1. How does the absence of Mike Conley and Tony Allen help the Cavaliers offensive attack?
Chris Manning, Right Down Euclid EIC: This is a huge advantage for the Cavaliers, as Mike Conley is one of the best defenders at the point guard spot and, while I think Irving could find openings against him, it would have been a challenge. This is especially true in the pick and roll, where he teams with Marc Gasol to form an excellent defensive duo. Thus, I expect the Cavaliers to attack, attack and attack with Kyrie. Tony Allen – still an outstanding wing defender – is out as well and this opens things up even more for the Cleveland offense, in particular Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack. Today, maybe more than ever, this makes their production essential. If Jack and Waiters can get going – particularly when getting in the paint – then the Grizzlies would forced to take some of their focus off Irving and onto Jack or Waiters. This, at the very least, this makes the Cavaliers harder to defend for Memphis.
Marlowe Alter, Right Down Euclid Staff Writer: Conley and Allen form arguably the NBA’s best defensive backcourt and their absences will free up the entire Cavaliers offense. The Grizzlies are still a sound defensive team with Courtney Lee likely following Irving and Gasol as the anchor. Last night, Memphis held Atlanta to 76 points on 42.9 percent shooting and forced 21 turnovers. But clearly Irving, Waiters, Deng and even Jack will have an easier time penetrating and getting free for open looks.
Trevor Magnotti, Right Down Euclid Staff Writer: I think it makes Dion a very necessary weapon for the Cavaliers’ offensive attack. If the Grizzlies are smart, they are going to defend Kyrie with Courtney Lee and use Nick Calathes, or Darius Morris to guard off ball. They’d be dumb not to, as this has been a very common plan from the Grizzlies since they acquired Allen, and is one they routinely bust out against the Clippers and Chris Paul. They like to put a longer defender on elite point guards, and let their smaller guys chase the wings off the ball. I feel like this puts the pressure more on Dion and C.J. Miles, as the Cavs’ off-guards are going to have the inferior defenders’ focus for most of the game. I expect Dion to get a lot of touches immediately when he checks in, with the hopes of making the Grizzlies key on both him and Kyrie equally, which will open things up for Irving.
2. The Grizzlies play at the slowest pace in the league. Do the Cavaliers need to win the pace battle in order to win the game?
CM: I’ve been saying for weeks that the Cavaliers would be better served playing at a higher pace and consistently pushing the ball up the floor. Their three primary ball handlers – Irving, Jack and Waiters – are all at their best when they are out in space. They struggle (and then settle for jumpers and PUJITs when they do get out in space) and get crippled by teams with stifling half-court defenses. Memphis is the perfect example of the type of team that can force the Cavaliers into their special kind of inept inefficiency and deficiency. For the Cavaliers to win, they without question that they need to get out, increase their pace and beat Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and their other bigs down the floor before they can get set on the defensive end.
MA: The Grizzlies possess a tough half court defensive squad with Conley and Allen patrolling the perimeter and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Gasol protecting the rim. Without Conley and Allen, Memphis loses its two best wing defenders and isn’t nearly as formidable. While pushing the pace would surely benefit Cleveland as they try to take advantage of any run-outs and try to score before Memphis sets up. However, I don’t think they have to play fast to win. Without Conley and Allen, Irving should be able to free himself of Conley’s backup, Nick Calathes, and create for himself and his teammates.
TM: I don’t think that playing at a fast pace is something the Cavs need to do to win this game. The Cavs played three very fast-paced games this week, and even if they beat Washington, they looked like crap defensively against Dallas and the Lakers. Honestly, the Cavs are a defensive mess right now, and at a quicker pace, I’m not sure the Cavs can score with their opponent, even one that’s as inefficient as the Grizzlies. Honestly, I’m okay with the Cavs playing at a slower pace in this game. At this point, I just would kind of like to see the Cavs give up less than 100 points. I feel that’s reasonable.
3. Where will the Cavaliers have more trouble dealing with Marc Gasol: On offense or defense?
CM: Although Gasol is excellent cutting and operating in the pick and roll on offense, he is poised to destroy everything the Cavaliers attempt to do on the paint. If the Cavaliers run a pick and roll with Anderson Varejao (or, depending on the lineup Tyler Zeller), Gasol is excellent defending players coming off the pick and attacking the rim. This means that the Cavaliere who will handle the ball in pick and roll situations – Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack – are going to struggle to score more so than they already have. All three are scoring less than a point per possession in pick and rolls already. Plus, Gasol will likely take Zeller and Varejao right out of the game with no issue. Simply put. he’s going to be a tough nut to crack.
MA: Gasol in instrumental on both sides of the ball but I think his impact will be greater on the offensive end tonight. The Grizzlies are 10-3 since Gasol returned from a sprained MCL in January and have climbed within two games of the playoffs. The spaniard is a supremely gifted passer for his size as he led all centers in assists last season by a wide margin, averaging four dimes per game. Memphis runs its offense through Gasol at the high post and his versatility, vision and decision making causes problems for opponents. Simply put, the Cavs are a poor defensive team; they to tend to fall asleep or lose track of their matchups and Gasol will certainly find the open man and make them pay. The Grizz will rely on Gasol even more than usual without Conley so I expect him to have the ball in his hands and make plays all game long.
TM: Offensively is where I think the Cavs have to account for Marc Gasol’s talents. The Cavs just don’t have the weaponry on the inside to make Gasol a factor, and unless the Cavs just attack the basket ad nauseum, Gasol won’t be a huge factor defensively. The Cavs struggle with elite passing big men however, and Gasol definitely does that well. Atlanta murdered the Cavs when they had Al Horford as a second creator for their offense, and Gasol might actually be a better distributor than Horford. For the Cavs to have success tonight, they might be best off doubling off of Tayshaun Prince and/or Ed Davis in order to pressure Gasol more when he has the ball. Ultimately, I think this is a much bigger concern for the Cavs tonight than Gasol’s defensive presence is.