Cleveland Cavaliers win with small-ball lineup after Tristan Thompson’s injury: Fedor’s five observations

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t want to go 0-for-LA to begin their four-game road trip. Fresh and rested after sitting out the primetime game Saturday night, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James and Kevin Love made sure it didn’t happen.

The Cavs rallied from 11 down at one point to escape with the 125-120 win.

Here are five observations:

Injury changes game — Let’s make one thing clear: The Cavaliers need Tristan Thompson. He’s the team’s best (only?) rim protector. He’s relentless on the glass, pulling down 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive end. He’s also an underrated screener. 

However, on Sunday night, Thompson getting decked in the mouth by Julius Randle changed the game.

After Thompson departed, the Cavs outscored Los Angeles, 53-41.

Sure, increased intensity was part of the second half rally. All of the players said it. Head coach Tyronn Lue did as well. Playing with more effort, the Cavs held the Lakers to 16 points in the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter and used a 13-2 spurt to avoid a head-scratching loss. 

But sometimes there’s more to it. Why did the energy pick up? Why was the defense more suffocating? Was there more than flipping a proverbial switch?

It sure looked like it. 

The Cavs downsized, playing with a five-shooter, small-ball lineup that brought more speed, quickness and athleticism, allowing them to pressure the Lakers on the perimeter. 

Richard Jefferson showed off his versatility again. Love played center. James played closer to the basket. Without a true center, the Cavs were able to implement the switch-everything defense, which has been incredibly successful for them this season, so much so that Jefferson told Fox Sports Ohio after the game that the Cavs should think about using it more down the stretch. 

With the Cavs playing small, the Lakers had to match. That wasn’t their best lineup. Los Angeles was playing well with 7-foot-1 youngster Ivica Zubac in the middle.

He scored 10 points on 4-of-7 from the field to go with six rebounds, two assists and one block in 19 minutes. He set screens to free up D’Angelo Russell and Zubac drew attention with his activity rolling to the hoop. But with Cleveland shunning a traditional lineup, there wasn’t a spot for him and he was forced to watch the entire fourth quarter.

Pace — The other byproduct of the Cavs’ defensive turnaround was an opportunity to get out on the fastbreak.

That’s what Los Angeles was doing early, pushing the ball ahead quickly and playing with the exuberance expected of one the league’s youngest teams. 

But in the fourth quarter, Cleveland turned the tables, scoring 10 points on the break, going 5-of-5 on those opportunities. In the first three quarters, the Cavs weren’t able to get out and run, scoring just eight fast-break points.

Jefferson rises — In the first half, Cleveland’s Big Three made 18 of the team’s 21 baskets. The Cavs needed more balance. And it happened in the second half, thanks in large part to Jefferson.

He scored seven points on 3-of-3 from the field. He also added two rebounds, one assist and one steal.

What led to the rise?

“Once I got dunked on on the lob I was annoyed because we had no ball pressure, we had no help, there was no communication and there was nothing,” Jefferson said. “That was something that kind of fired me up and pissed me off. Once it pissed me off I was hoping it would get contagious and other guys would get kind of fired up also.”

It looked like it. The Cavs scored 43 points in the fourth quarter, going 13-of-18 from the field, 3-of-7 from the field and 14-of-17 from the free-throw line.

Needed change — The Cavs earned nine free throws Sunday just by pump-faking, jumping into defenders and baiting the refs into calling fouls on 3-point “attempts.”

Given the current rules and how they are enforced, it’s a smart play.

Love and Irving have become very good at drawing contact and earning trips to the stripe on unnatural-looking heaves in anticipation of getting fouled.

But the NBA should take a closer look at these kinds of plays in the off-season. They’ve already tweaked the rip-through maneuver that Kevin Durant helped patent, no longer awarding free throws if the player doesn’t make a natural shooting motion and contact occurs before the start of the shot.

Does this look like a natural shooting motion?

I’ve watched Love play for the last few years and I don’t recall him leaning to the right and jumping sideways on his normal attempts. Sure, sometimes he fades away or is off balance. Those things happen. But on a set shot? No chance. He goes straight up and down.

Then there’s this one:

(h/t @JohnSchuhmann)

Love’s not even facing the basket. Did the official think Love was going to attempt an over-the-head trick shot as if he was playing HORSE in the backyard? Was he going to sit with the fans in the front row?

On that play, Larry Nance Jr. didn’t jump at Love. He jumped to the side of him. Love then turned his back, stepped into the defender and absorbed contact. It’s, no doubt, a foul. And, again, it’s a smart play. But it shouldn’t be a shooting foul because that’s simply not a shooting motion.

Time for the league to take a closer look.

Stat of the night — The Big Three scored 101 of the Cavs’ 125 points. That’s the most the trio has scored since coming together in 2014-15.

“It felt good, especially because I got to play a few extra minutes tonight,” Love told reporters. “LeBron and Kyrie were incredible tonight.”

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