The great thing about movies is you can generally count on them not to screw with you. Most of the time the hero doesn’t wind up smothered after a frontal lobotomy, remorseless cattle-gun wielding killers don’t roam free and the heroic last-second rescue isn’t a catatonic delusion deep in the bowels of Brazil
The simple reason for this is that people typically don’t plunk down a Hamilton or two to be reminded of how brutally disappointing life can be. There’s a half-century of Cleveland sports history for that.
This becomes an increasingly salient issue as Northeast Ohio moves closer to wish fulfillment. We understand; it’s hard to shake creeping paranoia. The feeling a Goliath Jordan is about to drop from the sky to squash these dreams on the brink of satisfaction, simply because that’s how Fate gets its sick thrills.
We mention this because the Cleveland Cavaliers won their tenth straight playoff game last night, beating the Toronto Raptors 108-89. It’s a near-historic run, just the type of thing to tempt the most skittish Cleveland sports fan out of their hole, firmly clutching the pepper spray lest that pesky shadow try something.
We’re here to sound the all-clear sign. Toronto has yet to win a single quarter in the first two games, a pretty ominous sign. For comparison, the Hawks won or tied 7 of their 16 quarters, and the Pistons won five. It’s pretty obvious they’re outclassed here.
The disparity in talent is actually becoming a knock on the Cavaliers. They can only play the schedule, but in “crushing it,” the consensus seems to be that the entire Eastern Conference is populated with aluminum cans ripe to be pucked. However unfair, like everything else in Northeast Ohio, it’s increasingly clear respect won’t be given….
The Best Defense is…
The biggest knock on the Cavaliers is that their defense hasn’t been that good, and it’s certainly their weak point. During the season, defensive coordinator Mike Longabardi made a comment to the effect that the team’s offense keyed the defense. This raised a few eyebrows and drew some consternation in the hothouse of Cleveland Twitter. But damn if it hasn’t proven true.
The Cavaliers have been so effective on offense that they’ve been able to largely keep opponents out of transition. Hard to run when you’re always taking the ball out of the net. The Cavs’ ability on the offensive boards has also kept teams on their heels.
In order to even out the Cavs 45-23 rebounding edge from the first game, Toronto Coach Dwayne Casey had everyone crashing the boards. Five Raptors had at least five boards, including backcourt members Cory Joseph, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Hitting the defensive boards like that tends to limit fastbreak opportunities (Toronto scored 2 points, the Cavaliers 8), as does the team’s better playoff ballhandling. After a somewhat uncharacteristic 16 turnovers (avg. 12 in playoffs) in Game 1, the Cavaliers only made 9 turnovers last night, further limiting the Raptors ability to get into transition and early offense.
The team’s been very good in the halfcourt, particularly at limiting opponents to midrange jump shots. The Cavaliers continue to have issues with rim protection. They’ve allowed 63% shooting within 5’ of the rim, and allowed the Raptors to shoot 62%. However the Cavaliers are also allowing nearly the least number of shots within 5’. It sorta goes back to the trade-off between Thompson and Mozgov.
By starting Thompson you give up rim protection but you can make your pick-and-roll and perimeter defense that much stronger. The Cavs have made it their plan since Lue took over to chase guys off the three-line, then sag off them into the lane. Make them take jumpers and get a “late contest.” Such defense is not aimed at blocking the shot so much as upsetting the shooter’s rhythm.
When Dennis Schroder matched up with the Cavs, he got straight to the rim and there wasn’t much they could do. He was too quick for their perimeter defense and the backline isn’t going to stop him at the rim. With Matthew Dellavedova leaving last night’s game with an ankle injury that weakness is amplified. Iman Shumpert will probably see a bump in minutes and last night we saw LeBron handling the ball more in Delly’s absence.
While Delly’s long-term health is crucial, in the short-term, the team may not miss a beat, given the way LeBron is playing. He had his first triple double of the post-season with 23 points (on efficient 7-13 shooting), 11 rebounds and 11 assists, on the night he passed Shaquille O’Neal for fourth on the NBA postseason scoring list.
His scoring is at its lowest postseason mark, a sign of how much help James has allowing him to focus on defense and facilitating. He’s playing the best defense we’ve seen since he returned, and his 11 assists last night came with just two turnovers. Indeed, James scored or assisted on 20 of the Cavs’ first 22 points.
The only blemish on the game was 9-17 shooting at the line, something he promised to rectify going forward. The last time James made such a promise (after November loss in Milwaukee when he was 6-12), he went 60-71 (84.5%) over the next ten games.
James’ supporting leads also turned in fine, efficient performances. Love was 5-8 from the field, only took two threes, and got to the line 9 times. Kyrie Irving had a game-high 26 with only 3 assists, as he was mostly tasked with creating offense.
