Overview: Playing sluggish and sloppy basketball, the Cavs were unable to overcome a 33-19 first-quarter blitz by the Rockets, who took the game behind 53 combined points from Trevor Ariza and Aaron Brooks.
The Rockets, on paper, are the epitome of an average team on paper. Coming into the game, they were at the dead middle of the pack in terms of both offensive and defensive efficiency. But when you’re on the second day of a road back-to-back coming off a tough loss and not really ready to get after it, the Rockets are one of the last teams in the league you want to see. It’s well-documented that the Rockets are currently a team without superstars, but they play hungry on both ends of the court and are looking to absolutely break you down 1-12 with effort, energy, and unselfish play on both ends of the court, and that’s what they did to the Cavs tonight.
A note I forgot to put in when I first published: the composure has got to improve. Every now and then a tech is going to happen, but getting five technicals in one game is ridiculous. And it’s not something that came out of the blue. The Cavs have been a little bit too eager to plead their case on every call that doesn’t go their way this season, and it may have become a distraction. Once upon a time, Mike Brown’s party line was that the Cavs were a “no-excuses team,” and I’d like to see the Cavs get back to that a little more. For any reporter looking for a legitimate basketball angle to the dancing mini-controversy, this might be it; the Cavs are in danger of becoming a team who gets too giddy when things go their way and unravel a bit when they don’t.
As Arnovitz broke down a little while back, the Rockets love to get out in transition and shoot threes to make up for their lack of a go-to scorer in the half court, and they were able to do both of those things against the Cavs on Wednesday night, beating the Cavs 18-2 in fast break points, getting 12 more points from three on only 6 more attempts, and beating the Cavs 22 to 15 in points off turnovers. The Cavs played sloppy and listless basketball, and Houston makes a living capitalizing on sloppy and listless basketball.
Compounding everything was the fact that LeBron James did not play well, especially not in the first half. LeBron likes to open up the game by establishing his midrange jumper. That plan is less effective when the shot doesn’t go in. On Wednesday, LeBron missed his first four midrange jumpers in the first quarter, and went 0-6 from midrange for the game. He was able to get involved later on in the game to save his stat line, but LeBron was flat-out bad in the first half in a way you’ll rarely see.
LeBron’s not-all-that uncharacteristic anymore five turnovers were indicative of a greater problem with the team. For the second game in a row, the Cavs had 18 assists to 20 turnovers, and it’s really hard to win giving up that many possessions. And it wasn’t one thing: the Cavs were the TV on The Radio of turnovers tonight. Lazy entry passes. Botched fast-breaks. JJ Hickson catching the ball at the three-point line and dunking without dribbling. Offensive fouls jostling for position in the post. Offensive fouls committing charges. A moving screen. An overly risky inbounds pass. Delonte West even put the cherry on top by getting called for violating the rarely-seen “5 seconds with your back to the basket” rule.
When I did my “LeBron in the post” thesis a little bit ago, some commenters (rightly) noted that LeBron was already playing at such a high level that incorporating a back-down game would be trying to fix something that is the opposite of broken. I’m sympathetic to that viewpoint to a degree, but the 2nd and 3rd quarters tonight were a great example of a time when LeBron going to the post would’ve been a great option. The offense had stagnated, LeBron’s jumper wasn’t falling, and the game had become a grind-it-out slugfest. That’s when you want to go to something that works a fair percentage of the time, the defense can’t take away, and can open up the rest of the floor. And to LeBron’s credit, he did go to the post twice in the second quarter. He scored on a nice lefty hook the first time, then went back to the block on the next possession. He thought he was hit but didn’t draw the call, and the normally even-keeled Mike Brown absolutely flipped out and got ejected. Most of that was frustration from MB, but I think a factor may have been MB trying to convince LeBron to keep going to the block.
Of course, the Cavs are supposed to have one of the greatest post threats of all time, but Shaq hasn’t been playing like it this season. Shaq does do some nice things. Tonight, he shut off the paint nicely and did a great job keeping the Rockets off of the offensive boards, where they normally live. But let’s be honest. Other than shutting down Howard or Bynum/Gasol in the playoffs, the Shaq acquisition was an experiment in sacrificing fit in order to add a dimension, and that dimension was Shaq’s dominant ability to score in one-on-one post-up situations. When he’s not doing that, he’s a downgrade offensively. He doesn’t work the pick-and-roll or cut to open space as well as JJ or Andy, he can’t stretch the floor or get offensive boards like Z, and despite his reputation, he tries to power through doubles as often as he passes out of them; he came into the game 29th in assist ratio among centers.
