It felt like grad night at the Air Canada Center last night after the Cleveland took the Eastern Conference crown by beating the Toronto Raptors 113-87 to win the series four games to two. In the hall outside the locker room smartphones snapped selfies with the trophy, and later, J.R. Smith took possession of it. He stored it above his locker while he showered, and later was overheard telling it, “We’ll get you your sister in two weeks.”
Richard Jefferson interrupted the Big Three’s postgame presser, to let them know he was getting on the bus, and J.R. Smith waited by the podium for them to finish, trophy in his arm, playfully hectoring, “can we go now?” as the presser concluded. Everybody was in high spirits, soaked with water they splashed on each other (and the near-flooded locker room floor) in celebration as there wasn’t any bubbly on hand. (Toronto’s maintenance staff sends their thanks.)
The Cavs came into Toronto a week ago, perhaps a little overconfident after winning their first ten playoff games, a record for a rookie NBA coach. They’d been so dominant; it’s easy to see why it might’ve gone to their head. But that’s only part of the story: Toronto was a challenging opponent.
The Raptors are a good team with two near-superstars in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Toronto won only one less game than the Cavs during the regular season. They weren’t puff pastries with a crowd at their back. In the Raptors’ deafening den their oft-inconsistent play suddenly smoothed out. Bismack Biyombo almost out-of-nowhere became a difference maker in the paint, and the Cavaliers’ three-stroke disappeared as suddenly as Steve Sax’s aim.
This allowed Toronto to pop Cleveland in the mouth, leaving them with a dumb look on their face and a tied series. Like the two games the Cavaliers lost to Chicago in the Semifinals last year, it appears to have snapped the Wine and Gold to attention like the sudden appearance of a deer in the middle of the road on a late night drive home. One near-miss later, heart-pounding like your lover’s husband at the hotel room door, and awoke’s not an option but a certainty.
The Cavs flipping to the last channel at home on Wednesday, quickly dispatched the Raptors like strangers that show up unannounced wanting to talk to you about God. (“Alright boy-o, but first you’ll have to hear from me God. Do you know Bad Brains
? This is called ‘The Big Takeover
Second Quarter Yardstick
Heading back North on Friday, the Cavs got that same hard-nosed attitude through customs this time. All series the second quarter has been key; the winner took the quarter by double-digits in each game, establishing a halftime lead the opponent couldn’t overcome (though the Cavs got close in Game 4).
Last night the Cavaliers won the second quarter (thought not by double digits, 24-16) and took a 14-point lead into halftime. But the Cavaliers couldn’t put them away in the third. (For those unfamiliar with the idiom “put them away” it means to ice or finish another team, not “allow them to hang around.”)
But instead of putting the Raptors away, Toronto cut into the lead in the second, with their highest-scoring quarter (33) of the series. The Cavs had 31, but as the quarter wore on Toronto never bowed, matching their runs. Lowry scored 18 in the quarter including four threes. The Raptors closed it to 10 (this is, just for reference, NOT putting a team away) with 10:23 left.
Then, over a four-minute stretch in the fourth, the Cavaliers finally ripped the heart from the Raptors, serving it lightly braised in a rosemary-saffron sauce with artichokes and asparagus. The 14-3 run began with four layups and the poetically concluded with a pair of threes, as the Raptors yielded to Cleveland as Duran to Leonard with a begrudging “no mas.”
All series the challenge for the Cavs has been to properly balance their offense. While they’ve done a fine job of taking what the defense leaves you, there are times when it’s important to force the action. Such as in Game 5, when Lue told them to attack the basket through
Biyombo, if necessary.
“We talked about attacking the basket and being aggressive even if Biyombo is in the paint. Let’s be aggressive trying to go through him,” Lue said after the Game 5 win in Cleveland. “We talked about pushing the pace and getting out early in transition and attacking the basket.”
They can get open threes all night, to be honest. If they settle for them too much, their offense becomes too one-sided, forcing them to live-or-die by the three ball. That’s great when you’re making them at record rates, like against Atlanta. But when you shoot 82 at a little below league average rate, you may wind up like Abe Vigoda. (Dead, finally.)
Too many three balls also means more jump shots, and less free throws. Free throws are the most valuable shots in the game (see below). This was the basis for the team’s change in attack in Game 5. They felt they’d grown passive taking so many threes. The offense is drive and dish, taking advantage of the fact that Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are the Masters and Johnson
ASIDE: As any stathead will tell you, a pair of free throws (assuming 75% shooting), has an expectation 1.5 points per play/ppp. The three point shot is in excess of 1.0 ppp (assuming 34% or better shooting) but would need to be shot at 50% (3 times .5) to be as good a shot as two from the charity stripe. Similarly, a good 3-point shooter is more efficient than most shooters since 40% shooting of threes has 1.2 ppp, and it would require shooting 60% from two to equal that expectation. This, in a nutshell is the basis of the “threes or layups,” stratagem that drives the drive & dish offense and to a lesser extent “small ball.”