Dying By the Things You Can Live With
After playing the Big Three more or less one-on-one in the first game, Casey made some adjustments to bring a little more help. Judging from Casey’s postgame comments, one of the things they were willing to give up were Kyrie’s midrange jumpers. Here’s where all that talk about how lame midrange jumpers are from a sports analytics standpoint kinda goes out the window.
While on paper, a midrange jump shot is a low percentage shot, and much preferable to a three or a high-percentage layup, they often seem indistinguishable from the latter, as easily as Irving cashes them. He made 7 of 11 of them, pretty much from anywhere he wanted.
“You’re always trying to make them take tough twos. I think they got going a little bit against us. LeBron, the post kickouts, we didn’t get our rotations crisp enough and on time enough, we didn’t have high hands out of the double teams. I though that got them going a little bit,” said Casey. “But again some things you have to live with. We want contested twos. We want to take away the dunks and the threes, but you have to make sure you make them work for those tough twos and try to make those as tough as possible.”
For the second game in a row the Cavaliers crushed the Raptors at the line and in the paint. They had 37 free throws (14 in the third quarter when they stretch the lead beyond the Raptors reach) after getting 33 the first night.
We’d be tempted to say the NBA got the message about LeBron’s fouls, but it really has to do with how much the Cavaliers are going downhill and getting into the lane. Without a shotblocker, there’s been little to stop the Cavs. Though they did only wind up 10-27 at the rim, they crushed Toronto 50-28 at points in the paint (which counts free throws from fouls in the paint).
Poor Toronto Coach Dwayne Casey’s cast in the role of a Flying Wallenda, trying to balance a tightrope stretched across a canyon that grows wider with each loss. It’d probably be easier if he could put down the two deck chairs, but he’s playing the Cavs (and we have to scale the difficulty appropriately).
“Some of it was gameplan,” said Casey explaining Game 1'sa issues during the pregame. “Some of the things we were trying to take away – and against a team like this you have to take multiple things away – we took away some of the things we wanted to take away, but we opened up something else. Those were the adjustments we had to make and clarify.”
For Lue it was just another brick in the wall, so to speak, before the next big step. The most interesting thing in the entire post-game presser was when he alluded to James’ lower offensive gear, and greater facilitation this year, especially during the playoffs.
“There are going to be games where he is going to have to take over,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “But now he understands the bigger picture. The more the team plays, the more the team performs, the easier it is for him and it’s easier for us. We know any given night he can go out and score 40 if he had to, but the way we’re trying to play, the style we’re playing, he understands if we’re getting everybody else involved and everyone is playing well and everyone has the confidence, when we get to the next step we’re trying to take, then every body will be okay and ready to play.”
The issue in a nutshell is that offensively the Cavaliers have turned into Jackie Chan: Whatever you throw at him, whatever you attempt to do to him – he’ll find a way to use it against you.
The Cavaliers got off to strong start and held a 22-14 lead when J.R. Smith sat down with his second foul with five minutes left in the first. Iman Shumpert came in for him and shortly thereafter Richard Jefferson came in for LeBron. Whether it was the new lineup on the floor, the absence of Smith or an unrelated breakdown, DeRozan had six points in a 9-0 run allowing the Raptors to retake the lead.
“DeRozan had another great first half,” said Lue. “But only having six points in the second half, we stayed true to our gameplan and we adjusted in the second half of going over the top of the screen… we’re just trying to keep them out of the paint and keep them off the free throw line.”
Much like the Raptors, the Cavaliers are begrudgingly willing to give the Raptors midrange jumpers, so long as they don’t foul Toronto. With only 18 Raptor free throws and 20 in Game 1, Lue’s pretty much succeeded, though DeRozan did get to the line six times after being shut out in the first game.
The Cavaliers closed out the period okay without James, and held a two-point lead at the end of the first with Irving’s twelve points leading the way, but Love and James chipping in eight apiece as well.
Casey adjusted to the LeBron-led second squad by sitting Lowry late in the first and bringing him back to start the second to balance out James. While Lowry didn’t do much, Terrance Ross did, scoring seven of Toronto’s 13 points during the first six minutes of the second before leaving with his third foul. (Casey acknowledged that hurt, especially given the Raptors’ issues finding a third threat behind Lowry and DeRozan.) Meanwhile, the Cavs only scored 12 during the LeBron-led reserves run.
It remained a close game until the four-minute mark when with the score tied at 46, the Cavaliers went on a 16-2 run to close the quarter. It was a flurry abetted by a number of beneficial calls, and staggered the Raptors such that they never recovered.
