One month ago I wrote about how the Cleveland Cavaliers were an impossibly frustrating team. Since then they closed the regular season hot, have won 8 consecutive playoff games, and are going to be well-rested again for round 3. However, have they actually addressed some problems they were having, or are they just shooting like pure fire?
The Cavaliers had a good defense in the regular season but people were concerned that they would just "flip the switch" and turn it up a notch when needed. In the Atlanta series, this sure seemed true. With Atlanta playing a semi-similar style as Cleveland - with multiple talented shooters who can blur the lines of the 2-3-4-5 positions - the Cavs were bound to give up some points now and then, and they did. The Cavs struggled in the first halves of games 3 and 4, allowing 63 and 58 points in each, but they didn't allow 50 in a 2nd half all series. They made adjustments and slowed the pace late, winning games 1, 3, and 4 with strong 4th quarters. The most impressive part of this was watching the defense fly around to cover shooters after a switch left them out of position. There were several instances when the Hawks appeared to have an open shot but were closed off at the last possible second.
On the offensive end, you may have heard that the Cavaliers shot well from three point range. We'll talk about that intermittently here.
Here are some major positives from this round.
First, the ball seems to be moving. The Cavaliers fought to slow the pace in last year's Finals once they'd lost 2 of their stars - it was the right call at the time. But most of this season has been focused on how the Cavs can increase their passing/ball movement. It's working. Game 1: 38 FGs, 27 assists, 15-31 threes. Game 2: 41 FGs, 27 assists, 25-45 threes. Game 3: 46 FGs, 26 assists, 21-39 threes. Game 4: 38 FGs, 23 assists, 16-37 threes.
In each of these games, the ball flew around in the first half and occasionally slowed down late, but it was an impressive display of passing. There were picks set on seemingly every 3-pointer, and even if they weren't multiple-pass possessions, they were drive-and-kicks. Below is a reel of all 8 of Kevin Love's threes, and you can see that only 1-2 of them are contested. Even the ones that he pump-fakes and goes back up, he probably could have shot the first time.
Next positive: The Cavaliers are playing a "next man up" style of basketball without missing anyone. This is something special. Last season when Love got hurt, the Cavs rolled with it and new guys would step up now and then (OK, it was LeBron most times, but Mozgov had a couple huge games and Delly filled in admirably for Irving). This time around, the different guys are stepping up and having huge games within the team's system. JR - my hero - throws his unbelievable game out there. Channing Frye comes off the bench in game 3 and plays the most ridiculous game of his career. Kevin Love hits 8 triples in game 4. Richard Jefferson seemingly makes every open shot he ever sees. The whole team is contributing in a huge way. There's no OKC style where Durant scores 41 and Westbrook takes 25 shots or Lillard scores 45 in Portland. These are phenomenal team efforts.
What's more, regarding Cleveland's unbelievable shooting, is that they were open looks. The Cavaliers weren't forcing threes this series, they were just shooting and making a ton of them. It could have been that Atlanta isn't athletic enough to run the Cavs off the 3-point line or maybe the game-planning was just too good. Whatever the case, these were overwhelmingly good shots.
See, when you face the Cavaliers, you're stuck with a set of choices. LeBron has the ball and is surrounded by some combination of Irving, Delly (whose shooting has been waaayyyy off lately, but it hasn't hurt Cleveland yet), Love, RJ, Frye, and JR, plus usually Tristan Thompson. When anyone sets a screen, who do you leave? If you double LBJ, it's either leaving a shooter open or Thompson will be free for a lob. If you don't double LBJ, you have the most efficient inside-scoring wing-player in NBA history going downhill at the basket. It's brutal. And that's without mentioning that Shumpert provided a huge offensive lift this series. The Cavaliers are a force to be reckoned with, and as Al Horford said, if they keep shooting like this, nobody's stopping them.
On the other hand, and I know this is being a downer, I have to mention a couple of fears based on this series.
First, it's hard to keep shooting this well. Remember when Orlando ran the Cavs out of the playoffs in 2009 with hot-shooting in the conference finals? They got smacked in the Finals because they couldn't stay that hot. There's also an old adage that a jump-shooting team can't win the title. I don't think teams believe that anymore, but it's still out in the ether, and like it or not, the Cavaliers are currently a jump-shooting team.
Which brings me to thing #2: What the hell is going on inside the arc? LeBron can still score a bit inside, although he gets mauled on most trips to the basket and gets no calls, and Kyrie can score awfully well in there. Irving can pull up from 14 feet consistently and can finish at the rim as well as any point guard in the NBA, but beyond that, oh my god. It's ugly. Kevin Love just went 1-10 inside the arc in game 4. That one was a toe-on-the-line shot that he meant to be a three. For the series he was 4-31 from 2-point. When Love went inside against Millsap and Horford - two very good defenders - he looked terrible. He was throwing up 6 footers and missing the rim. When he went inside on Sefolosha and Schroder in game 4, he missed both times from less than 8 feet out. It's mind-blowing. I've never seen anything like it.
Go play around with the stats on NBA.com/stats (the advanced ones) and see that Love's points-per-possession inside are painful to look at. He's suddenly getting bullied inside and can't finish at the rim. Since he and LeBron are the entirety of the Cavaliers' inside scoring options, this scares me. The 2-point shooting was almost record-settingly bad.
Thing #3: late-game isoball. It would be one thing if the Cavaliers occasionally reverted to this late in games when they have a possession snuffed out and reset with 8 on the shot clock. It would be another thing if the coach didn't applaud it. Games 1 and 4 concluded with me texting friends saying "that late-game offense was horrifying," yet each also concluded with coach Lue saying that they slowed down by design and/or "got the shots they wanted."
Instead of getting all the shots that you saw from Love above, here's what "the shot they wanted" looked like.
James made it, which was nice, but his next time down, with a chance to ice the game, winning by 1, he pulled up from 30 feet after pounding the ball for 20 seconds. He even told Lisa Salters after the game that it was probably a bad shot. This is my concern. We know this is less efficient than the offense from the first 3 quarters, but Lue is intentionally going this route? I don't like that. I wish he would've scolded LeBron and encouraged him to get to the hoop - even if the ball stayed in his hand for 20 seconds, he's historically excellent in drive-and-kick situations.
I'm being dramatic. The Cavaliers are in the eastern conference finals. They've played excellent basketball and are winning close games. They're closing games well, they're shooting insanely well, they're making defensive adjustments, and most importantly, they're healthy. In short, the odds of the Cavaliers winning the title are looking better each day. Whether or not Miami/Toronto can give them a test is TBD, but whoever comes out of the west will certainly be a bear.
It's an exciting time to be a Cleveland Cavaliers fan.
Oh, and PS: last night might have been Hubie Brown's last game of the season, and I'm eternally afraid he's going to retire. Hubie is the best in the business, even if he accidentally suggested something strange about Kyrie Irving last night.