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Cleveland Cavaliers striving to become ‘pass-first offense,’ find blueprint in win

CLEVELAND, Ohio — After receiving a pass from Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton quickly attacked baseline and looked to have a contested but makable layup attempt if he wanted. Instead, Sexton hung in the air before flipping the ball to Kyle Korver who was stationed in the left corner. Korver had a chance to trigger a 3-pointer with a Hawks defender closing in. For him, it would’ve been a good look, one he typically makes. But the sharpshooter opted to swing the ball to Rodney Hood who then passed it over to Clarkson on the right wing. Bucket.

That possession, which came at the 9:37 mark of the fourth quarter, encapsulates what the Cleveland Cavaliers want to become on offense, what they have to become to survive.

“It was like, “What? Finally,'” Larry Nance Jr. said with a huge smile on his face.

In the first six games, the Cavaliers were being selfish. That’s the word Nance and others frequently used. Instead of hunting great shots, the Cavs were settling, taking the first decent look that came their way. Rather than snapping the ball around, the Cavs were dribbling into jumpers.

It was easier. Less exhausting. Also much less efficient.

But on Tuesday night, a game in which everything coalesced during a 22-point rout against the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland’s desired identity finally came through.

“Pass-first offense,” veteran George Hill said when asked what the Cavaliers need to look like, especially without All-Star Kevin Love for the foreseeable future because of a painful toe injury that has had him in a walking boot the last few days.

“I thought we played a whole lot more unselfish tonight,” said Nance, who was one of seven players with at least three assists. “Guys were starting to hit the open man and we had a few possessions of like three or four extra passes and that’s a first. Hopefully we can learn from that and carry it over.”

None of this means all of Cleveland’s problems are fixed. The Cavs will get a much stiffer test on Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets, the league’s third-ranked defense. But it showed an understanding, more of an attention to detail. 

Without LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, brilliant individual scorers who shredded defenses on their own in the past, the Cavs have to rely on the system.

Love being sidelined means Cleveland doesn’t have the luxury anymore of posting inside — an offensive staple in the first few games.

It was only the Hawks, who are giving up 107.2 points per 100 possessions and have just two wins on the season. But the Cavs had 23 assists on 45 made shots. It matched their second-highest total. They scored a season-best 136 points and had seven players in double figures. They moved without the ball and made sharp cuts to the rim. 

Hours after learning that Love would be shut down for “weeks,” Cleveland needed someone to carry more of the offensive load. On Tuesday, that was Hood.

The passive-by-nature swingman attacked the basket early and then started hitting from the outside. He poured in 26 points — his most in a Cavaliers uniform — on 9-of-13 from the field.

“I think I kind of felt it a little bit getting back to myself last game, got in a little bit of a rhythm last game and it carried over to this game,” Hood said. “Just got a lot of work in and just grinded. I knew I could continue to get better and I knew a game like this was bound to happen, I just stayed with it.”

There was plenty for the Cavaliers to celebrate on Tuesday night. But nothing gave the team more joy than that Clarkson 3-pointer.

It wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill bomb that put the Cavaliers ahead by 13 points once more. The possession started with Clarkson and ended with him — going through three other players in five seconds beforehand.

That’s their blueprint for offensive success.  

“That was beautiful basketball,” Acting coach Larry Drew said. “I told our guys, ‘That’s who we are.'”

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