The Cavaliers woke up in the second half of Game 4, retaking control of the Eastern Conference Finals. What can we expect from Game 5 and what have we learned so far?
There's a lot to talk about.
First of all, the NBA playoffs, even if they have been going exactly how everyone expected, are awesome. Yes, I'm jaded because I've lived in Cleveland for most of my life and some of my earliest NBA memories were sing-songy roll calls of "Chris Mills and Bobby Phills!" (Bonus points for when Tyrone Hill joined the other two on the floor. That was special) but this year has been more fun than the blowouts suggest.
Think about what we've seen so far across the league: Westbrook, Harden, Utah, Blake's toe, Memphis showing fight, John Wall, John Wall again, Isaiah's tears, and about a thousand other things, then think about the Cavaliers.
The Cavs won 10 straight to start the playoffs. They did it with Kyrie Irving muddling a bit and LeBron James destroying dudes. It's hard to overstate how great LeBron has been in the playoffs, but after the clunker in Game 3, his Game 4 performance is probably his worst game of they playoffs, right? He looked off in the first half, he made some dumb turnovers, and he missed a breakaway dunk.
Can we talk about this? Kevin Love came into the league and people talked about "have you seen this guy's outlet passes?" and I always thought it was a joke. Even in Minnesota, he'd make some crazy ones and I shrugged it off because I saw two or three of them a year and felt like, "Why do people care about outlet passes so much?" Now that I see him all the time though, oh my god. This guy throws the best superb outlet passes I've ever seen. This one, which LeBron completely blows in MJ-during-the-97-Finals fashion, is probably the best I've ever seen. He has Horford in his face, doesn't really look down the court, and fires a 75-foot overhead pass to the absolute perfect spot while somehow falling away from the pass. Come on.
If you agree that this was LeBron's second worst performance, that means his second worst game in his past 12 was a 34 point, 6 assists, 5 rebound game in which he shot 56% from the field. None of that is a typo. He turned the ball over five times, which is too many, and he shot poorly from beyond the arc. That's it. That's all it takes to have a "bad" game for LeBron James.
Game two against Indiana is in the running for second worst as well, as James casually went for 25/10/7 and 8 turnovers, but that's splitting hairs.
Think of it this way: LeBron James is so good that there have been serious debates about whether or not he intentionally lost a conference finals game. That's... something else.
So let's get back to Game 4. The Cavaliers had just lost for the first time since the regular season and Boston looked scrappy. Cleveland had to do something to slow down this newfound confidence while figuring out an entirely new defensive gameplan. For the first half, the Cavaliers did neither.
Thankfully, basketball games are made up of two halves (they even split the game into quarters!).
With 5:12 remaining in the second quarter, the Cavaliers trailed 49-33. Kyrie Irving had six points. He scored 12 more points in the final 5:11, giving him 18 total and bringing the game to a 57-47 Boston advantage. Irving tried a three as time expired in the first half, but it didn't go.
In the third quarter, it felt like Irving might go back to being the secondary playmaker as LeBron returned from his foul trouble and got to scoring. Kyrie had a layup in the first couple of minutes, giving him 20 points. At the 5:00 mark he still had 20 points. At the end of the quarter, he had 39. It was surreal. Somewhere along the way, he rolled his ankle so hard that his left foot should have detached from his leg and bounced into the second row. His foot stayed attached and he somehow made the freaking layup. Watch it below, but know that it hurts to watch.
The guy could do no wrong.
Perhaps more important than showing how great Kyrie can be, this burst showed that the Cavaliers could adjust a little bit, even if the adjustment is to run pick-and-rolls with a different pairing of guys. Irving finished with 42 after his laugh-out-loud behind-the-back fake for a layup in the final seconds, and the Cavs won by a surprisingly large 13 point margin. Kyrie was the MVP, sure, but the team got every shot they wanted. Here's a list of the shots the Cavs took (in order) in the third quarter:
Jumper, three, layup, free throw (2), three, jumper, dunk, three, layup, layup, free throw (2), layup, layup, three, layup, dunk, three, free throw (2), layup, layup, layup, layup, layup, three.
Add that up and the Cavs had 13 dunk/layup attempts in the third quarter, plus another eight in the fourth. 21 point-blank field goal attempts in 24 minutes against a notably strong defensive team. That's good. 16 consecutive field goal attempts were either three-pointers or at the rim. That's great. When the Cavs weren't scoring at the rim, they were finding open shots on the perimeter. Kevin Love even made his first three-pointer in the fourth quarter of the entire playoffs. Making threes, making layups, and making free throws... that's very, very good.
This is what the Cavs are taking away from this series. If/when Cleveland gets through to the Finals, they will have regained their footing, solidified what it is that they do so well (drive and kick, basically. Sometimes off a pick and roll action, sometimes not), and executed their offense at an obscenely high level.
According to Synergy Sports, the Cavaliers trail only the Warriors in half-court scoring - the difference in points per possession is 0.009. The next best team is Boston, more than 0.7 behind the Cavs. Cleveland is #1 in scoring on isolation plays, #1 in scoring on spot-ups, and #2 in scoring when the ball goes to the roll man in a pick and roll (the Clippers were #1).
Those are the areas the Cavaliers will have to attack Golden State. Weirdly, the Cavs were #7 in the NBA in scoring during the regular season when the pick and roll ball handler did the shooting, yet they're #9 out of the 16 teams who made the playoffs. As luck would have it, that's the area that Golden State has been the best on defense.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Game 5 in Boston is Thursday night. Cleveland appeared to make some adjustments against the new lineup for the Celtics and it can be reasonably expected that LeBron will be the focal point again for the Cavs. The Cavaliers' success is as simple as whether or not he takes care of the ball. If I had to guess, he's ready for Golden State.
One more bump in the road. The Cavaliers should speed over it without even slowing down.