A tale of two halves again. Tonight, the Cavs put together an offensive masterpiece in the 1st half. In the second, they only managed 31 points. The Grizzlies pounded the Cavs inside – they finished with 50 points in the paint. The Cavs had a chance late, but Zach Randolph was too much to handle. He was kinda like Darth Vader tonight – where you expect the brute strength but forget that he can use the force to do all sorts of clever moves. I guess that makes Mike Brown the Admiral Ackbar of this game, as I imagine he worried that the Cavs’ offensive outburst had them feeling a little too good about their chances. His half-time speech was about as effective as Ackbar’s too-late proclamation, as the Cavs continued to defend poorly in the third quarter, when the game swung out of their favor.
The Cavs scored 18 points in five minutes and eight seconds to start the game, which is devastating. At one point they made eight straight shots and lead 18-6. Spencer Hawes hit both of his 3s, Kyrie Irving hit a ridiculous step-back 3, Jarrett Jack dished out 4 assists and Tyler Zeller flashed his J and some toughness bullying his way to the basket and drawing a shooting foul. The Grizzlies were ice cold from mid-range but had some success getting to the bucket. Marc Gasol banked in a longer-than-half-court shot to end the quarter. But the Cavs dropped 30 on the stingy Grizzlies and lead 30-22 after one.
Anthony Bennett started off the second quarter with back to back baskets, a layup in traffic and an 18-footer. Kyrie Irving continued his aggressive play, forcing steals and pushing the ball in transition at every opportunity. Kyrie made a sick left-handed bank shot as he was crossing the paint from right to left after getting by Tony Allen. (Kyrie working off the ball is such a good development for him and the team. He seems to be more decisive and pro-active when he’s flying around screens. It allows the rest of the Cavs to have a better idea of where they should be and keeps the offense flowing.) Tyler Zeller did a heck of a job against Zach Randolph and Zach Randolph’s flailing elbows. He held his own in the post, blocked two shots, and grabbed a few tough rebounds. The Cavs continued executing their offense at a very high level. Unfortunately, they stopped playing defense, so their lead hovered around 10 despite one of the best offensive halves in years. The passing was remarkable and they converted most of the open shots they had. One of the new wrinkles to the Cavaliers’ offense is an entry pass into the big man at the foul line. This is a staple of the Spurs offense and it seems that the addition of Spencer Hawes had enabled the Cavs to run plays using this action. Tristan Thompson made his first six shots, and five of them were assisted, all were inside the paint. The Cavs made 27 of 44 shots in the 1st half, good for 61%. They had 15 assists to only five turnovers. It’s a shame they lost their defensive tenacity and offered little resistance to the Grizzlies. Still, can’t complain too much about an 11-point halftime lead on the road: 65-54.
So the disturbing trends that started six minutes into the first quarter never slowed down. Mainly, the Grizzlies getting layup after layup. The Grizzlies scored 13 points in the first three and a half minutes of the third and six of those points were Zach Randolph layups. Right as the Cavaliers defense reached the valley of little resistance, the Grizzlies entered the apex of defensive tenacity. Kyrie Irving made two straight deep jumpers early in the quarter and then the Cavs were completely shut down. They did not score a point in almost seven minutes, which is stunning. They suffered shot violations, a stretch where the guards continually slipped coming around curls, and lots of steals. They ended up with as many field goals as turnovers in the quarter – six. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, continued unabated at the rim the entire quarter. The Cavs just could not stop the dribble penetration of Conley and the layup line that it created for Randolph. Having Anderson Varejao would have been a help in this quarter. They were getting bullied around the rim. The Cavs lost the quarter 33-15 and entered the fourth down seven points.
