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Cavaliers’ Defensive Transformation a Key to Success

Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

During LeBron James‘s years spent in South Beach, we came to understand that defense was the backbone of those teams. LeBron’s Miami teams were incredibly unique on that end. They could play conservatively and switch any pick-and-roll, or they could apply extreme pressure and blitz at will. On countless occasions, those Miami teams would simply decide that they weren’t going to let you score. They’d crush you, they’d demoralize you. They had that proverbial “switch” on defense, and boy did they know how to use it.

Once LeBron returned home and Cleveland’s roster began to take shape, one thing became abundantly clear: defense wasn’t going to be the backbone of this team. Even after making midseason trades to acquire the vastly under-appreciated Timofey Mozgov and capable two-way players J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, it didn’t appear that defense was going to become their calling card.

LeBron’s Miami teams were defensive juggernauts and these Cavaliers were an offensive one. And so it was written.

But amazingly, right under our noses, the Cavs have somehow transformed into a defensive powerhouse in these playoffs. Perhaps we’ve been distracted by devastating season-ending injuries to stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. Or maybe we’ve spent too much time trying analyze LeBron’s slip in efficiency and what it all means. Whatever the case, the Cavs are legitimately great on defense, and I’m not sure anyone saw this coming.

Tracing back to the first round of the playoffs, the Cavs, as expected, throttled the young Boston Celtics. But given the disparity in talent between the teams and the dominating fashion in which Cleveland swept Boston, it was far too early to determine much of anything.

In the second round, after the Cavs skipped past the Chicago Bulls in six games, the fallout quickly fixated on Chicago. Instead of applauding Cleveland’s defensive game plan (they forced Chicago to get deep into possessions by controlling pace and tempo) we thought Chicago had crumbled due to internal turmoil. Well maybe, just maybe, the Cavs played a large part in Chicago’s collapse, too.

Then, of course, the Cavs swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. And again, the questions being asked were aimed at Cleveland’s opponent. What happened to the Hawks? As if Cleveland wasn’t tremendous defensively throughout.

And now in the Finals, the Cavs are at it again. In their stunning 95-93 Game 2 overtime victory, they became the first team all season to hold the Golden State Warriors to under 60 points through three quarters. They held Stephen Curry to an abysmal, un-MVP-like 5-23 shooting night, including an extremely uncharacteristic 2-15 from three-point range.

At this point, we can no longer ignore how great the Cavs have been defensively. Through 16 games in these playoffs the Cavs’ team defensive rating is an impressive 98.7 per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. For comparison’s sake, here’s how LeBron’s Miami teams fared: 100.3, 98.5, 99.8 and 108.7.

Statistically speaking, these Cavs hang right with even LeBron’s best — championship winning — Miami teams.

Anecdotally, what Cleveland is doing differs from what made Miami so potent on defense. Although the Cavs are hard-doubling Curry in pick-and-roll and are often committing the attention of multiple defenders to Curry when he’s in transition, the Cavs have made their message clear: live with anyone but Curry beating you.

Even something minor, like bumping and pressuring Curry in the backcourt after made baskets, is throwing Golden State off its game. The Cavs respect how deadly Golden State can be on the secondary break, and they’re making sure Curry feels all the added attention. Curry is essentially being shadowed all 94 feet whenever he’s in the game, and that strategy clearly took its toll in Game 2.

Then there’s also how Cleveland is able to switch everything on defense, as this is where they most resemble those Heat teams defensively. Take Tristan Thompson, for example. His best skill is offensive rebounding and that’s pretty much undeniable. His second-best skill, though, is the value he adds in being able to switch onto ball-handlers in pick-and-roll. That’s a huge luxury, knowing that Thompson can not only be trusted to switch onto guards, but that he can also guard them effectively.

And perhaps most importantly, Cleveland has controlled the pace so far in this series. Cleveland’s offensive game plan is actually playing into its defensive one. They’re purposefully draining — almost stalling — on each offensive possession, letting LeBron ISO to try and win one-on-one battles. And frankly, it’s a great game plan because this limits Golden State in the open floor. It makes them impatient and makes the opportunities to run all-the-more precious.

Although it’s rarely mentioned, Cavs head coach David Blatt was actually known for his defensive schemes while overseas. We’re seeing that on full display now. Blatt’s comfortable letting his bigs — Thompson and Mozgov — guard guards. And also let’s not forget that even though he’s often hid LeBron on defense so he can rest, having a player as unique as LeBron on defense influences and promotes switching. It sets a foundation.

(Sidebar: might LeBron be the greatest defender ever to have never won Defensive Player of the Year?)

Now, do I think the Cavs can play three more games like they did in Game 2 and win the series? No. Golden State is simply the better, healthier team. However, I think this is one of the more impressive postseason runs a LeBron-led team has ever made. They completely morphed their identity on the fly. And this might be LeBron’s most impressive individual postseason run, to boot.

We’ve gotta stop and appreciate those things. Because when it’s all said and done, I’m not going to care for LeBron’s Finals record or his shooting percentage. That’ll be the narrative, but that won’t tell the whole story. Not by a long shot.

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