Trying to stop that penetration inevitably opens up catch & shoot 3s around the perimeter. Some of those you want to take – but sometimes you want to attack the closing guy, going by him and forcing another rotation, which opens up someone else, or perhaps it’s a help defender they can beat. (Nobody on the team’s better at choosing between shooting or “attacking the closeout” then Richard Jefferson.)
“It wasn’t the sets; it was the individuals, because a lot of their stuff one-on-one, they’re impossible to guard. Then you double-team and you open yourself where they have such great three-point shooters and a great willing passer in LeBron,” said Toronto coach Dwayne Casey. “They present a lot of problems.”
Last night the team did a good job of balancing the bombs with the ground attack, particularly LeBron James who went downhill all night, finishing 9-12 at the rim and scoring 33 with six assists.
"LeBron has been in these positions before," said Head Coach Tyronn Lue. "I just needed him to take charge and take the lead and just come out early in the first quarter and really set the tone of playing hard, of scoring the basketball, attackgin and moving the basketball. He really did that for us tonight."
Kyrie Irving was 5-9 at the rim and the pair had a dozen free throws collectively. Irving finished with nine assists, including seven in the first half and 30 points.
Kevin Love tossed in another 20 (with 12 boards) for 83 points total, which represents the most the Big Three have scored in the playoffs and their third highest-combined total in two years.
Picking At Worry Warts
We’re still a little concerned by things like that 8 of Love’s 11 shots were threes. That’s balanced by the fact that he got to the line six times, and he also dropped four dimes. (Is anyone else bothered when they play the ‘Dropping Dimes’ song when Love scores, as opposed to assisting?)
Similarly we worry about not getting enough inside play, whether through penetration or post-up. The Cavs have dominated at times and last night led 36-34 – not dominant but nicely balanced by the number of 3s (17-31) and free throws (16-21). Until the Games 3 and 4 in Toronto, we thought the playoffs had cured the team of its schizophrenia. Now we wonder if a tough shooting night might filter down in passive play at the other end.
We have niggling concerns about the heath of Matthew “TNT” Dellavedova’s wheels, which will be needed even more defensively next series, whomever the Cavs play.
We also worry about the ability of opposing point guards to penetrate. Lowry and DeRozan are a challenging pair, but still inferior to what they’ll face in Golden State and Oklahoma City. Without a rim protector the Cavs will need to continue to showcase a stout exterior and lots of quick help to catch loose drivers like an alcohol checkpoint. So far, so good – while Lowry and DeRozan got their points, the Cavs controlled them relatively well and limited their ability to get their mates involved (just 10 assists).
(Then again, there is this rather scary chart, with the implicit "small sample size" warning.)
Finally we’re a little worried about the fact that the Cavaliers didn’t open the early games of the series with the same energy as the last two. If the Cavs play the Thunder, it will be a big challenge to come out with Game 1 at home with good intensity, because that’s the first matchup is how most teams lose homecourt advantage. It’s also kinda a hard thing to prepare for. It’s one thing to practice hard but several players noted that doesn’t always translate to the court. It’s about mentality and isn’t as simple as “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
Reveling in the Glory
The Cavaliers aren’t perfect, and we’re not about to echo Golden State fans in being oblivious to their blemishes. That said, we feel the Cavaliers Big Three can matchup with either of the remaining Western Conference teams elite trios.
Plus this is a deep team. Hell, their “death lineup” features four reserves – how crazy is that?! The addition of Channing Frye, essentially replacing Timofey Mozgov, has been huge.
Let’s be honest, Frye isn’t a great interior defender (+8.6% FG, allowing 68% within 6’), but he’s passable, and more importantly, he’s a counter to interior big guys on offense by pulling them away from the paint. Opponent's bigs must deal with Frye, opening the lane for LeBron (or usually Delly) to drive. Opponents have no choice but address Frye's deep stroke (26-45 in the playoffs, 58%; 62% overall FG%, 82% eFG, meaning he averages 1.64 ppp). Even Johnny Wadd wasn't this potent.
Obviously when a guy is making two threes/game and shooting 60%, is coming off the bench that’s pretty awesome.
