Cavaliers hiding unimpressive defense behind record-setting playoff offense


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:


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.