The Eastern Conference Finals have been one of the strangest playoff series in recent memory. Never have two teams looked so different. What's going on?
Confidence is a funny thing. It influences nearly everything we do - from asking someone out on a date to answering a question in school. In sports, confidence is brought up a lot. We talk about how a guy who has taken 50,000 free throws in his life can lose confidence late in a game and miss two in a row. We talk about how Kyle Lowry lost his confidence early in these playoffs and couldn't make a shot to save his life. We talk about Kevin Love and all that Kevin Love entails. But can it really just be confidence that's making the difference? Is there an advanced statistic that can prove/disprove confidence in the same way that Bill Barnwell tries to disprove momentum in football?
Unfortunately, I can't answer that question in this article. What I can do is talk about the insane difference between games in this series where home-court advantage appears to be worth about 35 points.
The Cavaliers have been so completely dominant at home against Toronto that they feel invincible - their confidence is clearly through the roof. It should be. Game 5 was a demolition. So was game 1 and most of game 2. The Cavs genuinely appear to feed off of their home crowd: They fight for rebounds, they power through screens, they get to their spots on the floor, they stick to a defensive principal, and they certainly seem to be more aggressive. When playing in Toronto, the script flips and the Raptors do all those things while the Cavaliers look confused. How many times did we see LeBron and co. lose a guy on defense, give up an easy basket, and then look around with hands out and shoulders shrugged as if to say "whose guy was that?" Lots, that's how many.
I have two examples of last night's clearly improved effort and execution. One is below, the other I will not be able to find video of. Below, JR Smith brilliantly times his help-defense to attack Lowry at the tail end of the shot clock. Smith drifts over and destroys what was actually shaping up to be a pretty good shot for Lowry. He's a great offensive player and created enough space to get a decent shot over Irving (whose defense improved again last night, I thought).
The gamble only worked because Smith played the end of the shot clock beautifully, knowing that there wasn't enough time to get the pass to Carroll + have Carroll get a shot up before time expired. Theoretically, even if a pass had gotten to Carroll, Tristan would've jumped over to challenge the shot as the 24 seconds ran out.
The second play will have to be relayed from memory, which is fine because I took notes. This happened with 9:30 to play in the 2nd. My actual notes read "I just paused the game because of Channing Frye's help defense." The Raptors came down on a semi-break that left Delly on Patrick Patterson. Frye hovered in the paint as the Raps pulled the ball out for a moment. Once he saw the offense was resetting, Frye was able to switch from his guy in the corner (this was only possible because he's tall, long-armed, and quick enough to jump out of a skip pass went directly to the corner) and back onto Patterson who moved through the paint. Frye then bothered a potential passing lane, followed Patterson out of the key, and jumped back in at the last second to block a Cory Joseph shot from 4 feet out. It was about as smooth of big-man switching/helping as you could hope for, especially from a guy who has only been in Cleveland for a few months.
But back to the overall principal of confidence. Go to nba.com or espn.com and watch the highlights. Take a look at how rarely the Cavaliers pulled the ball back out to reset the offense and slow down - it was notably less common than the road games when the Cavs seemed tentative. It felt as though Cleveland was just moving faster and passing more. They did pass more times (287) than in any other game in the series (266 in the first two games), but it's hard to know when those passes came. Regardless, the impression was just that there was an air of confidence in the Cavaliers locker room and it spilled onto the floor.
It also helps when you have guys who can combine to do this.