It’s no secret that what happens in the 4th quarter often defines a basketball game.
One of the more common criticism of basketball, particularly in the NBA, is that the first 3 quarters are irrelevant and all that matters is the 4th quarter. If someone doesn’t enjoy just watching the game of basketball itself, I can see how they would feel that way. In the NBA, it seems like everyone goes on a run and no lead is safe. Winning and losing frequently comes down to late game execution.
Last season, the Cavaliers were often an exception to the rule. It seemed that the 4th quarters rarely mattered and the most important quarter was the first. Indeed, how the Cavaliers played in the 1st quarter was often the defining quality of the game. It was hard for that team to come back from early deficits and 4th quarters usually involved opponents giving the tail end of their bench some quality playing time.
But in those few games where the Cavaliers came out playing good basketball in the 1st quarter, they would often find themselves in the game in the 4th with a chance to win. These became Kyrie Irving’s moments. It was where Mr. 4th Quarter was born. As fans, we had ultimate confidence that if the bench could somehow just keep it close, within 5 points or so, that when Kyrie Irving checked back in he would find a way to win the game for Cleveland.
Even though the results of this year resemble those of last season, the teams are actually quite different. This year’s team is competitive. They give good teams (playoff teams) a tough fight and they often are hanging around in late game situations. It’s a stark contrast from last season, but the results are disappointingly similar.
And therein lies the problem with this team. As much as their ability compete with other teams is a progression from last season, their 4th quarter performances have been a complete regression from last season.
Last year the Cavaliers were 11th in the NBA in average 4th quarter margin at +0.3 ppg. This season, the Cavaliers are dead last in the NBA with an average 4th quarter margin of -2.4 ppg. There certainly could be an argument that because the Cavaliers played so poorly in quarters 1-3 last season that teams weren’t playing hard against them in the 4th quarters.
Certainly that’s part of it. But if we look a little closer at the stats, there’s something more to this. Last year, the Cavaliers’ winning percentage in close games was 0.438 (19th in the NBA). This year the team’s winning percentage in close games is 0.182 (29th in the NBA). There’s no doubt their performance in close games is regressing, as opposed to getting better.
As painful as it is to say this, part of the problem is Kyrie Irving. In “clutch situations”1 Kyrie’s numbers last year were stellar. In clutch situations he shot 54.4% from the field with an eFG% of 0.579. He averaged 53.8 points per 48 minutes of clutch time.
This season in clutch situations Kyrie is shooting 26.9% from the field with an eFG% of 0.327. He’s scoring 33.9 points per 48 minutes of clutch time. Last year in clutch situations 49% of his shots were jumpers and 49% were close shots (layups). This year 73% of his shots are jumpers and just 27% are coming from close range. He’s drawing fouls at about the same rate (13.6% last year vs 13.3% this year), but his FT% in clutch situations has dropped from 83.9% last year to 69.2% this year.
No matter how you look at it, Kyrie has not been the same clutch player this year. There are reasons2 to explain it all away. First of all, I think the mask is bothering Kyrie. He has been much, much less aggressive in attacking the basket with the mask. Furthermore, I think teams are paying much more attention to cutting off his driving lanes this year, which explains the staggering shift in shot selection. In other words, the league adjusted to Kyrie, now he has to adjust back.
Yet the question comes down to how much any of this matters. The Cavaliers are currently the 2nd worst team in the NBA. At this point, what is more valuable to the future of this franchise? Finding some progression, figuring out how to win some of these close games, and ending the season with confidence going into next year?
Or is it better to keep regressing, keep losing, and get another top 3 pick3 to add to the young core of this team? That’s really the tricky part. It’s such a fine line between losing well and just flat out losing. Losing with a purpose is a tricky thing to sustain because before you know, you can’t figure out how to stop losing. Winning and losing are both contagious.
At some point the Cavaliers have to start to turn the corner. You can’t keep losing over and over and over again and suddenly flip on a switch and start winning again4. And look, Kyrie Irving has been great this season. I hope the points about his clutch time performances aren’t misinterpreted into a point I’m not trying to make. In his 2nd NBA season he’s averaging 22.9 points per game with a PER of 20.7. I’m not worried about Kyrie Irving. I’m worried about this team losing a will to win, though.
The schedule in January remains tough. They have yet another week long west coast road trip. February will be the first month of the season the Cavaliers actually play more home games than road games. In theory, the Cavaliers will have an opportunity down the stretch this season to find something to build upon for next year. The first half of this season saw nothing but brutal road games, exhausting strings of back-to-backs, and crippling injuries.
All this losing is ok for right now. It’s not great, but it’s not the end of the world to finish in the bottom 5 of the NBA again. The Cavaliers just need to be careful. There’s a fine line, and eventually they need that 4th quarter light bulb to go off for them. The team needs to discover better execution habits and get a taste for winning these close games. It’s great to see the team competing in so many games. Now they just need to learn how to get over the hump.
Image Credit: David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images