For weeks, we've discussed the Cleveland Cavaliers' proverbial "switch."
Cleveland ended the regular season so poorly that the collective basketball conversation came to include the presumption that LeBron James' team was, at least to a degree, sandbagging the 82-game schedule. There was plenty of evidence to back that argument.
"Wait until the playoffs," I'm sure you heard. "That's when they'll start actually playing."
Still, there's a clear need for the Cavs to flip that proverbial switch— to kick it into a higher gear — after one game of the 2017 postseason. Cleveland barely snuck past the Pacers in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series Saturday.
History is not on Cleveland's side when it comes to their poor defense this season: Only two teams outside of the top 10 of defensive rating have won the NBA title since the ABA-NBA merger.
The Cavaliers weren't anywhere near the top 10 this year — they finished 22nd.
But then again, history is on their side, in a way: Those two teams that won the title with an outside-of-the-top-10 defensive rating were both defending champions who took most of the regular season off before "flipping the switch" in the postseason.
(Both the 2001 Lakers and 1995 Rockets had elite defensive ratings in their previous, title-winning season — the Cavaliers did not in 2016 — but the precedent still stands).
It creates quite a paradox — there are precedents working for and against the Cavs this postseason.
It all comes down to "The Switch."
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
"The Switch" is real
And it goes by the nickname of "Swish."
The Cavaliers might no longer have the ability to be a lock-down defensive team — the byproduct of being the team with the highest payroll in the NBA — but there's still at least a decent defensive team Cavs coach Ty Lue can put on the floor this postseason.
And with the offensive talent the Cavs have and the feebleness of the rest of the Eastern Conference, a decent defensive team should be more than enough to go to a third-straight NBA Finals.
But the linchpin of going from a bad to decent defense is J.R. Smith.
Smith injured his thumb in December and missed three months of the season, and during that time, the Cavaliers' defense — for more reasons than just Smith's absence — faltered.
But Smith can provide something that the Cavs are desperately missing right now — perimeter defense. (Especially now that Lue has decided that Iman Shumpert is unplayable — he was a DNP for Game 1.)
In last year's postseason, Smith held the players he was defending to 36.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc — a 2.3 percent decrease.
That might not seem like much, but it was certainly noticeable to the Cavs in their defensive scheme — which revolves around LeBron — last spring. It's not a coincidence that Klay Thompson, after beating the Thunder nearly singlehandedly in the Western Conference Finals, only shot 35 percent in the NBA Finals last year — he had Smith on him.
But we haven't seen that kind of tenacious defender in a while, and in Game 1 of the Cavs' first-round series, Smith allowed his marks to shoot 53 percent from behind the line.
It's one game — anyone can get hot, sure — but in a Cavs' defensive scheme that has become hyper-aggressive with sending help defense, Smith's inability to even prevent 3-point shots (more than half of his opponent's attempts were from behind the arc) is troublesome.
Smith has the ability to be a plus defender on the perimeter — Lue called him his team's best wing defender last month — and while the Cavs' scheme has changed (in my opinion, not for the better), it still needs a more engaged and active Smith to be successful.
So far since his return to the lineup 21 games ago, Cleveland has only received it sporadically.
Geoff BurkeGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
"The Switch" is not just for defense
Smith is a rhythm shooter — a player whose game is predicated on confidence.
Part of Smith's "charm" in New York was that he had irrational confidence. We still see that seep through on occasion in Cleveland, though he's significantly toned it down since joining up with LeBron.
The confidence carries over to both sides of the court for Smith, though — when J.R. is knocking down shots, he tends to play better defense. He's hardly alone in this distinction, but it should be noted.
It should also be noted that since Smith returned to the Cavs' lineup March 9, Cleveland is 8-0 when he shoots 50 percent from the field or better.
And when he shoots less than 50 percent, the Cavs are 2-11.
Bill StreicherBill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Cleveland can't do it without J.R.
The Cavs' success when J.R. is successful shouldn't be surprising. Again, a good offensive game usually begets a good defensive game from Smith, and either gives the Cavs a critical fourth threat.
While Cleveland isn't going to be able to put four threats like Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant on the court, anyone who wouldn't take a fully activated LeBron over any of those four great players is a fool.
And while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both serious defensive liabilities, they are reliable offensive players who are among the best at their positions at putting the ball in the basket. On a good day, they score more than they allow, but no one can trust that to always be the case.
The Cavs need another reliable two-way outlet, besides LeBron, and Smith is frankly the only player on the Cavs who can provide it.
Cleveland is a team full of specialists: Shumpert (if he plays) has become a defense-only wing. Tristan Thompson is an elite rebounder, but his offensive game is limited and now hampered by a jacked-up thumb. Kyle Korver is terrible on defense and a spot-shooter on offense. Richard Jefferson is too old to be a reliable threat on a nightly basis (sorry RJ). Channing Frye is from the same mold as Love. DeAndre Liggins — a defense-first guard — was waived before the postseason.
When you break down the roster, it's clear why the Cavs are a poor defensive team — they don't have enough defenders and are, in turn, counting on LeBron to lock down two players on every possession.
Smith won't be mistaken by anyone for Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson, but he can provide plus defense for a team — or, rather, a teammate, that desperately needs it.
If Smith can find his groove again (given his situation at home with his daughter, it's understandable as to why there might be difficulty doing this) particularly on the defensive end, the Cavs might not have to overcompensate for some of their poor defenders on the court as much. Perhaps, instead of running a wild series of double-teams and collapses — both of which can be broken with two or more passes — the Cavs can merely defend one-on-one.
If Cleveland is able to do that — even with some poor defenders on the court — you have to like the Cavs' chances.
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There's no time to delay
The Cavs need a big J.R. game stat. The swingman hasn't scored double-digit points since the Cavs' beat-down of the Celtics on April 5 (that's not a coincidence, by the way) and he hasn't scored 20 points in a game since Dec. 13.
But even if Smith doesn't have a good offensive game, Cleveland needs him to find his confidence so he can provide value on the defensive end.
The Cavs might be able to shoot their way to a first-, and maybe even a second-round win. Heck, they might shoot their way all the way to the Finals — again, the East doesn't appear that difficult to win this year — but Cleveland won't repeat as champions unless it starts playing significantly better defense, and the only way that transformation is going to happen— the only way for the team's switch to be flipped — is if Smith finds his 2016 form, on both ends of the court, once again.