Lloyd: Cavs need Sam Merill on the floor, even if defensive issues arise

3 weeks ago
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As Cleveland Cavaliers players and staff walked off the floor at Oracle Arena following Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Finals, I bumped into then-general manager David Griffin. The Cavs had just forced 20 turnovers, shot 45 percent and scored 113 points — and lost to the Golden State Warriors by 19.

“You have to play a perfect game to beat them,” I said.

He paused for a second and nodded.

The Cavs had fallen into an 0-2 hole that night. They lost the series in five games.

As good as they are, these Boston Celtics aren’t those 2017 Kevin Durant-led Warriors. However, these Cavs certainly aren’t the 2017 Cleveland version, either. As I watched Game 1 of this Eastern Conference semifinal Tuesday, it took me back to that brief conversation seven years ago. These Cavaliers will have to play their absolute best basketball just to compete with the Celtics in this series, which continues Thursday.

I thought the Cavs played better Tuesday than they did for most of the series against the Orlando Magic. They still lost Game 1 by 25 points. Jayson Tatum, Boston’s best player, struggled through an off shooting night, and the Celtics didn’t even notice.

The Cavs have shot so poorly from 3 in these playoffs that I contend they should attack the paint early in these games and try to get easy baskets and get to the free-throw line. This may sound counterintuitive given Boston’s 3-point barrage throughout this postseason. But Boston doesn’t really have shot blockers — so create easy looks, particularly on the road. Then worry about the 3-point line as guys get into a rhythm and the game evolves. Donovan Mitchell acknowledged to me after Game 7 against the Magic that was exactly his mindset. He took one early 3, missed and spent the rest of the quarter getting to the paint. This is a much different series, but easy 2s are still more productive than missed 3s.

It’s nonetheless evident that, eventually ,the Cavs are going to have to make a barrage of 3-pointers at some point to compete in this series. The Miami Heat launched 43 3-pointers against Boston in their lone first-round victory. They made 23 of them. The problem is the Cavs are the second-worst 3-point shooting team (by percentage) in these playoffs. They’re missing 22 a night.

Four of the bottom six teams in 3-point percentage were eliminated in the first round. The two that remain are the Cavs and the Denver Nuggets, who are buried in an 0-2 hole heading to Minnesota.

If the Cavs have any chance at matching Boston shot for shot, they probably need their best 3-point shooters on the floor regardless of what deficiency it creates on the defensive end. I wasn’t sure how well Sam Merrill fit against the Magic, but he fits in this series against Boston when every 3 is critical to survival. Merrill played 17 minutes against the Celtics in Game 1 and didn’t make a shot. It’s unfortunate but not enough reason to go away from him despite the fact he was a minus-14.

The Cavs need Merrill, but it’s not that simple. The Cavs need Merrill on the floor alongside Mitchell.

Certain players command so much attention and gravitational pull on a court that it makes things easier for those around them. That’s exactly what Mitchell does for Merrill. The numbers prove it.

The Cavs had a net rating of 9.4 when Merrill and Mitchell shared the floor during the regular season. When Merrill was paired with Darius Garland, that net rating fell to minus-2.3. (Those statistics included 17 minutes in which the trio played together.) That’s nearly a 12-point swing per 100 possessions. Those trends have remained steady in the small sample size of the playoffs, with the Cavs’ offense, in particular, benefiting from the Mitchell-Merill pairing compared to the Mitchell-Garland pairing.

If Merrill is going to play — and he needs to in a series in which the Cavs need every 3 they can create — his minutes should come alongside Mitchell whenever possible.

The Cavs are reticent to play Merrill, Mitchell and Garland together because it leaves the Cavs too small and vulnerable defensively. With J.B. Bickerstaff trying to play Garland and Mitchell together more during the postseason, it has crimped Merrill’s availability.

Maybe this series gets to the point Bickerstaff breaks the glass and plays all three. It might be a death knell defensively, but the Cavs are likely to face pressure points in this series when they have to get as much shooting on the floor as possible. Inevitably, there will be a moment when it’s time to get weird.

For all of his problems this season, Garland has been this team’s best 3-point shooter this postseason. Merrill is second. Mitchell has been terrible from 3, but taking him off the floor is non-negotiable.

It leaves Bickerstaff and the Cavs in the difficult position of seeking ways to get Merrill more involved. His two 3-pointers in the second quarter of Game 7 against Orlando very well may have saved their season. That’s the upside he provides.

In fairness, Merrill went 0-for-4 from 3 in Game 1 at Boston, and all of those shots came while playing alongside Mitchell. The Merrill-Mitchell pairing lasted six minutes, with a neutral plus-minus. Merrill played nine minutes alongside Garland in Game 1 and generated a minus-15. They shot 1 of 11 together.

It was an off night for Merrill, which happens with young/inexperienced players in pressure situations like the playoffs, particularly on the road. It might be why Bickerstaff has been slow to trust Merrill at times the last few weeks. But against the team averaging the most 3s of anyone this postseason, the Cavs have little choice.

Even though the reality is it still might not be enough.…Read more by Jason Lloyd

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