).
The Cavs, meanwhile, got 30 points from Kyrie Irving, but it just wasn’t enough. LeBron James was an assist away from a triple-double (15 rebounds), but scored just 19 points on 22 shots.
Game two was a much different story in this chapter of the Cavaliers’ playoff run.
LeBron was aggressive from the get-go, as highlighted by the thick, bright white headband he sported once again after its almost 2-month hiatus. LeBron only dished out five assists, but scored a much-needed 33 points in a route of the Bulls.
LeBron was the catalyst behind the Cavs’ win that even up the series 1-1. And while it’s sort of unfitting to proclaim a team’s best player its “catalyst,” in the same vein it is to declare him their “x-factor,” that’s just the way it is with the Cavs more often than not. And now, with Kevin Love out, it’s truer than ever. For the Cavs to win, LeBron must be engaged and efficient. Otherwise, the Cavs must count on career-long role players to pick up any slack left behind to help Kyrie Irving.
Thankfully, LeBron had the right mindset in game two, as Cavs fans were on the cusp of losing their minds before the series headed to Chicago.
The Cavs went into the second quarter with a 20-point lead. From there, the game was never seriously in question, even though the Bulls outscored the Cavs in quarters two through four (by one, three, and one point[s], respectively).
LeBron was able to put up 14 points in the first quarter, setting a different tone than in the first game of the series. He was basically the same LeBron we had seen (and the one the Cavs needed) throughout the regular season with Kevin Love, sans the ISOs and ball-stopping.
LeBron is no-doubt this team’s best distributer. That he was able to accumulate nine assists in a game without the scoring ability of Love and J.R. Smith in game one was impressive but not what the Cavs needed to win that game. So, LeBron made the appropriate mental adjustments and decided to be more aggressive/efficient.
In game one, LeBron took 15 shots in which he held the ball for more than six seconds (yuck) and only seven shots when he held the ball for six seconds or less (ew). Those numbers improved to 12 and 17, respectively, in game two. Holding the ball for longer than six seconds is rarely a good thing, even when you’re down two starters. For the Cavs, many times when LeBron holds the ball for that long, the other four guys stand around waiting for him to do something. This makes things much easier on the defense, especially when LeBron settles for a jump shot instead of driving/dishing.
Furthermore, LeBron focused on scoring more at the rim. While he did take more shots 15-19 feet away from the rim – nine in game two compared to two in game one – he took 18 shots less than eight feet away, up six from game one.
It’s not just great that he converted more of those shots near the rim (61.1% rather than 58.3%), but that he was cognizant of what the Cavs needed from him and able to make that philosophical adjustment was a great sign on the outlook of the rest of this series.
Maybe the most important stat differentiation regarding LeBron’s assertiveness was this: two free throw attempts in game one (in 42 minutes), nine in game two (in 34 minutes).
Of course, there were other contributing factors to the Cavs’ turnaround in game two.
Improved defensive execution
Even the most untrained basketball eye saw how open Pau Gasol was left many times on his jump shots. On the surface, it looks like lazy defense and bad planning by the coaching staff, who had over a week to implement a defensive scheme for the Bulls (unless they really thought there was a chance for the Bucks to comeback and win that series).
Gasol’s shooting success in game one seemed to be the thing fans focused on, and for good reason. The amount of space the Cavs left him on his shots, given some of the situations, was egregious. This seemed to be another philosophy the Cavs would have to adjust before the next game.
However, as I dug deeper and looked at the specific plays that were crushing the Cavs’ defense, it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I looked over all 10 shots Gasol made from game one and came away thinking that what David Blatt and co. had thought up was justified; the players just didn’t execute well.
(After game two):
Blatt:We had to be in moment from the jump ball. We had to be engaged. We had to have a great defensive mindset, and we had to set the tone"
— Rick Noland MG/CT (@RickNoland) May 7, 2015
Below is Gasol’s 3rd shot of the night.
It’s a PnP with Butler, guarded by LeBron, and Gasol, guarded by Mozgov. The Cavs had their bigs hedge on these, which is a bad idea with Mozgov, but it is what it is.
In my opinion, what makes this play for the Bulls is the little switch Mike Dunleavy and Derrick Rose perform. Rose goes from the wing to the corner, leaving Dunleavy a pass away when Gasol gets the ball. Kyrie, who’s now guarding Dunleavy, has a legit 3-point threat to guard, preventing him from getting to Gasol on time. Had Rose stayed on the wing, it’s possible Kyrie would’ve sagged off more/got to Gasol in time.
