(Cover photo credit to Keith Allison)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have morphed into a powerhouse pick-your-poison team during these playoffs. Detroit and Atlanta dared Cleveland to beat them with the three and it backfired. Toronto started the series by daring Cleveland to beat them inside, which also backfired. What now?
First, the Cavaliers have the challenge of staying hungry. So far this hasn't been an issue. I don't know what Ty Lue is doing during practice to keep these guys sharp, but after two turnovers in the first three possessions, the Cavs basically flipped the switch and cruised. The team will somehow have to fight through the malaise of destroying teams and be ready for when Toronto hits back, which will happen at some point. The Raptors aren't going to go quietly, and the league has seen some bizarre game 1 scores that were not indicative of the series as a whole. Cleveland can't be satisfied yet. They have to treat game 1 like it was an anomaly.
Second, the Cavaliers have to continue to move the ball the way they did in game 1. While it wasn't an impressive number of assists (22 on 41 made shots), the reason was that guys kept moving and passing, which opened up driving lanes because Toronto committed to stopping the three. The Raptors would wait in the corner, glued to Kevin Love, which allowed guys like Shump to fly in for thunder-dunks. No assist shows up in the scorebook, but Kevin Love deserves credit for that.
Here, to a lesser extent, is the same thing happening with Irving. Terrence Ross is the closest 2nd defender, and he's not leaving JR Smith for long enough to put up more than a token challenge on Kyrie. Love was speeding to the corner, where Patrick Patterson was fighting through a JR screen. Had Ross been willing to step in sooner, Irving would've fired the pass to Love, Patterson would've scrambled to cover, and Love would have either taken the shot or flipped it a wide open JR on the wing. Beautiful basketball.
Third, the bench has to continue their onslaught. It's still a next-man-up situation without anyone going down. I held my breath bigtime when Shumpert appeared to get hurt and was stunned when he was still on the floor after the timeout. That was an ugly fall. However, the second unit has been the group that has consistently run the ball all over the floor. Delly doesn't have the skill-set to play isoball, so he runs around screens and passes the ball all over the court. Coupling that constant movement with the aforementioned refusal to leave shooters open in the corners (in this case, RJ is in one and LeBron is on the wing nearest Delly, with Shump in the other corner) means the Cavs had lanes to get inside like this.
It was really just beautiful basketball all around. The Cavs weren't slaves to their own success from beyond the arc and were able to exploit Toronto's weaknesses. It would have made a difference if Valanciunas were available, but the likely difference is that Love and Frye would have had more open threes when Cleveland went small. Speaking of which, Love shot 50% inside the arc for the first time this playoffs. He is now 6-34 inside the arc. That is not a typo. Fingers crossed that this is him turning a corner.
The team as a whole shot 34-54 from 2pt after their abysmal 2nd round interior shooting. In game 4 against Atlanta the Cavs were 18-51 on twos. It's strange, but perhaps they've evened things out a bit.
Toronto beat the Cavs in Toronto during the regular season, so this series is not over after one game. The Cavaliers need to stay alert and prepare for each game the way they did for game 1, when they clearly knew how to exploit Toronto's "run them off the arc" strategy. The defense will have a little bit of a test if Lowry can get hot, but for now the Cavs just have too much firepower.
Who can stop this team when they play like this?