Monday, April 24, 2017
Cleveland, There’s No Defending This
On Sunday, the Cleveland Cavaliers moved within twelve wins of another title. The defending champions dispatched the Indiana Pacers via a four-game sweep. For star LeBron James, it continued a pattern of sheer early-postseason dominance. Since his playoff debut in 2006, a team with James on the roster has never lost a first-round series. Those same teams are now 48-7 in such series (a .873 winning percentage). He's led the way for 21 consecutive first-round wins (current streak and NBA record) and seven first-round sweeps over his career.
However, there seemed to be a different feeling to this sweep. The Pacers had to fight to even get into the playoffs, solidifying their spot on the last day of the regular season. Despite that, and the fact that Paul George was seen as the team's only offensive threat, the Cavs had to sweat through the four games of this series.
They had a 10-point lead in the 4th, only to dodge a game-losing shot at the end of Game 1. Although controlling more of Game 2, Cleveland lost two-thirds of the 18-point lead they held going into the fourth (winning by six). They needed a large second half performance to win Game 3 (more on that shortly). Sunday, the Cavs held a 13-point advantage with under 10 minute to play. That lead evaporated, with Indy taking a brief 102-100 lead before James dropped a triple for a lead the Cavs would not relinquish again. Four games, four wins, four perfuse sweats. How did this happen?
Coming down the stretch of the regular season, the Cavs' defensive effectiveness had been questioned. That appears to have continued into the first series of the postseason. In defeat, the Pacers averaged 108.75 points per game. The most glaring of point totals came in Game 3, where Indiana scored 74 points in the 1st half and led by 25 at the break. A 28-point, 2nd-half performance by James — along with the best defensive effort Cleveland fans have probably seen in weeks — pushed the Pacers to the brink of elimination before Sunday's game.
Everything written before (and, trust me, I'm the last person divulging this info) leads to my following opinion. If this team wants to repeat, they can't rely on its defense and will need to find more of those "timely" stops than before. The numbers back it up. In a similar comparison to postseason performance, the nearly 109 per game average given up against Indiana was only 95 points a game during 2016's sweep over Detroit. And, as was said before, I'm the last person to let you know. The regular season stats keep the theme going. The Cavs were middling in the defensive categories:
16th in opponents' field goal percentage (45.8%)
18th in opponents' 3-point percentage (36.1%)
20th in opponents' points per game (107.2)
25th in blocked shots per game (4.0)
30th (dead last) in steals per game (6.6)
Now, that's the standard metrics. The advanced metrics tell another story. Offensively, the Cavs are fine when it comes to championship contention. If Cleveland ends up winning it all, their regular season Offensive Rating (estimate of points scored per 100 possessions) and Adjusted Offensive Rating (same stat adjusted for the strength of the opposing defense) will be one of the best for a champion since the stat was recorded (1985-1986 season).
However, when it comes to Defensive Rating ... not so much. In fact, the rating numbers will be the worst for a championship team since it became a recorded stat.
You can see that only the 2000-2001 Lakers matched the league rank for D-Rating in their respective seasons, and no title team had as low of an Adjusted Rating when compared to their annual peers.
Even as a guy that leans more to offense in his hoops, I do understand that defense has to play a role in a championship run. Now, maybe the Cavs will grow in their defensive prowess during the rest of the postseason. Maybe they will slow the game down a little more, limiting possessions for both sides on the court. And, yes, they have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and a champion pedigree. But more offensively talented rosters are coming at them down the road. It Cleveland is bound to repeat, they may have to be the last one standing after all of the Shootouts at the OK Fieldhouse.