All of that can be overcome if Shaq can do what he’s been doing for a decade and a half and punish single coverage on the block. And so far, that hasn’t been happening. Shaq’s field goal percentage is decent enough, but his free throw shooting put his True Shooting at 43rd among centers coming into Tuesday’s game.
And then came Tuesday’s game. Now, Shaq probably shouldn’t be playing the second game of a back-to-back in December, especially on the road. And Chuck Hayes is not a “scrappy” defensive player. Chuck Hayes is a great defensive player. Against most centers, Hayes is able to use his quickness to keep them from getting around him and his strength to push them further away from the basket than they want to be. But Shaq is one of the few players in the league who negates Hayes’ strength advantage. And, since Hayes is the shortest center in NBA history, Shaq had 7 inches of height on him. Shaq should have been easy money tonight. But he rushed his moves, got sloppy, missed bunnies, and went 2-8 from the field, his worst shooting night of the season, and when faced with a triple-team in the fourth quarter, Shaq turned it over trying to power through it, leading to an Ariza three in transition that pretty much killed the Cavs’ final charge.
I respect Hayes and the Houston defense for doing a good job of swarming on Shaq. But Shaq, if you’re not going to be able to punish a 6-6 center, then what would you say ya do here? Hopefully, Shaq can find his comfort level and get back to what he’s been doing his whole career, or this could end very badly for the Cavs.
Mo Williams’ scoring punch was also sorely missed tonight, as he went 2-10 from the field. He’s a shooter, shooters slump. Hopefully his shot comes back soon, as his play does have a massive correlation to the Cavs’ success.
Also, Mo came into Cleveland with a rep as a defensive liability. He acquitted himself well on that end of the court last year, but this year his bad habits seem to be creeping back. +/- shows his defense as being absolutely horrible, and while you always take Mo’s +/- with a big grain of salt because of how much he plays without LeBron on the floor, those are not good numbers. Getting burned by Aaron Brooks tonight does not help matters.
Good to see Z’s shot coming back a little bit tonight, with Z hitting 3 of his 5 deep midrange jumpers and going +8 on the night. As much as I’ve ragged on Shaq, Z’s jumper has been a huge problem as well. As of the latest batch of 82games data, Z’s only made 32% of his jumpers this season. That’s worse than Josh Smith shot on jumpers last season. That’s a major problem.
Delonte providing some scoring punch off the bench on Tuesday, going back to his nice back-down game for some tough points. If Shaq doesn’t like to come off the bench and be in the game whenever LeBron isn’t, it looks like this’ll be the role Delonte has to perform, and he’s not half-bad at it, although I’d like to see him with a unit that can utilize his passing and ability to penetrate on defenses that aren’t loaded up. But you take what you get. The caveat would be that by my unofficial, rough, top-of-the head count, the Cavs biffed six fast-breaks tonight, and Delonte was responsible for two of said biffings.
A rare -8 despite a solid 4-6 night from the field for Andy, who the latest batch of 82games data says has an even better +/- than LeBron so far.
Losing Boobie with a hand injury in the middle of the game hurt down the stretch, as the Cavs really could have used an extra shooter to stretch the floor in the fourth.
Bullets of Randomness:
This Houston team is flat-out fun to watch play.
Ariza’s one of those “I’m supposed to be the man, but I’m not quite there yet” guys. He’s got a lot of talent and can create shots when asked to, but would probably be best served in a 2nd or 3rd banana role. But every few games, Ariza’s going to go off like he did tonight, and the Rockets are a very tough team to beat when that happens.
Do me a favor and check out Rahat Huq’s blog if you want more on the game, as he’s new to the network and has been doing a phenomenal job so far.
I’ve got one more bullet of randomness, but it actually deserves its own post. See you guys later.
But before I go, in my ongoing and completely coincidental “things that make me happy which share a name with a team that made me feel crappy” series, here’s a fantastic and oddly appropriate scene from Rocket Science, one of my all-time favorite movies. Indeed, in some way there is a cello in all of our houses now.