Cavaliers hiding unimpressive defense behind record-setting playoff offense

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So much attention has been paid to the Cavaliers’ Swiss-cheese defense – for good reason.

If the Cavs win the title, Cleveland’s defense in the regular season would the worst or second-worst (in the running with the 2000-01 Lakers) for an eventual NBA champion. Cleveland allowed 115.5 points per 100 possessions to a middling Pacers in the first round – the worst defensive rating in a four-game sweep since at least 1984, as far back as Basketball-Reference records go. The Cavaliers clamped down against the Raptors in the second round, but Toronto’s offense falls apart in the playoffs annually. Against the Celtics in the conference finals, Cleveland looked its worst defensively after Isaiah Thomas got hurt and Boston switched to an equalitarian style that more closely resembles the Warriors.

Yet, the Cavs are here, four wins from their second straight NBA title.

Maybe we should give their offense a little more credit. Its carrying a historic load.

The Cavaliers are scoring 123.2 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs – on pace to smash the record in the 16-team postseason format (enacted in 1984). The difference between Cleveland’s offensive rating and No. 2 (1987 Lakers, 120.3) is greater than the difference between No. 2 and No. 11.

In simplest terms, the Cavs offense is built around LeBron James. If single-covered, he scores. If double-teamed, he passes to usually-open, usually-good 3-point-shooting team. Mix in Kyrie Irving‘s isolations, Kevin Love‘s outside-inside game and Tristan Thompson‘s offensive rebounding, and it’s just too much for opponents to handle.

The Cavaliers have made 43% of their 3-pointers and 56% of their 2-pointers and generated 27 free-throw attempts per game this postseason.

Their playoff offensive rating is 14.4 points better than the regular-season league average. That scoring has propped up a playoff defense at the regular-season league average.

The 2004 Pistons (playoff offensive rating 4.0 points worse than the regular-season league average that year, playoff defensive rating 10.5 points better) are the only team to reach the NBA Finals in the 16-team format with a great offense-defense disparity. Detroit is also the only team on the leaderboard with a better defense than offense.

Here are NBA Finalists since 1984 with the greatest disparity between playoff offensive and defensive ratings (relative to regular-season league average that year) through the first three rounds. The worse side of the ball is on the on the left, better side of the ball on the right and the difference in the middle:

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Cleveland rode a similar style to the title last year, but the split is even more pronounced this year.

Golden State also appears even more equipped to stop the Cavs. The Warriors had the second-best regular-season defense (up from fifth last year), and their defensive rating is tops in the playoffs.

Can the Cavaliers keep scoring at such a high rate? Can their defense flip the switch just enough in the Finals, as it did last year?

How the Cavs finish their season is still to be determined, but their path here sure was distinctive.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safty

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.

Thunder drop 148 points on defenseless Cavaliers, win in rout

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If you wondered why Cleveland is so active in the trade market as the deadline nears — and why they are hunting out guys who can play defense — all you had to do was watch the Thunder dismantle the Cavaliers on Saturday afternoon on national television, 148-124.

The Thunder went into Quicken Loans Arena and list of offensive accolades is long (and ugly if you’re a Cleveland fan):

• Oklahoma City dropped 148 points.

• Oklahoma City shot 58 percent overall.

• Oklahoma City shot 46.7 percent from three.

• Oklahoma City got 44 percent of its shots within four feet of the rim.

• Oklahoma City’s big three of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, and Paul George combined for 88 points.

• Westbrook had 23 points and 20 assists.

• Paul George had 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Steven Adams had 25 points and 10 rebounds.

• Westbrook, George, Adams, and Anthony combined for 113 points on 66 shots.

To be fair, this was also about the Thunder playing one of their most complete offensive games of the season. They moved the ball beautifully, there wasn’t the “your turn/my turn” issues from earlier this season.

For a team still unsure of its identity and looking for validation, this game provided it.

It also provided another glimpse into the troubles in Cleveland.

Last season the Cavaliers counted on an exceptional offense to cover up for a defense that was decent when they cared and horrific when they didn’t, but when it got time in the playoffs Cleveland was able to flip the switch (it just wasn’t enough in the Finals). LeBron James has another gear and was able to lift his teammates up with it.

This season, they don’t seem to know where the switch is. The good defensive habits they had built over time seem lost and forgotten, as they run out a litany of minus defenders in their regular rotation.

Cleveland looks like a team that needs help at the trade deadline to ensure it gets out of the East. The question becomes will they throw in the Brooklyn pick to do it? And even if they did, would DeAndre Jordan really solve their issues right now?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.