The Cleveland Cavaliers are in control of their Eastern Conference finals matchup with the Boston Celtics, as they have a 3-1 lead, but that control doesn't stack up with the level of dominance the Cavs were exuding a week ago.
In Games 1 and 2 of the series, Cleveland blitzed Boston, winning both games in Massachusetts by an average margin of 28.5 points — a number that doesn't properly convey how dominant Cleveland was.
Last Friday, it was clear: The Cavs were on their way to a 12-0 playoff record and a third date with the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The latter is going to happen — Cavs-Dubs III will tip off in Oakland on June 1, this Celtics' team isn't going to win the next three games — but that perfect record is, obviously, no more.
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There are several reasons the Celtics were able to win Game 3 in Cleveland on Sunday night — the obvious one being that LeBron James had an off night — but the biggest one might be that Boston started moving the ball.
Without ball-dominant guard Isaiah Thomas on the court, the Celtics had no choice but to whip the ball around the court in order to score.
And in the process of moving the ball with a renewed enthusiasm, the Celtics exposed the truth of the Cavs' postseason: Cleveland's much-maligned defense hasn't improved, it's just faced poor teams.
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From the start of Game 3, for six-plus quarters, the Celtics' ball movement had the Cavaliers' defense spun.
Simple plays, like the one above, were adventures.
In the first half of Wednesday's Game 4, the Celtics missed a number of wide-open opportunities, created because of lazy, disorganized or downright bad Cleveland defense.
Over the last two games, the Celtics have averaged 45 open or wide-open shots — more than 52 percent of Boston's total shots.
The Cavaliers' defense made the starless, poor-shooting Celtics look like the NBA's preeminent floor-spacing team, the Rockets, who averaged 42 open (closest defender 4 to 6 feet away on release) or wide-open (defender 6 or more feet away) shots in the regular season.
It's an absurd number, and again, it's not as if Boston was doing anything exotic offensively — the Cavs were bewitched by simple off-ball picks and basic high pick-and-rolls with action.
So why didn't Boston, which had a 10-point lead at halftime, win Game 4?
First, it didn't make enough shots — Marcus Smart wasn't going to knock down seven 3-pointers again Tuesday — and second, it stopped moving the ball in the second half, instead opting to go to a post-up offense that ate up shot clock. [Above]
The Celtics, effectively, went into a prevent defense on offense. That, paired with poor defensive play against the best player in the world and one of the greatest isolation players to ever live (Kyrie Irving), did Boston in.
But the tape doesn't lie — Boston was able to carve up Cleveland's defense when it wanted.
And if they were able to do that what will the Warriors do to Cleveland?
Cleveland's defense has been discussed in quizzical terms for months now. It was bad — really bad — in the regular season, but there was a benefit of the doubt (fairly) given to the Cavs. After all, LeBron effectively went through the motions for the second half of the 82-game schedule (it's now obvious he was at least in part saving himself for the postseason), so when he started trying harder the Cavs' defense would follow suit.
In the first two rounds and first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, that thought held up. The Cavs' defense wasn't great against the Pacers, but it showed signs of improvement, then it clamped down on the Raptors and Celtics for six games.
But it takes two to tango, and as the last two games have shown, both Toronto and the Thomas-led Celtics were too isolation heavy to expose Cleveland's defensive deficiencies.
A defense doesn't have to move when the ball doesn't.
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There is something to be said for James perhaps being under the weather in the last two games, but that doesn't excuse the Celtics' main target — Kevin Love — for his poor defensive play.
The Celtics, when they were at their ball-moving best on Sunday and Tuesday, were effectively running a five-out offense with plenty of drives and kicks, off-ball action and spacing. The Cavs have not been playing Channing Frye because of his defensive deficiencies against such floor-spreading schemes, but against that style, Love has been suspect on that end of the court over the last two games and Tristan Thompson and Kyrie Irving haven't been much better on the perimeter.
You know who loves to set off-ball screens and play out on the perimeter?
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As Chris Herring pointed out in his excellent FiveThirtyEight article, the Warriors set five more off-ball picks per game than any other team in the NBA this season, and few teams space the floor better than Golden State.
And when the Warriors get open shots, like the Cavs have given the Al Horford- and Avery Bradley-led Celtics, they are the most lethal team in the NBA — nearly half of Golden State's shots in the regular season were open or wide-open and it had an effective field-goal percentage better than .600 on those attempts, the best mark in the NBA by a strong margin.
The next-closest team was Cleveland.
Last year, the Cavs shot their way to a title. It's clear that if they're to repeat, they're going to have to do that again.