Cleveland Cavaliers' sweep helps hide still-concerning defensive issues
Fedor's five observations
April 24, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Behind LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers completed their third straight first-round sweep.
But in the postgame locker room, neither Kevin Love nor J.R. Smith could point to much that they learned in this series.
The Cavs entered the postseason with numerous questions. Despite them, their talent level and championship experience ensured that their chances to advance against the Pacers, who needed to win five straight games just to get into the playoffs, weren't ever in doubt. Still, it was hardly a dominant showing by the champs.
In the end, the better team won. The James-led team was too much. That's a familiar script. But a few plays here or there and the Cavs wouldn't be resting.
Here are five observations:
Defense optional -- All season, as they were watching teams torture them in transition, slice up their shoddy pick-and-roll defense and get numerous second-chance opportunities, the Cavs stood firm.
Our defense will be better in the postseason. We can lock into one opponent over the course of the series. The issues are correctable.
And yet, after matching the narrowest postseason sweep in NBA history, the defense looks just as leaky. The Cavs slowed down Indiana in transition, giving up just eight fast-break points per game, but showed flaws in the half court.
Despite a 3-0 lead, the Cavs entered Game 4 with the second-worst defensive rating among the 16 playoff teams. After perhaps their best effort defensively on Sunday, they moved up to ... just a tie for 12th.
"I thought defensively we took a step forward," head coach Tyronn Lue said. "I thought we were good defensively."
Huh? Lue is a bottom-line guy. He's also in charge of the defense so him being critical of that end of the floor would place the blame directly on him and he wasn't about to do that this early in the postseason run. Still, the idea that somehow the Cavs improved defensively is fantasy. There's little to support it.
Only the Thunder -- playing a series against the high-octane Rockets -- the Tony Allen-less Grizzlies and Pacers have been worse.
The Pacers, ranked middle of the pack in offense this season, shot 46.6 percent. In the regular season, the Cavs held opponents to 45.8 percent shooting.
In the end, the troubles weren't costly. Indiana wasn't good enough to eke out a win. The Cavs' offense, leading all playoff teams with a 115.9 rating, was the deciding factor.
That looks to be the justification. It also looks to be the winning formula -- for now. Do just enough in late-game situations, come up with a few key stops and lean on the potent offense that few teams can slow down consistently. That's what it will take when the two of the three most important players aren't plus defenders.
Depth -- Prior to Game 1, the Cavs knew their postseason hopes rested on the shoulders of James, Love and Kyrie Irving. But during James' title seasons there was always a bit of support.
Last year, Richard Jefferson played a pivotal role, filling in for Love and also allowing the Cavs to downsize and better match the Warriors' unusual small-ball lineup.
In Miami, it was Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers or Mike Miller.
After an up-and-down season, it was fair to wonder where the Cavs would get that kind of production. The answer in the first-round series? Everyone.
The maligned second unit averaged 25.7 points on 33-of-62 (53 percent) from the field and 22-of-34 (64.7 percent) from 3-point range.
"Cavs killer" -- The Cavs identified two key players heading into the matchup: Paul George (duh) and CJ Miles.
Lue even went as far as to label Miles a "Cavs killer," as he came in averaging 17 points in the four games against his former team. Only once were the Cavs able to keep him in single digits during the regular season.
"Thought we did a great job on CJ Miles the whole series," Lue said following Game 4. "Just being aware."
The Cavs set the tone by attacking him on the defensive end. Each time he was switched onto Irving, Love or James, the Cavs went right at him, putting him in early foul trouble and taking him out of rhythm. That was a consistent plan throughout.
Miles averaged 7.3 points on 45.8 percent shooting and 31.3 percent from beyond the arc in 20.5 minutes.
Blessing in disguise -- Injuries are part of the game. They can be frustrating. Ask Smith, who hobbled off the court following the first half of Game 2 because of a hamstring injury.
Before joining his teammates that night, he sat on the baseline by himself as guys came over to console him during the third quarter. It's been a trying year for Smith on and off the court and another injury had him looking despondent.
But it might have been a needed development.
Prior to the injury, Iman Shumpert's tailspin during the season's second half was made complete by his first ever DNP-CD since coming to Cleveland in 2015. He needed something unforeseen to get an opportunity, a chance to get back in Lue's good graces.
Smith's injury opened the door. Shumpert went sprinting through it. His defensive intensity in the third quarter was labeled a big reason for the Game 2 win. Then in Game 3, he was part of the James-led group that rallied from a 25-point halftime deficit.
Cavs' second unit makes opponent "pick your poison"
In General Manager David Griffin's vision, James, the maestro, surrounded by four other shooters is the ultimate headache. Which is why the core trio to start the second and fourth quarters has become James, Korver and Frye.
Perhaps Lue would've turned back to Shumpert regardless. But earlier in the series, he said Jefferson was better for this particular matchup.
Through the first six quarters, there were no signs of Shumpert being in the rotation. He was trying to stay positive, trying to stay mentally engaged on the bench.
Perhaps that's exactly the wakeup call he needed to once again become Cleveland's "3-and-D" player off the bench. With a potential matchup against Toronto or Milwaukee looming, the Cavs will need as many capable perimeter defenders as possible.
Would Shumpert have been able to regain Lue's trust without Smith's injury?