The Cleveland Cavaliers that won 50 games and were the four seed in the East were not that impressive, despite LeBron James‘ MVP season. They had the 29th ranked defense in the league, and while the offense was still elite (fifth in the NBA) the Cavaliers had the point differential of a 43-39 team — Cleveland was the “luckiest” team in the NBA, out-performing their point differential by seven games (a lot of that came down to LeBron being dominant late in close games).
The playoff Cavaliers that just swept the Raptors out of the second round are different. Their defense hasn’t improved much (it is the exact same net rating of 112 points allowed per 100 possessions as they had in the regular season, stats via Cleaning the Glass). The difference is their offense has taken another step forward.
LeBron is part of that. But more than just him, they have found a role for Kevin Love and Kyle Korver, and found a lineup that works for them — one that Tyronn Lue never broke out in the regular season. From Owen Phillips at fivethirtyeight.com.
In the team’s series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most-used lineup has been George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love. So far this postseason, they’ve logged 110 minutes together. That’s 110 more than they played together in the regular season. Compared to the Toronto Raptors, whose most-used lineup in the playoffs1 logged 801 minutes together in the regular season, Cleveland looks like it’s experimenting on the fly. But it’s working. Cleveland’s most-used postseason lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, good for third-best in the playoffs.
That lineup flummoxed the Raptors, who want to play big — Dwane Casey’s biggest mistake was keeping Jonas Valanciunas on Love until Game 4 — and did it with a simple action out of the corner that the Raptors could not solve. Zach Lowe at ESPN got into that with a brilliant breakdown of what those two are doing — and how they are improvising depending on the situation and defenders involved (check out the link, which has video breakdowns).
The play is this: Love jogging over as if to set a pick for LeBron, only to veer suddenly toward the corner and hammer Korver’s man with a pindown screen…
Korver and Love would smile hearing (Pacers’ coach Nate) McMillan describe what they do as “random.” Aside from that set pindown play, they react in the moment to how the defense approaches them — and which two defenders are involved. It mostly starts with Korver positioning himself to run around a Love screen. That is dangerous enough. Staying attached to Korver at all costs is on the first page of any opponent scouting report.
The pair has countless options from there — Korver backdoor cuts, Love postups on the switch, or if two men go with Korver on his cut then Love gets an open three, and that’s just the start — and the Cavaliers unleashed all of them on the Raptors.
Traditionally, coaches and teams find what works and a comfort level during the regular season, then build on those lineups — and use them to exploit specific matchups — in the playoffs. Cleveland’s season before the trade deadline was a write-off. Of the guys who came in after the flurry of moves, George Hill has been important as a starter, solid defender, and stabilizing influence at the point guard spot. After that, guys they snapped up at the deadline like Jordan Clarkson (playing in the low teens in minutes unless it’s a blowout) or Larry Nance Jr. (out of the rotation, playing only garbage time) are not making a difference. It’s the veterans, guys who were largely already there, guys with a high hoops IQ who know how to play the game.
They have changed these Cavaliers into the team to beat in the East.
Cleveland has found the groove it was in last season that led it to the finals — the defense wasn’t good, but it was good enough with an unstoppable offense. And an unstoppable force leading it.
That may well be enough to get them back to the Finals this season.