HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt had a difficult decision to make before Game 1 of the conference semifinals.
Kevin Love was done for the postseason and J.R. Smith was suspended for the first two games against the Bulls. So Blatt needed two new starters on Monday.
Iman Shumpert was the easy choice. And with the fifth starter, Blatt could have chosen to go big (Tristan Thompson), small (Matthew Dellavedova, James Jones or Mike Miller), or in between (Shawn Marion).
He went with Miller, which turned out to be a mistake. In Miller’s 16 minutes, the Bulls outscored the Cavs, 44-24. The score of the other 32 minutes was Cavs 68, Bulls 55.
The Bulls’ 44 points in 16:08 (to be exact) translates into 131 points over 48 minutes. And Game 1 was one of the slowest paced games of the postseason thus far.
It’s no surprise that Blatt was sacrificing defense for offense with the decision to start Miller. For one, the 35 year old isn’t very mobile. And secondly, big vs. small seems to be a defense or offense proposition for the Cavs no matter the specific personnel on the floor, as their no-Love numbers prior to the Bulls series spelled out.
The Cavs’ defensive issues in Game 1 weren’t all about Miller. There was also evidence of LeBron James being uncomfortable playing power forward defensively and just simple miscommunication. And it all was on display in the first six minutes of the first quarter.
Possession 1 – The hard hedge
After a baseline screen, Jimmy Butler has the ball in the corner, where he gets another screen from Joakim Noah, who’s being defended by James.
James hedges hard to keep Butler pinned in the corner…
Noah sees this and slips the screen, cutting toward the basket. Butler gets him the ball and Miller comes to help from the opposite corner…
That leaves Mike Dunleavy all alone and he hits a three to open the scoring.
Possession 3 – The switch
Noah slips a side pick and roll with Butler and then gives him back the ball on the move. Shumpert had been icing the pick-and-roll (getting between the ball-handler and the screener to keep the ball on the side of the floor), so he’s trailing the play. So James switches onto Butler…
Butler isn’t able to get the ball to a rolling Noah, but he gets by James on the baseline, gets Shumpert to help, and also draws the attention of Timofey Mozgov, so that Pau Gasol is wide open in the paint…
Butler actually gets the ball to Derrick Rose instead, and Rose hits another three for the Bulls.
Possession 8 – The mismatch
On this play, James has to pick up Butler in transition, and Miller gets caught on Gasol as a result…
Noah eventually gets the ball to Gasol for an easy bucket.
Possession 10 – The offensive rebound
The Cavs’ initial defense was fine on this possession, but two bigs are better than one when it comes to rebounding…
Noah reaches over James for the offensive board, which results in a Butler jumper.
Possession 11 – The retreat
When Noah sets a screen for Rose on a secondary break, James switches. And when Gasol sets another screen, Mozgov doesn’t switch…
… and Rose steps into a wide-open three.
The Bulls’ lead eventually ballooned to 16 points early in the second quarter. The Cavs came back to tie the game, but never got over the hump.
They allowed 99 points in a slow-paced game and were much worse defensively when James was at the four than when he was at the shooting guard (for less than two minutes with Mozgov, Thompson and Marion all on the floor) or small forward (when they allowed 20 points in about 14 minutes).
Miller’s foot speed was certainly an issue. But so were the Cavs’ lack of size, James not being comfortable defending screeners, and miscommunication.
Blatt will likely go with a different starting lineup in Game 2 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, TNT), but there is no obvious solution. Smith will give the Cavs more offensive firepower when he returns in Game 3, but (unless Marion turns back the clock) only Love provided Blatt with the combination of floor spacing on offense and defending bigs on defense. Love obviously isn’t a great defender, but he allowed James to play his more comfortable position on that end of the floor.