The Cleveland Cavaliers need to take baby steps right now – that’s the humbling reality of a star-laden team dropping below .500 at a season’s mid-point. And while it’s never prudent to read too much into a small sample size, there’s recent evidence that LeBron James and company are coming around defensively. After their 108-94 dismantling of the Chicago Bulls last night, coach David Blatt called his team’s performance on that end its “best of the year” and sung praises of the recently acquired Timofey Mozgov.
The Cavaliers point to an adjusted scheme as justification behind their improved defense – a strategy that wasn’t possible before the arrival of the seven-foot Russian. Cleveland’s perimeter players are directing ballhandlers in a certain direction of screens – away, ideally – and into the direction of Mozgov. It’s a tactic increasingly common in today’s NBA, and one that clashes with the team’s early season style of having big men hedge hard up the floor to contain dribblers.
The Cavaliers bottled-up Derrick Rose last night by employing their new type of coverage. Watch how Mozgov waits for and slides with the 2011 MVP as Rose creases the paint:
This is lazy defense from Kyrie Irving, but Mozgov’s influence negates it. Rose is forced into underwhelming options here: take a pull-up mid-range jumper or challenge the big man at the rim. He tries the latter route only to be rebuffed, and his aggression yields a similar result just a few possessions later:
Again, Irving would ideally do a better job here – he should be forcing Rose to the sideline by getting high above Pau Gasol’s screen to initiate “ICE” pick-and-roll coverage. But legitimate rim-protection plugs holes at the worst and erases errors at best, and that’s what Cleveland has suddenly found in Mozgov.
“We’ve changed up our defensive scheme, so a lot of guards are not necessarily getting in our paint as easily,” Irving said after producing 18 points and a game-high 12 assists. “You have a seven-footer back there that you have to shoot over every single time that’s contesting jump shots. [It] makes it tough for opposing guards…”
“Needless to say we’ve improved some things and they fit well with our new roster,” Blatt said. “We’ve incorporated some new players into our team and we’ve tried to make changes that suited the skill-set of the new players we brought in and it has.”
Since James returned to the lineup last Tuesday, no Cavalier has a better defensive rating than Mozgov. Cleveland has surrendered 104.5 points per 100 possessions with the 28 year-old on the floor, a mark nearly nine full points stingier than its overall one. Mozgov’s off-court defensive rating of 122.5 is the team’s highest, too.
Obviously, the big man is already making his presence felt. But Mozgov isn’t the kind of transcendent interior defender that can single-handedly make the Cavs an above-average unit – he’s merely solid, and needs assistance from teammates to reach his full potential on that end of the floor.
Irving needs to stop gambling. James needs to be consistently engaged. Blatt needs to drive home the principles of his adjusted scheme during film study and shootarounds, then have a quick leash come game-time if his players don’t execute it. Discipline is key to Cleveland becoming a solid defensive team, and it’s something that’s been all too fleeting for the majority of 2014-2015.
If the Cavs can exercise it, though, early returns or Mozgov’s play are making clear that he can spur them to new defensive heights.
What do you think?
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