With the Cavs finally suffering a playoff defeat, did it teach us anything about what the rest of the series holds? Or was the loss an anomaly?
The Cavaliers played their worst game of the postseason on Saturday, losing by 15 to the Raptors. They didn't move the ball, didn't make shots, didn't communicate on defense, and didn't deserve to win game 3. I'm not in the business of overreacting to a loss, so let's take a look at what things can be learned from the smacking that Toronto handed down.
1) Paint scoring really is the key. Jeff Van Gundy pointed out during the game that when the shots are falling from deep, we'll say that the Cavaliers are getting great looks. When the threes don't fall, we'll say they're forcing shots. Well, Saturday saw the Cavs forcing shots. No one could score inside - I thought the number of foul calls was a bit low, but that's just me - and an early deficit inspired Cleveland to start trying to score from the outside. The only problem was that nobody except JR Smith could make a shot from out there.
The Kevin Love hate/love thing is nothing new, but we at least have to consider what in the world is going on with him. He was 4-6 from 2pt in game 2 and 2-4 from there in game 1. He was 6-39 from inside the 3-point line in the previous 5 games and was 0-5 again Saturday. During the regular season he was the team's most reliable inside scorer and converted at a higher rate inside than LeBron. You would think that this means he's due to turn it around, but right now he simply cannot make anything. He's had 1-on-1s on the block with tiny guys, big guys, slow guys - it doesn't matter who - and he has been unable to get it done. He's said for a long time that he prefers to get his early shots from inside to help him get going on offense and find his outside shooting range, but, and I hate to bring bad news, that's not up to Kevin Love to decide. He needs to either be more assertive on the block and force himself into foul shots/layups or take the shots he's given and actually make them.
According to nba.com/stats, Love was 1-7 on uncontested shots in game 3.
He's shooting about 31% from 2pt in the playoffs (he was 6-7 in there during a game against Detroit, too). Giving credit where it's due, he's also shooting 43% from 3pt in the playoffs. If he wasn't doing that, he'd be run out of town. As a result, Love didn't see the floor in the 4th quarter of game 3. If Love isn't scoring inside, who is? Sure, Irving and James get inside on drives, but with Kyrie having a bad game, this problem snowballed in a huge way.
I was actually kind of glad to see Lue leave him on the bench in the 4th because if he's not shooting well, he's not bringing much to the table. It also means he's not afraid to go that route, which we saw regularly when David Blatt was the coach. Which brings me to my next point.
2) The Cavs haven't come up with anything new. It was a big deal when the Cavs exploded against Atlanta with that Channing Frye lineup and ran away with a game, but other than that, there aren't any new tricks for this round. Perhaps that was the best adjustment/option, perhaps they're saving something for the Finals (assuming they make it), or perhaps they're just slower to adjust than media has been claiming. Whatever the case, in game 3 the Cavaliers had no answers.
The Raptors were simply playing a little better defensively and the Cavs were visibly slower on offense. The game-plan was the same as game 1 - beat a man off the dribble and either get your layup or kick it out. The problem was that the lanes weren't there and Biyombo was waiting inside. Someone must've been open, but the team wasn't always moving in unison to find the open spaces - too many guys were standing and waiting for passes.
You can see above that James drives and virtually nobody reacts on offense. This is something that James has been particularly good at doing - cutting into the lane on an Irving drive is usually his thing - but the other have done well with too. Kevin Love has been good about floating into open space, and had he scooted out onto the wing instead of holding firm in the corner (ditto for JR on the other side) it's simple to think James would have found them. That's what he does, after all.
3) Cleveland slowed down. In the clip below, you'll see that the Cavs, who had been a blur of movement, allow the Raptors to reset on defense. In previous games, the Cavs had been making backdoor cuts on those reset-moments and getting easy layups. Not in game 3.
Each time they pull the ball out in that clip, they stop and let Toronto reset on defense, making the ensuing drive harder. How many times did we see LeBron pull the ball back and take 5 seconds to decide his next move? Too many. Granted, James played the best game of any Cavalier in game 3, but it wasn't enough.
4) The eye test can be wrong. I checked nba.com's advanced tracking stats, fully expecting to see that the Cavaliers passed the ball a lot less in game 3 and I was dead wrong. The Cavs made 266 passes in game 3 after making 266 in game two and 274 in game one. That is remarkable consistency. The eye test still showed that Cleveland wasn't making many good passes though. There were several passes from the top to the wing, then back to the top, before someone drove inside 1-on-1. It was just ugly basketball, and the eye test is the determining factor there.
The solution to most of these problems is to just keep moving. Whether it's shooters drifting into open space, wing players cutting to the basket on a drive, or screeners bumping into guys away from the ball, the Cavs moved much less on offense than in previous games. They actually moved more on defense, but that was largely because they were chasing guys around the floor.
Toronto had been daring the Cavs to beat them a certain way each game, and this time the challenge was "can you beat us with toughness/intensity?" and the answer was a resounding no.
I expect things to be a bit more competitive on Monday night.