In Sunday’s Game 1 against the Detroit Pistons, the Cleveland Cavaliers absorbed a strong push from Detroit and powered through to a 106-101. They got rocked early on but never went down, and won due to strong play from their ‘Big Three’ down the stretch. Considering the Pistons made 15 threes Sunday — they made nine per game on average in the regular season — and the Cavs largely defended those attempts well, Cleveland may have already seen the Pistons’ best effort.
In the win, it was largely LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love carrying the Cavs across the finish line. But head coach Tyronn Lue made some adjustments that helped turn the tide. It was his decision, after all, to put Love at center during the fourth quarter and pit him against Andre Drummond inside. It certainly was a risk as Drummond is much, much larger than Love. It was also a calculated risk because is not Drummond a polished scorer and encouraging the Pistons to grind their offense to a half trying to exploit that matchup was likely to be a net positive.
In making this move, Lue may have found a way to consistently exploit Detroit’s defense. With Love at center, Drummond gets pulled away from the rim. As a result, his shot blocking and rebounding abilities are mostly nullified and Detroit’s defense is compromised. Even when the Cavs’ offense goes to hell, as it does in the second clip in the video below, Love is able to sneak away from Drummond in part because Drummond just not used to following opposing bigs outside of the paint. Love, who isn’t exactly fleet of foot, can also take Drummond off the dribble if Drummond follows him out to the three-point line.
Moving forward, this probably won’t be something Lue turns to as a go-to lineup. Tristan Thompson is too good and too valuable in defending the pick-and-roll to be on the bench when the game matters. Plus, Stan Van Gundy probably has a counter up his sleeves that probably involves running more pick-and-rolls with Drummond and Reggie Jackson than he did in Game 1.
Even so, Love at center is something the Cavs can’t turn away from. It’s the key to them going five out and creating maximum mayhem. Lue deserves credit for going to it in a tight game, despite not using it much in the regular season and it putting the Cavs’ interior defense at risk. It’s also a move that probably won him Game 1’s coaching battle.
At the same time, Lue made some head scratching decisions in Game 1. As good as the Love move was, the rest of his rotations left something to be desired, much like in the regular season when his rotations seemed to lack continuity. Richard Jefferson was his choice to spell James and Jefferson’s play was a mixed bag. The Pistons’ wings attacked him repeatedly and when he was on the floor, Detroit went on runs. In the second quarter, the Cavs were up two when Jefferson came in as part of a bench lineup. Cleveland found themselves down six just four minutes later.
Jefferson wasn’t necessarily bad, but he wasn’t impactful. His presence on the floor is especially frustrating when he’s part of lineup featuring Irving as the lone member of the ‘Big Three’. He might have to play for the Cavs, but there are ways to avoid him playing in lineups where he’s going to be set up to fail.
More troublesome, though, is Lue’s continuing decision to play Timofey Mozgov — especially when Channing Frye didn’t play a single minute. Mozgov has struggled all season long, never playing close to the level he reached in the 2014-15 season and playoffs. He’s important on paper but it’s hard to justify his place on the rotation at this point. Mozgov only played five minutes Sunday but he was repeatedly beat down the floor by Aron Baynes, and the Cavs were outscored by five points in those minutes. He also took one shot, a contested 17-footer that the Pistons were probably more than happy to have him take.
At this point, Mozgov doesn’t really provide much of anything and certainly not anything that Frye can’t. Frye also happens to be a knockdown shooter who, whether he’s playing the four or five, can get clean looks anytime James or Irving penetrates. After the game, when asked about why Frye didn’t play, Lue offered up a less than convincing response:
Love hurting the Pistons’ defense down the stretch invalidates the idea that Frye didn’t fit in with the flow of the game, as Frye’s a better three-point shooter than Love and can fill that role while playing passable defense as well. This version Mozgov can, on his best day, fill only one of those roles and it has been awhile since he’s had a good day. Playing Frye at the four, by the way, is another way to reduce minutes for Jefferson.
At this point in the year, mistakes — even the small ones — matter. Against the Pistons, not playing Mozgov and relying on Jefferson too much probably won’t get the Cavs bounced from the playoffs. In the second round, against the Celtics or Hawks, it might not either. But against the Heat or Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, maybe. And against the Warriors or Spurs in the NBA Finals, it definitely will.
Lue’s mistakes are somewhat defensible. He’s been a coach for half a season and he’s still learning on the job. If it were hypothetically possible to play Mozgov back to productivity then his minutes would be justified. There’s also a human aspect here, as Lue got this job partially because he connects with this Cavs team and maybe Cleveland’s locker room still has faith in Mozgov enough to want him out on the floor.
Lue, as he deserves credit for going to Love at the five down the stretch but he also deserves some flak for sticking with Mozgov and Jefferson when a better option was readily available. At some point, the stakes will be higher and the consequences greater. Lue has to make the choice that makes the Cavs better.
Lue, it seems, is still learning how to be a head coach. Game 1 was proof.