In Games 2-5 of the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers scored 113, 113, 137 and 120 points.
They went 1-3.
Cleveland was at the center of an offensive explosion (defensive implosion?) in the 2017 NBA playoffs. After the league posted its highest regular-season offensive rating on record this year (108.8), the scoring rate increased in the postseason – to a whopping 111.3 points per 100 possessions. (All using Basketball-Reference)
The Cavs’ playoff offensive rating was a record 120.3. The Warriors’ playoff offensive ranking, 119.0 ranks third all-time. (The 1987 Lakers, who scored 119.9 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, are sandwiched between.)
Here are the leaders in playoff offensive ranking since 1974, when the league first tracked turnovers (necessary for calculating offensive rating):
Understandably, the combined offensive rating in the Finals – 118.0 (121 by Golden State, 114.6 by Cleveland) – was the highest on record.
Here are the combined offensive ratings in every Finals since 1984 (as far back as Basketball-Reference has data):
With Cleveland and Golden State advancing to the Finals, the result was the NBA’s highest playoff offensive rating in 25 years. Here’s regular-season (blue) and postseason (orange) offensive ratings every season:
This wasn’t just a product of better offensive teams just happening to make the playoffs and advancing further then better defensive teams. Using teams’ regular-season offensive and defensive ratings and their number of postseason possessions, the projected playoff-wide offensive rating this year was just 109.4 – higher than the regular-season mark (108.8), but well below the actual playoff rate (111.3).
Despite a perception that defense cranks up in the postseason, teams just scored far more efficiently in the playoffs. The 2017 postseason continued a trend, just accelerating it into overdrive at a time of year when a ceiling on scoring was long thought to be more limited.
The biggest driver: 3-pointers. Players are better than ever at shooting from beyond the arc, and teams are increasingly leaning on outside shooting – even, when necessary, at the expensive of defense. The shift has come both schematically (players spotting up in the corners – ideal location for shooting 3s – not as well-positioned to get back defensively) and strategically (with teams prioritizing 3-point shooting over defense when allocating minutes).
The question: Did a fluky Cleveland team take the 2017 to a new offensive place, or are the Cavs trendsetters? Teams won’t purposefully emulate the Cavaliers’ bad defensive habits, but this was a roster filled with better shooters than defenders around LeBron James. Cleveland even carved up Golden State, which has proven over the last few years to be an elite defensive team. (The Warriors are also elite offensively, which is why they still outpaced the Cavs’ onslaught.)
Build a roster in the mold of the Cavaliers – heavy on 3-point shooters, light on natural defenders – preach more defensive commitment and communication, and a team might have something special. Will it work without LeBron’s attention-drawing and passing? Perhaps not.
But there were hints all around the 2017 playoffs that teams can bank on scoring over defense, even in the most high-pressure games, more than previously thought.