"Channing Frye adds another question to the mix because now instead of inside in the post, he stretched out in transition," said Raptors Coach Dwayne Casey. "Jonas tried and Bismack tried, but they're so used to going down adn taking that first rim runner [something Love does well, hint, hint
] and now you look out and there's Channing Frye at the three-point line. That's a problem."
Delly is the point guard that Kyrie isn’t, a pass-first guy whose head’s always up, suckering the defense toward him to open up a passing lane. Though his injury seems to have hurt his shooting (38% FG, 28% from 3, in playoffs) his assist/turnover ratio is 4.5 and his 98.7 defensive efficiency is second only to Channing Frye. (see aside below)
ASIDE: This is multicollinearity in action. As we explained here and here, there are some serious issues in using numbers derived from the +/- when a player is on the court, particularly when the sample is small (13 games) and the same players tend to be on the floor at the same time. It’s obvious that Frye and Delly’s similarly good numbers are in large part due to sharing the floor in the death lineup, which boasts the best point-differential on the team, though not by a lot.
Kyrie's Playoff Shot Chart
Kyrie has emerged as the offensive focal point – taking 1.3 more shots/game (19.2) than LeBron – while also averaging five assists against just 1.5 turnovers. He’s shooting 48% and 46% from three while averaging 24.3 points/game, just .3 behind LeBron, the difference in FTs/game between them. Little was said all series about Kyrie’s 1.8 steals/game (1.5 across playoffs).
Meanwhile, despite one bad and one meh game, Love has proven remarkably consistent. Pause and think for a moment if there is anyone at the team who had to sacrifice as much to find a role on this team. After couple years of Bonsai growth (prune/grow/prune again), Love’s role finally seems full-sized.
Love's Playoff Shot Chart
Love got off to a tough start inside the arc the first two series, but even-keeled
through the Raptors series shooting 45% from the field and from 3, while taking a smidge more 2s. He’s also taking four FTs/game, second on the team, and he had four blocks. He only averaged 5.7 rebounds, but had to give up a lot of size at times to Jonas Valanciunas and muscle/hops to Bismack Biyombo. Hopefully he can bring that back up to a performance like last night’s double-double.
Finally we come to the King that stirs the drink. It was always funny to us that Reggie Jackson called himself the straw that stirs the drink. We’d rather be the drink, right? Yet during these playoffs LeBron has taken it to a stature straw’s not seen since Jesus laid on it.
LeBron's Playoff Shot Chart
We’re pushing the point a tad. LeBron did lead the team in scoring (24.6), rebounds (8.6 to Tristan Thompson’s 8.4), assists (7.0), and steals (2.2). After last night, he’s even up to a respectable 32% from 3, and he’s beginning to feel it on that left side of the floor (see left). While he’s certainly the leader, he’s sharing the load more than ever, deferring to Irving and Love, building their confidence for the Finals
Yet when need be, he’s been able to turn it on, which is what he did last night, according to Tyronn Lue.
“LeBron came out early in that first quarter and really set the tone for us, I thought offensively and defensively. We had to just keep staying with our other guys with Kyrie and Kevin, know there was going to be an opportunity for those guys to step up and have to take over also, when LeBron got tired,” Lue said afterwards. “At the end of the first half, LeBron was dead. I think we played him 23 minutes in the first half. And he didn’t want to come out. Even at 30 seconds I took him out and he got made about it.”
Way to stay strong, Ty! We kid because we’re so impressed with Lue we don’t mind giving him a very little shit. He had these guys prepared for everything the Raptors did, and though he didn’t have the answer ready every moment, he found them quick enough.
In Game 4 he sprang the trap and blitz attack that worked so well on Lowry and DeRozan in Game 5. Last night, the Raptors adjusted by using the pick-and-roll less, and going one-on-one. That sorta worked. Lowry had 35 and DeRozan had 20. The next closest guy was Patrick Patterson with 9 points. The team’s 10 assists is a result of going one-one-one all game and not really being able to set up their other guys. That meant those two had to keep pace with the Cavs’ Three. They just couldn’t do it.
He’s No Lue-ser
Lue’s done a tremendous job under difficult circumstances. By all accounts, he liked and respected David Blatt. That can’t be how he wanted to come by his first NBA job. Then again, it’s hard to look bad coaching LeBron James if he doesn’t want you to look bad. (And vice-versa.)
For us, among the many things he did, we love (1) getting Kevin Love to put on his big boy pants, stop pouting, get aggressive and start behaving like a league top 10 player. (2) He’s won us over to making Kyrie an attacker. This has allowed LeBron to fill every other role as needed, including co-equal scorer. Just sharing the load is apparently enough energy for LeBron to be one of the league’s best defenders on top of best passer. (3) We like how he used a faster pace to sort of wean the team off their ISO and hero-ball tendencies.
