An Inside Look at the Cavaliers' Improved Defense
When LeBron James persuaded Kevin Love to join he and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, everyone assumed the new-look Cavs would be an offensive powerhouse and would have the defense of a high school junior varsity team.
To an extent, that was true in the regular season. The Cavaliers held opponents to 98.7 points per game (13th in the league) and a posted a Defensive Rating of 106.3 (18th in the league). But something changed when the playoffs started. The Cavs now find themselves in the Finals due, in large part, to a vastly improved to defense. How did the defense improve so dramatically and what does it mean for the Championship? Let's take a close look.
An Overall Look at the Defense
Saying the Cavaliers have only improved their defense in the playoffs is an gross understatement. Among playoff teams, Cleveland was one of the worst teams in the regular season by most defensive metrics. In the postseason, everything has changed. Cleveland has, without a doubt, had one of the best defenses in the playoffs.
|Opponents' PPG||Opponents' FG%||Opponents' REB||DefRtg|
|Rank in the NBA||2||2||1||3|
The Cavaliers have defensively shut down their opponents this in the postseason, something no one thought they would accomplish.
The Celtics had a 101.7 Offensive Rating in the regular season. Cleveland limited them to 97.2. Boston also averaged 101.4 points per game in the regular season, yet in the Cavaliers sweep, the Celtics mustered more than 95 points just once. The Bulls, despite criticism toward the contrary, ranked in the top 10 in Offensive Rating in the regular season (104.7), yet the Cavaliers were able to hold them to 99.9. Finally, the Hawks had an Offensive Rating of 106.2, good for seventh in the League. The Cavs dropped that all the way to 97.9 in the four-game series.
If individuals are playing better defense, then, as a whole, the team will too. That's exactly what's happening with Cleveland. Every single Cav who has played more than 10 games in the postseason has improved his Defensive Rating in the postseason, according to NBA.com.
The defensive turnaround has hinged on Timofey Mozgov's huge improvement during the playoffs. The hulking center came over from Denver and has made a dramatic impact on the team. Since Love's injury, Mozgov has played an integral role of the efficient inside scorer as well as a defensive monolith in the paint.
With Mozgov on the bench, the Cavaliers have a worse Defensive Rating by a full 16.2 points this postseason. Opponents convert two point field goals at rate of seven percentage points lower when he's on the court. In the regular season, Mozgov averaged a respectable 1.2 blocks per game with the Cavs. In the playoffs, he's increased that to 1.9, seventh in the NBA.
Per NBA.com, this postseason Mozgov has held his opponent's field goal percentage to 6.5 percentage points below what his opponent normally averages. We can break that number down even further and see that on shots within six feet, Mozgov's opponents had a field goal percentage 16.1 percentage points below their season average.
That number puts him fourth in the NBA among qualified players. Also among such players, his Defensive Rating of 92.9 mentioned earlier is actually the best in the playoffs. The 7'1" big man's ability to protect the paint has been crucial to the Cavs' defensive turnaround these playoffs, especially after the loss of Love.
What This Means for the Finals
The overall numbers indicate that Cleveland's defense has improved in the postseason, but has it improved enough to quell Golden State's potent offense? Surprisingly, the answer may be yes. The Warriors love shooting behind from beyond the arc: the team was fourth in threes attempted per game. And they're good at it: first in three point field goal percentage.
But the Cavs seem up for the challenge. During the postseason, Cleveland has held opponents to just 28 percent shooting from range, that's the best in the NBA by three percentage points. Overall, teams have shot almost 25 percent worse from three when going up against the Cavaliers, according to NBA.com.
The Warriors are also a great transition team (Golden State relies on transition third most among playoff teams). That also bodes well for the Cavs, who have been the second best team in these playoffs at limiting the rate at which opponents score in transition.
Finally, the Warriors love passing. In both the regular season and the postseason, Golden State led the NBA in assists per game. In the regular season, the Warriors were second in percentage of field goals that were assisted. The Cavs have excelled against assisted buckets this postseason. The team is third in the playoffs in limiting opponents' assists per game. In each series, the Cavs have made it difficult for even pass-happy teams to score off assists, as shown in the table below.
|Regular Season||Against Cavs||Difference|
The Warriors three main offensive strengths are three of the Cavs' most improved defensive qualities. As the old adage goes, defense wins championships. Led by an improved defense, the Cavs find themselves four wins away from a title. Yet those four wins will prove incredibly difficult against a seemingly unbeatable Golden State team. Our projections give Cleveland just a 21 percent chance of winning it all.
We'll just have to wait and see.