It's playoff time, y'all. Life is good. We can put the insanity of the season behind us and focus on our favorite teams winning 16 more games over the next two months. Unfortunately, only one group gets to experience that. The Cavaliers are currently sitting in the driver's seat of the eastern conference and are widely regarded as the 3rd most likely team to win the title. Those are pretty OK odds, it's just a bummer that Golden State is the best team ever by nearly any measurement that exists.
No matter. Without optimism, there is no sport. So let's talk about round one through the tattooed lens of the Cavs' backcourt.
JR Smith: JR Smith became one of my favorite Cavaliers of all time in a matter of months. Yes, he's known for getting calls against him and got tossed in the playoffs last year at a really bad time, but it's starting to look like that might be behind him. JR is becoming what everyone wanted him to be several years ago and what Iman Shumpert was expected to be when the trade first went through: He's the 3-and-D guy that every team wants. There's some added emphasis on the 3 with JR, as he just set Cleveland's single-season 3-point record by splashing more than 200 of them this year, and hit them at a delightful 40%. And obviously, he can create his own shot in a 1-on-1.
My biggest surprise from JR Smith has been his defense. I don't want to sound like the angry-stepdad-who-gets-confused-by-things, but it sure seems like he passes the eye-test for being a good defender. He's hustling all over the court, he's tipping passes, he's chasing loose balls, and he's generally being a pest. As an added bonus, he's defending the rim better than all but a dozen guards, according to nba.com/stats (almost identical to Danny Green - known as a stingy defender).
Against the Pistons, JR is likely going to match up with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shot a chilly 31% from deep in the regular season. JR is a hound on the wing - not a world-beater, but he's annoying. All he has to do is be better than Pope. The advanced stats peg Smith as being middle-of-the-road as far as FG% differential - opponents are within 0.5% of their FG% whether he's on them or off of them - but he's had multiple games of 4 steals this year.
On the offensive end, JR should have no trouble topping KCP's 31% from deep, considering he'll continue to get open looks.
How's he gonna get open looks?
Kyrie Irving: Let me take you back a few years. In the 2005-2009 stretch, the Cavaliers were perennial contenders for the Eastern Conference title thanks to LeBron James. LeBron led the team and did all the things that LBJ does and blah blah blah. We know his supporting cast was trash that manifest itself as 8 dudes whose careers floundered elsewhere (a vh1 "Where Are They Now?" with Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, and Tarance Kinsey would be a "keep forever" on my DVR). LeBron was the when-necessary point guard - a role he still occasionally holds - but he was saddled with Boobie Gibson, Mo Williams (the starter) Eric Snow, Delonte West (who I geniunely hope is getting the medical help he needs), Sebastian Telfair, and Damon Jones as his "point" guards over the years. Imagine being told that the Cavaliers could once again have LeBron back and have one of the top 10 point guards in the league. You'd be ecstatic, right?
Kyrie Irving is a top-10 point guard even when he's having a bad year. He's a top 5 point guard when he's got things clicking. Yes he has faults - he pounds the ball, he's not very good on defense, and he has been known to take too many shots. But when Kyrie has it going, Kyrie. Has. It. Going.
So yes, he needs to be better about some of his faults, and yes he needs to play more consistently, but bad-Kyrie is about as good as good-Boobie Gibson.
Delly: Come on. You know what you need to know about Delly. He's gonna bother the hell out of players, hit 40% of his open threes, and throw 2-3 alley-oops a game.
Shump: I don't know. I'm nervous about him as his shooting has just been...rough. He's so good on defense that we don't need much from him on the offensive end, and occasionally he flashes into the lane for buckets, but man...he's not hitting his open threes. I don't even want to look at the advanced shooting stats out of fear.
Mo/McRae: Hopefully we don't really see these two. Not because I don't like them, but because we'd only see them if someone ahead of them gets hurt.
RJ: He's been notably better than I expected, but he's not someone I aim to count on in crunch-time. Fortunately I think that's how Ty Lue sees it.
Now, the Cavs and Pistons have played 3 meaningful games this season and Detroit won two of them. The first one was before Kyrie was back and Detroit won by 5. Reggie Jackson dominated Mo Williams, scoring 23 and dishing a dozen assists. JR was mediocre, Mo was not good defensively, and the Cavs couldn't hold their lead as Detroit outscored them big in the 4th quarter. Andre Drummond's 18 rebounds didn't help much.
The second matchup was an 8-point Cleveland win in late-January. Again the Pistons outscored the Cavs by double-digits in the 4th, but this one was too far gone at that point. Reggie Jackson was stifled on offense (KCP had a big game), and Kyrie was getting buckets all night. JR struggled though, which is a concern to me because I love him.
The 3rd game was decided by 8 points again, but favored Detroit. Pope and Jackson shot very well, LeBron was 5-18, and the Cavs turned the ball over 17 times. In the two losses, JR Smith was a substantial minus in +/-. He was -14 in the 8 point loss, which is, you know, really bad for a starter.
What's the point of all this? JR Smith is going to make plays against Detroit this time around. If he doesn't, Shump needs to start making shots, because he'll be getting bulk-minutes in an effort to slow down Pope or Jackson in the event that one of them gets hot. The beauty of this Cleveland Cavaliers lineup is that they can run out a 5-man offensive juggernaut or they can bring out a Delly/JR/Shump/LBJ/Thompson crew and lock it down on defense.
Against Detroit, I expect that we'll see streaks of both lineups in action.
I'm also hoping Jordan McRae gets major mop-up minutes. I want this series to go 4 games.