Delly hit a corner 3 to start the fourth. Tony Allen continued to terrorize the Cavs offensively, which is a double facepalm imo. Tyler Zeller kinda posterized Marc Gasol even though Gasol was trying to get out of the way. It was pretty fierce though. Zach Randolph decided to just start toying with the Cavs. He isolated Tyler Zeller about 18 feet from the basket, and took a lazy Josh Smith jumper. Of course he made it. Kyrie drained a ridiculous J over Mike Conley after putting him through the spin cycle, bringing the Cavs within three and forcing the Grizzlies to take timeout. Conley missed a floater on the next possession and Kyrie raced down the court and was fouled as he weaved in-between three defenders. He canned both freebies. Sensing that someone was starting to take over the game, Zach Randolph reminded everyone whose house it was. He bullied his way into the paint on the right side and popped in a floater over Tristan. Then, he poked the ball away from Hawes at the other end. Off the turnover, he isolated on Tristan again, the Cavs collapsed, and he hit found Conley open for three. This pushed the lead back out to six, forcing the Cavs to take timeout. The offensive execution out of the timeout was poor, and Kyrie ended up taking a 29-foot 3 from the top of the key. Conley hit a deep two after pump faking Jarrett Jack 10 feet into the air, the crowd went ballistic, and the game was more or less over.
-The Cavs offensive chemistry and execution in the first half was just gorgeous. They put on a Cleveland Clinic. The passing was amazing and you can see how much it helps having big men make outside shots; it opens up everything else.
-Kyrie Irving played a nice game. He was aggressive once again, he hit some crazy shots, and set the tone early which allowed the Cavs to pounce on the Grizzlies.
-Interior defense. Dribble penetration is part of the game. Yes, at times, teams like the Grizzlies deny it (as they did in the 2nd half tonight), but for the majority of the league, you are going to get burned at the point of attack. The key, then, is how your defense responds to breakdowns. The Cavs have lacked a rim-protecting big since Z was still in his prime. Against a team like the Grizzlies, with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and now Kousta Koufos, lacking a true, rim-protecting center can leave you exposed. The Cavs were exposed tonight. Zeller did an admirable job banging in the 1st quarter, but he ran outta gas and Randolph smelled blood. Tristan and Hawes didn’t have any better luck. The Cavs bigs were often out of position trying to help on the dribble penetration. The problem was when the Grizzlies found cutters and backdoor entry passes for Randolph
-Interior Defense again. The Grizzlies scored 50 points in the paint.
-There should be a bad bullet point entirely devoted to dealing with Zach Randolph. Consider this it. He finished 11-17 from the field and had 14 boards (seven offensive).
-Generating easy baskets in the paint. The offensive execution in the first half was great. Everything was going right for the Cavs. Many of their shots were wide open thanks to defensive breakdowns caused by excellent passing. One of the problems the Cavs have offensively is how difficult it is for them to get easy baskets when defenses tighten up. This is where guys like Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao come in handy. Dion is rarely double teamed when he has the ball (since Kyrie is drawing the extra attention) and he can break down his man. He’s had trouble finishing at the rim throughout his career but at least he can create scoring where the offensive flow is providing none. Kyrie has this ability too but the Grizzlies took it away in the 3rd. They started hard trapping him and forcing him to give the ball up. Give Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, and Mike Conley credit – they were swarming. Varejao helps because he is that safety valve and often hits those 15 footers that defenses give him. Tonight, when the Grizzlies came out of the locker room focused, the Cavs fell apart.
-Contesting 3s. The Cavs have been poor at contesting 3s all season. Tonight, Courtney Lee hit five triples.
Final Thoughts: This was one of those: “they are who we thought they were” games. The Cavs showed in the first half just how talented they can be offensively. In the second half, they showed how little resistance they offer defensively. The Grizzlies, meanwhile, were a step slow and playing on their heels in the first half. Out of the locker room, that ol’ tenacious defense emerged from hibernation. This game was closer than the final score indicates. The Cavs cut it to one with four minutes remaining, and then the Grizzlies just started hitting back breaking 3s. The Cavs were just overmatched, and they didn’t do enough “hat hanging” on D.