Defensive Improvement Has The Cavs’ Title Defense Back On Track
The Cavaliers completed their inevitable sweep over the Raptors on Sunday, a series that was the perfect background music for cleaning up your apartment or doing the dishes. Cleveland won for the same reasons they’ve swept the first two rounds of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons—LeBron James being LeBron James, and a barrage of three-point shooting. A new wrinkle to the Cavs’ success in Round 2, however, was a surprisingly stingy defense.
Cleveland entered the playoffs allowing everyone to score on them. The Cavs had a bottom-two defense after the All-Star break, and the Pacers scored at will on James and Co. in the first-round. But in the most promising sign yet that we may have a competitive Finals, Cleveland tightened up against Toronto. The Cavaliers’ defensive rating in Round 2 was 100.9, trailing only the Warriors in defensive efficiency since the start of the conference semifinals. (For reference, the Spurs finished first in the NBA with a 100.9 defensive rating in the regular season.)
The Cavs finished the regular season with a defensive rating of 108.0, which was bad enough for 22nd in the league, tied with the woeful Brooklyn Nets. Shutting down Toronto should not have been such an easy task, particularly considering the Raptors entered the playoffs with the sixth-best offense in the NBA, higher than luminaries such as the Spurs, Celtics and Wizards.
Of course, the question now is whether or not the Cavs can continue this defensive success in later rounds, and that’s when the caveats start rolling in. First of all, four games is not exactly a surefire sample size for predicting the future. And while the Raptors played great on offense for much of the season, their playoff struggles are nothing new. The Cavs took advantage of DeMar DeRozan’s reliance on the midrange game to squeeze Toronto into tight spaces, and Dwane Casey took a little too long to adjust to the pace of the series with his lineup combinations. The Raptors losing Kyle Lowry midway through the series also played in Cleveland’s favor, though Lowry was going through his own yearly playoff struggles.
There were other positive signs as well. The Cavs’ communication looked a lot better in Round 2, at least in the sense that there was a lot less finger pointing after every made basket. And James looked much more engaged on the defensive end, especially when he was called upon to shut down DeRozan any time a game grew close.
So, will Cleveland’s defensive improvement carry over through the rest of the playoffs? The teams the Cavs will face in successive rounds should be a little more sophisticated in their attacks than the Raptors, which means a sweep likely won’t come as easy in the conference finals. But after months of playing defense like a young child in 2K, even a four-game stretch of elite D is an encouraging sign for Cleveland. Looking ahead to a potential showdown with the Warriors, if the Cavs can slow down Golden State even a little bit, their shooting could keep things very interesting.
With LeBron having one of his best postseason runs ever—34.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game with a 66.3% true-shooting percentage—if Cleveland’s defensive improvement is here to stay, the Cavs are suddenly much scarier than when the playoffs started.