LeBron James, now 31 years old, still does handles the ball more often than not when he's on the floor. In fact, he and Kyrie Irving roughly split ballhandling duties last night, with James recording 71 touches in his 30 minutes and Irving recording 70 in his 32 minutes. No surprise there.
However, since Tyronn Lue took over as head coach, the Cavs have looked to involve Kevin Love in the offense more than they did under David Blatt. Sometimes, this is a simple post-up after a ball reversal. Other times, Love sneaks behind a down screen and floats out to the perimeter for an open 3-pointer. And while he's nowhere near the player Love is, Channing Frye operates in much the same way. Neither player is destined for 20 shots per game — not with James, Irving, and J.R. Smith on the squad, anyway — but teams have to respect their versatility and pay close attention to them on defense, even if they're not getting touches.
That puts teams in a pickle. Do they help on James and Irving's dribble penetration, or stick to the Cavs' many shooters on the perimeter?
The Cavs love to run pick plays with James as the ballhandler, as James, even in his thirties, is extremely athletic and can get to the rim on the NBA's best defenders. His size and strength allow him to handle defensive switches well, too, and even if he's stopped at the rim, chances are someone is open somewhere else on the floor.
And he'll find that someone with a rocket pass past three defenders with his back turned. He's just that good.
There's no easy way to stop a James-led pick play, but most coaches and analysts agree that going under the pick is a good place to start. James shoots just 22.2 percent from behind the arc after taking three or more dribbles, after all, and his mark of 27.8 percent overall suggests that while he can make that shot, you're good with him taking a 3-pointer if it means stopping him from creating for others.
The Hornets didn't do that, and as a result James got to the rim with ease and dished out seven assists to boot. In fact, James didn't attempt a single midrange jumper last night — he didn't have to take any — with the closest thing being a lone, well-contested fadeaway in the post.
What makes guarding James so tricky is that the Cavs have learned to mitigate his dwindling (though still elite) athleticism by starting their pick plays in transition, where James is already moving at a good speed. On many occassions last night, James secured a defensive rebound, sprinted up the floor, met a pick from a Cavs big before the defense or offense was actually set, and created absolute chaos. He and Irving pushing the ball like that led to 28 fastbreak points, which — and I haven't checked, for the record — sounds like one of the higher totals a team's dropped on the Hornets this year. But how do you stop that?
You could argue coaching, and there's some truth to that. Perhaps Steve Clifford and co. recognizing the pattern earlier and planning against it could've helped, but it's likely that would have opened up a slew of other problems for the Hornets.
Sure, trap James in transition. Someone's open somewhere.
Sure, sag off of him. That'll give him space to bolt to the rim with reckless abandon.
Sure, get back faster. Thanks for playing to the Cavaliers' pace, and enjoy your impending exhaustion.
Maybe this game would've turned out differently with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist available; his length, athleticism, and tenacity have historically been a good match for James. But with Kidd-Gilchrist focused on a single player, he's unable to play the team defense that makes him so valuable. It's tough to say.
But what's clear is that as the team is currently constructed and accounting for Kidd-Gilchrist's season-ending injury, the Hornets cannot beat a James-led Cavaliers team.
"They did it a few weeks ago!" you might say. You're right, they did. Many thanks go to Jeremy Lin's heroics, MKG's steady, calculated play, and Smith taking one too many jumpers on a cold night. The fact remains that the Hornets have beaten LeBron James just once in their last 19 tries (and if you're interested, the Hornets/Bobcats are 6-34 against James since he was drafted). Simply put, the Hornets do not want to play the Cavaliers in the playoffs.
Luckily, the chances of the two teams meeting in the first round are slim. The Cavs are destined for the first or second seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Hornets are good enough to secure something better than the seventh seed — barring injuries or an unexpected losing streak, of course. If the Hornets can win their first round series, though, the Cavs could be waiting for them on the other side.
The two teams play each other once more in the regular season, on Apr. 3. An unlikely win would split the season series.
I don't know how the Hornets can beat the Cavs without saying "get more talent" or "wait a few years." And that's the key here. The Hornets are as good as I've ever seen them, and yet they're still a ways away from being contenders. Games like last night's are a solemn reminder of that.
Clifford touched on the two teams having very distinct goals after last night's game. He said that for the Cavs, the one seed is the goal. For the Hornets, according to Cliff, well, the Hornets just want to make the playoffs and play at a high level. The team knows what it is, and knows it has a long way to go.
You can read a recap of last night's game here.