After a dominating performance in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 94-82 Game 2 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, LeBron James is now just two wins away from a fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. While some fortuitous circumstances have helped James make his way through the Eastern Conference all these years, making five straight Finals is impressive no matter which way you slice it.
And it’s hard to argue that the circumstances have been too fortuitous for LeBron this year. Kevin Love has been out since the end of the Boston Celtics series. Kyrie Irving missed Friday’s Game 2 and has been hobbled throughout the postseason. J.R. Smith missed the first two games of the series against the Chicago Bulls because of suspension.
We’re talking about a team playing Matthew Dellavedova and James Jones key rotation minutes. We’re talking about a team relying on the notably erratic Smith for major contributions. Sure, the Eastern Conference stinks and that helps, but that shouldn’t take away from what LeBron, David Blatt and Co. have accomplished.
Obviously everything revolves around LeBron, and even though he hasn’t always been at his best, he still has been very good and has elevated the play of his teammates. James is shooting under 27 percent outside the paint in the postseason and is 9-of-56 from three, per NBA.com. There have been times where he has gotten iso-crazy, leading to stagnant offense and some nearly blown leads. We saw this in Game 1 against the Hawks and Game 5 against the Bulls.
But when James has been aggressive and attacking the rim, whether from the post or from the perimeter, the results have been devastating. He’s shooting 61 percent on shots within 10 feet, per SportVU, and he has been lethal when making quick decisions with his shots. He’s shooting 65.8 percent with a touch time of less than two seconds.
James driving to the basket or going in the post opens the offense up for everybody else. James is one of the best in the league at finding open shooters when the defense collapses on him, and that has been on full display over the last month, as he’s dishing out 8.0 assists per game in the postseason. He’s creating 20.3 points per game off his assists, the second-best mark in the playoffs behind only John Wall, per NBA.com. The Cavaliers are making nearly 10 threes per game, and much of that is because of LeBron’s playmaking.
Even with the injuries to key offensive players, Cleveland is posting a 107.4 offensive rating in these playoffs, just a tick behind the Golden State Warriors for best in the league, per NBA.com. But even more impressive than that has been the defense, which was thought to be somewhat of a weak spot.
The Cavaliers have given up just 98.1 points per 100 possessions in the postseason, tied with the Bulls for the best mark in the league. Make no mistake, Love and Irving make Cleveland a much better overall team, but the injuries to those two has given more minutes to better defensive options in Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson.
I talked about the excellence of these role players during the Bulls series, and it has only continued against Atlanta. Thompson continues to be magnificent without providing much scoring by relentlessly attacking the offensive boards and playing strong defense. Meanwhile, Thompson’s frontcourt partner, Timofey Mozgov, has been a monster protecting the rim, and we’ve seen Paul Millsap (and the rest of the Hawks, really) get swallowed up in these first two games.
Now, there has been some luck with this defensive improvement. Looking at SportVU’s shot tracking, the Hawks shot 36.1 percent on uncontested shots in Game 1 and a dreadful 31.4 percent in Game 2. Atlanta was a brilliant offensive team all season, but there were warning signs of a decline in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and now it’s just full meltdown mode. The Hawks shot 38.0 percent from three in the regular season, but that’s down to 32.6 percent in the playoffs and 20.4 percent in the first two games of this series.
Still, the Cavaliers deserve credit for the defense they’ve been playing, and that defense is the main reason why a Finals berth appears imminent. And of course, LeBron has played a role as well in this defensive resurgence after some ugliness on that end at the beginning of the season.
A likely Finals matchup against the Golden State Warriors would be an entirely different animal, and I can’t imagine many people would pick the short-handed Cavaliers in that series. But perhaps we should stop doubting LeBron James. I’m not going to say Cleveland would win that series, but I’m starting to believe it may be much more competitive than expected.