Did the Cavaliers' Defense Prove Anything Against the Pacers?
We kept hearing that the Cleveland Cavaliers, after struggling in the second half of the season, would simply "flip the switch" come playoff time. And, after a 4-0 series sweep of the Indiana Pacers, you would think that they did just that.
To this point the Cavaliers have averaged the third-most points per game (112.8) and own the playoffs' highest offensive rating (115.9) through four games. Additionally, among all 16 teams, they rank second in both effective field goal percentage (56.5%) and true shooting percentage (59.6%).
Having said all that, Cleveland ranks just fifth in net rating (4.9) behind teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks -- two teams who are currently knotted at two in their respective series.
How then did the Cavaliers fail to display their dominance in what would appear to be a commanding 4-0 series win? One word: defense.
The Big Picture
Throughout the season, defense has been the ongoing concern for head coach Tyronn Lue and company. By the end of the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked 20th in opponent points per game and 22nd in defensive rating.
After four games, it's clear that those defensive concerns haven't been addressed.
|Cavaliers||Opp. Points||Def. Rating|
When accounting for pace of play, the Cavs allowed three more points per 100 possessions in the opening round than they did during the regular season.
For perspective, Indiana was 15th in both points per game (105.1) and offensive rating (106.2) during the 82-game regular season. So to say that they're an average NBA offense would be spot on. Yet the Cavaliers allowed them to increase their regular season averages thereby positioning themselves fourth in both categories among all 16 playoff teams.
How? And what weaknesses should we pay attention to in the coming round(s)?
The Little Things
In their four matchups, the Cavaliers allowed the Pacers an effective field goal percentage of 53.0%. This figure puts them in a tie with the Portland Trail Blazers for ninth among playoff teams. And, mind you, the Blazers are playing the high-powered Golden State Warriors defense.
That's a bad look for the Cavaliers, and it starts with their perimeter defense.
Clearly, the Cavs have a problem with closeouts. While the Pacers attempted a three on 33% of their field goal attempts (seventh of 16 postseason teams), they made 11.3 per game on 39.1% shooting from beyond the arc.
Three-point percentage isn't an indicator of good or bad three-point defense, but, according to NBA.com, 8.3 of those makes came with the closest defender at least four feet away. On 21.5 such attempts, they shot 38.6% from deep.
That issue seems to trickle down to Cleveland's fouling woes as well. Through four games, the Cavaliers rank 15 of 16 teams with 22.8 personal fouls committed per game. The result has been .233 opponent free throws per field goal attempt.
When you combine their poor three-point defense and inability to defend without fouling, you get the postseason's seventh-worst true shooting percentage against (56.4%). And when the Cavs did force a miss, more times than not they weren't the ones getting the board.
Having secured just 48.6% of all available rebounds, Cleveland is a bottom-five rebounding team thus far. In terms of defensive rebound percentage, their 71.7% rate is better than only one team -- the Boston Celtics (65.5%) -- as they've allowed 12.3 second-chance points per game.
Seeing how the Cavaliers are set to go head-to-head with the size and length of the Milwaukee Bucks or the combination of Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas for the Toronto Raptors, the rebounding could be an even bigger problem going forward. The same goes for their defense as a whole.
For the regular season, the Bucks and Raptors ranked 13th and 6th, respectively, in offensive rating. They were both more efficient offenses than the Pacers throughout the regular season sample.
The Cavaliers need to utilize their time off in order to fine-tune things on the defensive end. If they don't, at best, they're asking for a tough second-round series. At worst, they're looking at a possible Round 2 exit.