And that’s what happened with most of these shots where Gasol was left open. The plan was decent. Having the bigs hedge on Rose and Butler is totally understandable, even though they should probably only be doing that with Thompson. The problem was the lack of rotating by the Cavs, which led to shots like these:
In game two, Gasol only scored 11 points on 3-8 shooting. For the most part, the Cavs kept the same hedging philosophy, but clearly put an emphasis on at least getting a body on the roller/popper. Kyrie was that guy that did so multiple times.
It’s not much, but it’s a lot more than what they did with Pau in the first game. The Cavs relied a lot on Mozgov to either recover when he was on Pau, or rotate when he was close. That’s not ideal for the big man. He’s mobile, but he’s not as defensively savvy or athletic as Thompson.
The Cavs made Gasol feel uncomfortable on offense the whole game with their rotations and even tried putting Kendrick Perkins on him. I in no way endorse Perkins being on the floor except to send a message to the other team in those rare occasions. But he actually did a decent job on Pau. One of Gasol’s weaknesses is his opponent getting physical with him and that’s what Perk brings to the table.
Shumpert is known for his defensive abilities and is perhaps the best, or at least most consistent perimeter defender the Cavs have.
That said, it’s been his 3-ball that’s been helping to carry the Cavs in this series so far. That is a huge development with J.R. having served his suspension.
Shump has always been a streaky 3-point shooter, no matter if it’s season-to-season, series-to-series, or even game-to-game. Per basketball-reference, he started off his Cavs career shooting 42.6% from deep in his first 14 games. Then he hit a road bump for the next 10 games, shooting a lowly 11.8%. He was able to even out to end the season, shooting 35.3% from 3 in the last 14 games, which is a bit better than his career average.
Even against Boston Shumpert shot just 25% (2-8). Luckily, he was able to get on a good streak in these last two games, going 8-17, or 47.1%. That is huge. And Jason Lloyd from the Akron Beacon Journal tells us why:
Bulls clearly entered tonight with same plan as Monday: Help off Shumpert. So far he's drained two open 3s.
— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydNBA) May 6, 2015
That’s why having Love and J.R. is great for the Cavs. It makes their opponent honor their 3-point shot and gives LeBron and Kyrie room to operate in the paint. The Bulls chose to sag off Shumpert to help these drives and Iman made them pay.
The big question now is if Shumpert can sustain this. It’s not as important now with J.R. coming back, but the Cavs still kinda need it.
As always, Tristan Thompson
Tristan Thompson is always around. You cannot hide from him. He will find you. And he will destroy your dreams.
Thompson’s been able to grab 20 rebounds so far in this series, nine of them offensive rebounds, and six of them coming on Wednesday night.
Tristan Thompson is only good at rebounding. not dribbling, shooting or passing. just rebounding.
— Jules K (@JayKid05) February 12, 2015
…that’s not all…
Unfortunate that Thompson can't do much else but rebound.
— Brodie (@Bigggsss) May 7, 2015
…THAT’S NOT ALL HE CAN DO.
Whew. Alright. Time to dispel any notions that all he can do is rebound… which he is pretty damn good at icymi.
I’ve used this stat before, but I’m about to show a couple graphics that I want everyone to understand.
Diff% is, as stat.nba.com put it:
“…the difference between the normal field goal percentage of a shooter throughout the season and the field goal percentage when the defensive player is guarding the shooter. A good defensive number will be in the negative because the defensive player holds their opponent to a lower field goal percentage than normal.”
For example, say Thompson guarded Jonas Valenciunas, who shot 57.2% this season. If Jonas went 40% on all shots defended by Thompson, the latter would have a diff% of -17.2 for that game.
Now, to shoot down the narrative that “all Tristan Thompson can do is rebound.” On top is Tristan’s diff% in six playoff games, on the bottom is the two second round games against the Bulls. (If the image is blurry, click on it to enlarge)
Of course, any kind of statistic you look at is just a piece of the puzzle when evaluating a player’s performance. But this piece of Thompson’s puzzle is pretty impressive.
And it’s shown up in a big way against the Bulls. In other words, the eye test lines up with the numbers.
For whatever reason, when Thompson gets switched onto another player, the Bulls like to put up shots against him. This is not a good plan. I’m talking to you, Derrick Rose.
Tristan did this against Jimmy Butler too. Of Butler’s 14 attempts in game two, Thompson was switched onto him four times. On those shots, Butler was 1-4 with three points. Not bad.
All stats are courtesy of stats.nba.com (because it is really awesome) unless stated otherwise.