MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Larry Nance Jr. said it was a point of personal pride for him this year when he was able to help the Los Angeles Lakers crack the top 10 in defensive field goal percentage allowed after being a cellar dweller in that category the past couple of seasons.
And so, what went through his mind when he walked into his new home locker room at Quicken Loans Arena for the first time Thursday and saw the can’t-miss placard hanging by the entrance showing he was joining a Cleveland Cavaliers team that ranks 27th in the league in that very same statistic?
Considering how deplorable the Cavs had been on D for much of the season, it sounded downright audacious when, earlier this week, coach Tyronn Lue declared his new group’s identity would be based on its defensive prowess.
Then again, it’s taken only four games together to show the type of impact that Nance and George Hill, in particular, can have on the Cavs playing the minutes that once went to the likes of Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and Jae Crowder.
“It helps out because those guys are so individually talented defensively,” said LeBron James, whose 18-point, 14-rebound, 11-assist triple-double was overshadowed by the Cavs’ team performance. “Obviously, G-Hill’s hands, Larry’s length and athleticism allows us to kind of keep everything at bay. Our league is all pick-and-roll. So when you’ve got a point guard and a center that can play 2-on-2 and the other three can kind of stay at bay [on their man], it helps out everybody.”
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Grizzlies shot just 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) when Hill was the primary defender and 6-for-16 (37.5 percent) when Nance was the primary defender.
And they both bring a signature defensive skill to the table. For Hill, it’s arms that bring to mind the old Phil Jackson story about how he could sit in the back seat of a car and reach out and open both front doors, allowing him to disrupt passing lanes and intercept transition passes that the opponent incorrectly assumes they can throw over him.
“He has a 7-foot wingspan, so trying to throw the ball over his head in transition, he’s always going to be able to get to those,” Lue said. “It’s big for us turning our defense into offense.”
Hill had one such open-court steal against Memphis. As a team, the Cavs tied a season high with 13 steals and scored a season-high 35 points off the Grizzlies’ 23 turnovers. That was the most turnovers forced this season by Cleveland’s defense.
For Nance, it’s an ability to clog the lane and shield the basket by using his 44-inch vertical on top of his already imposing 6-foot-9, 230-pound frame.
“My first year, I played with Roy Hibbert,” Nance said. “So, ‘The Godfather of Verticality’ ... ‘The Hibbert Rule.’ So, he showed me that a little bit.”
Lue said Nance’s presence reminds him of former Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov's effectiveness inside. But Mozgov, mind you, is 4 inches taller than Nance.
“With his vertical at the rim, a lot of guys can’t even see the rim,” Lue said. “It’s huge for us.”
The Cavs also blocked a season-high nine shots (Hill had three, Nance had two) and held the Grizzlies to 42.9 percent in the paint (18-for-42), accounting for the lowest paint field goal percentage that the Cavs have allowed in a game this season.
“That’s how I got on the floor in the first place as a rookie -- my defense,” Nance said. “It’s hard to keep somebody off the court when they can play some defense.”
Nance went on to say he “loves” playing defense. Hill loved what the Cavs’ defense did for their offense, as he had his best game by far on that end since the trade, scoring 18 points on 5-for-11 shooting after totaling 25 points on 8-for-25 shooting his first three games with Cleveland.
“I feel like tonight in the second half, no matter if a guy was beat, another guy was there to help out and the guy who helped out, there was another one making a rotation,” Hill said. “So I feel like we just gave that extra effort all night long and it got some easy stops. And like I said, [it] got us going on the offensive end with some easy buckets.”
It won’t always be this easy. And even in the first quarter, it wasn’t, as the Grizzlies -- who came into the game 20 games under .500 -- scored 27 points and shot a scorching 57.1 percent from the field. Memphis led by as many as 13 points in the opening quarter.
But the air has been lifted, the energy has shifted and the Cavs -- who were 10th in defensive efficiency in their 2015-16 championship season -- are starting to get stops with regularity once again.
“We want to be as good as we can be,” James said. “I think right now we’re really paying attention to detail and we’re executing the game plan. And that’s it. It’s not two weeks ago, or one week ago, or three months (that the Cavs weren’t as capable). Right now we’re just trying to pay attention to detail. ... It was a really good step.”
Fueled by really good stops.