Of course part of this is getting buy-in from LeBron, which if some scribes’ over-simplified hot takes are to believed, only required a well timed, “STFU, I got this.” But what’s amazing is he did this and didn’t wind up increasing the pace that much until the very end of the season. Now that the playoffs have rolled around, pace is back down to nearly the lowest in the league (only first round exits Memphis and Detroit played slower, even Indiana played faster.)
Finally, and arguably most importantly, Lue returned LeBron to leading the second squad to start the second quarter, along with starting Tristan Thompson and benching Timofey Mozgov, clearing the way for Frye to get a good 15 minutes/game as a stretch 5 (aka a center who shoots 3s).
Frye/Jefferson/James are a great veteran trio for the playoffs, who really know how to get open (check out Jefferson's back door work sometime), while Delly plays like a vet. Shump hasn’t been playing very defensively (+7.6 DFG%!!, .6 steals) but below our nose has put up fine offense line (49% FG, 47% 3P), with 1.1 assist to .4 turnovers.
It’s a lineup of nicely balanced strengths that has the advantage of performing against the opponents' reserves while playing an offense that is exceedingly hard to defend logistically. By the time the Raptors starters all got back in, they’re down by high double-digits.
All season Lue negotiated periodic brownouts, where the team just didn’t show up. They'd become passive, or a bad shooting day would bleed into defense. The effort simply was consistent and urgency wasn't there, whatever the ultimate diagnosis was. But he turned that around too.
“It happened after the Brooklyn game. Once we lost that Brooklyn game in Brooklyn, we really came together. We had a great meeting we talked about what we need to do going forward. The Big Three talking about what they needed from each other on a nightly basis to become great,” said Lue. “After that meeting, I’ve really thought we really came together and really started playing basketball the right way.”
He had the fortune of getting everybody at once, where Blatt had to juggle roles. Given the difference between playing three north or perhaps playing four in Toronto, you’d have to think Lue’s sending Blatt a fruit basket right now for doing well enough early in the season that they could fairly coast to the #1 seed. It came in handy, and might come in handy again, if the Thunder come out of the West (giving the Cavs homecourt advantage in the Finals).
Like high school seniors, now the Cavs head off for life/college to see what they’ll become. They’ve grown as a team and matured as a unit becoming a family as well as a juggernaut. Indeed on the brink of the NBA Finals, they’ve come full circle. They were the preseason favorites; then Golden State happened. Now, with the Warriors fighting off elimination, Cleveland’s back as favorite.
It wasn’t exactly 300
– the Cavaliers were never underdogs to win the Eastern Conference, and besides, the 300 all died! – but maybe From Here to Eternity
? It's certainly the right sentiment. The Raptors posed a similar threat as the Japanese did in WWII. While they definitely laid the Cavs low for a moment, there was little doubt how this Canadian franchise would fare against the Big Bad Wolf of The Land.
The energy and excitement are so great. It’s so different than last year where there seemed little hope around the team, despite the (at that point rather unexpected) sweep of the Hawks. Indeed we were left as the lone voice in the wilderness, saying the Cavs still had a chance while those Golden State media jugheads were talking about whether this would be an epic beatdown.
After Game 1, we wrote that the Media’s Lining Up Pallbearers But the Cavs Aren’t Dead Yet
. We were probably one of the few writers local or otherwise who truly thought it was possible. They won the next two, but failed to win it all, so, obviously we were wrong. Last year.
Now the city has a chance to truly bask in this moment and drink in the possibility it abjured (ultimately correctly) last year. It’s a chance that Cleveland could have it’s heart broken again. But if this was really the year Cleveland won it all, how would it feel in the ensuring years to know you didn’t take any joy in it until the deed was done?
Forget fear. Let’s embrace the possibility that decades of hopes and dreams come true in the next three weeks, and thoughts might then be able to turn from curse to, dare we say, legacy?
We want to apologize to loyal readers for the lack of video. Though we were able to fix our crapped-out laptop hard drive and reload all the software in the day between Games 5 and 6, when we got to the Air Canada Center, the video/download speed which was great the prior two visits, had a long brown note. We got nothing during the game and would have to rewatch segments of the game to assemble video.
With the pressers running past 12:30, a 15-minute walk to the car and half-hour drive to the hotel and no less than four hours of writing ahead (not to mention prep), we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it – not with the series over. Not with a long drive back from Toronto beginning after checkout. We hope you appreciate our apology and promise to have the video and screen captures/play analysis back in effect for the Finals. The NBA Finals begin Thursday June 2, but whether that’s here or in Golden State, remains to be seen...