“We put them on the free throw line especially at the end of the second quarter, right before half we just marched them to the free throw line,” said Casey. “We have got to continue to play defense without fouling. They made some plays, made some tough shots, but we can’t allow our lack of offense go to the other end and lose our defensive energy – that’s what we continued to do. We make a game of it in the first half and then do some uncharacteristic things.”
According to Lue, there were a couple adjustments defensively as the Cavs held the Raptors to just 3-14 shooting during that stretch. Kyle Lowry also went back to the locker room to “decompress” for a few minutes during this stretch of the game – that’s a pro for you. D’ya think Kyrie’s in his head yet?
“We changed out defense and god a little bit more physical. We were able to get out in transition and get some easy buckets. That [16-2 run] was a big spark to our win,” Lue said. “Guys came in – RJ came in gave us a great lift. Shumpert came in defensively, Delly before he got hurt and LeBron and Channing were great. So that second unit came in and gave us a great burst to end the first half.”
Don’t be fooled. The Big Three did much of the heavy lifting. They scored 13 of the 16 points, eight of them coming at the line, as the trio went 4-5 from the field. Of course it never hurts when you’re throwing in stuff like this, on this tough feed to Love from LeBron.
The Raptors never really recovered from that staggering blow. The Cavs came out with good defensive intensity in the second half, and the Raptors had no answer. They were 7-20 from the field in the quarter. The Cavs were only 7-17, but went to the line another 14 times, making nine of them.
While one might be tempted to suggest the free throw disparity was a big factor in the Raptors loss, it would be mistaken. The Cavaliers looked better than the Raptors all night long. Toronto can stay with the Cavaliers for stretches, but have not shown the ability to play flawlessly enough for 48 minutes (or a close approximation, which is necessary to make up for the steep difference in talent.
Weighing the Competition
Given how handily the Cavaliers have beaten their Eastern Conference foes there’s a lot of resistance to the idea the Cavs are really that good. If they were, presumably, they would’ve won 73 games or something. Never mind that they had injuries much of the season, or the relative unimportance of the regular season. What incentive is there for LeBron to push beyond a economical speed that will leave plenty of gas for the postseason?
There has been a persistent prejudice against the East, much of it earned in prior years. The East is on the upswing and the West on the decline, outside the three top teams. It’s always tricky comparing the two conferences both because of their infrequent contact and the fact that these games are typically part of a long road trip.
Nonetheless it’s interesting to not the Cavs’ three playoff opponents swept the Trailblazers, split with the Thunder and won two out of six against the Spurs and Warriors.
So far this postseason the Cavaliers have played at a historic offensive pace that’s six-and-a-half points better than their offensive efficiency after the all-star break. (This seems the best way to evaluate the Lue’s regime, allowing 10 games or so for him to establish his plan.) This is because they’re shooting very well – 56.2% vs. 53.6% in eFG.
The defense has been a smidge better. They’re drawing a few more fouls and committing less, while also cutting their turnovers by 1.7 per game. When you look at opponent shooting you can see what we alluded to earlier: the team is allowing a high FG% in close, but not very many shots, while also limiting the three-point corner shot, 3-points shooting teams' favorite. (They are not doing so well with 3s from above the break, which could be something to watch for.)
We also took a look at DFG%. LeBron is really carrying the day, playing as well as anyone in the league defensively, while the rest of the starters are below average. Only slightly below average, mostly. J.R. Smith has actually been terrible contesting shots according to this, allowing 9% high FG% to the guys he’s guarding. It might be true, while he could still be doing a decent job of denying them the ball.
It’s funny the Cavaliers are having trouble getting credit. They were the preseason favorite both of the last two years. We know what happened last year and this year they didn’t round into form until that tail end of the season. That just means they’re peaking at the right time.
The offense has turned into what it always promised, in part due to the key addition of Channing Frye. He allows Lue to surround James with five shooters. Smith, Frye and Irving are three of the league’s deadliest, most unconscious three shooters, and sometimes Love can be that guy too.
The Banana Republic model can also post-up and may be the team’s second best passer. He’s certainly the best guy at feeding LeBron in the post (though Delly gets credit for his great roll feeds).
In James and Irving the team has two of the league’s best penetrators. Offensively, they’re a Swiss army knife of possibilities.
They’re not a great defensive team, but they do enough things on offense to limit the exposure of their worst feature, transition D. The only real remaining question is whether that D is good enough to stop the best the West has to offer. Meanwhile those teams ought to be wondering if they’re up to the nuclear threat posed by the Cavs offense.
We’ll be in Toronto for Game 3 on Saturday. Look for another article tomorrow on how training and conditioning has changed and how teams maximize their players’ health. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and snark from the Air Canada Center on Saturday night, follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne
, and read our postgame analysis Sunday morning.