David Blatt indicated he wasn’t happy with the Cavaliers’ defense after their win over the Pelicans earlier this week. He said he was a “little disappointed” by the moments of lethargy his team has had on that end of the floor and that it can’t get caught sleeping for stretches of games if it hopes to beat great teams.
This was a reasonable gripe. Even though the Cavaliers won to move to 3-3 on the season, their inability to consistently get stops against New Orleans was cause for concern. Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson combined for 59 points and New Orleans shot 44.4 percent from three and rung up 117.1 points per 100 possessions.
The goal for the Cavaliers heading into Friday night’s game in Boston? Signs of defensive improvement. Instead, Cleveland allowed seven Celtics to notch double-figure points in a 122-121 win. For those keeping score at home, Boston shot 54.5 percent from the field, scored 116.2 points per possessions and recorded a 61.7 true shooting percentage (which adjusts for the value of three-point shots and free throws).
It was through James’ sheer force of will – along with timely fourth-quarter production from Kyrie Irving – that Cleveland managed to avoid a loss to a probable non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference. LeBron dropped a season-high 41 points, seven assists and four rebounds to help the Cavaliers overcome a 19-point fourth quarter deficit. James attacked Boston’s defense and met little resistance, particularly in the paint.
His shot chart shows that he scored 10 of his 14 points near the basket. When James is consistently getting what he wants inside, the best course of action is to tip your cap and start the next possession.
Yet focusing on James’ brilliance overlooks Cleveland’s defensive issues. Entering Saturday, Cleveland ranks ahead of only the woebegone Lakers in defensive efficiency. Through seven games, the Cavaliers have hemorrhaged 111.0 points per 100 possessions, more than the Celtics team (109.7) they edged Friday night.
Cleveland will win a lot of games on the strength of James alone. It may even be able to take down most of the East in a playoff series that way. But that’s not a viable long-term strategy, as far as the Cavaliers’ preseason expectations go. As Blatt suggested earlier this week, Cleveland is going to need to shore up its defense to consistently beat the league’s best.
If there’s a silver lining from Friday, it’s that the Cavaliers stepped up defensively when they needed to. After yielding 42 points on 73 percent shooting in the third quarter, Cleveland allowed only 20 in the fourth, including only seven in the final seven minutes. Still, the big-picture takeaway is that the Cavaliers forge ahead without showing meaningful defensive progress.
After the game, Irving suggested Cleveland’s defensive woes are a matter of commitment.
"It's an ongoing process," Irving said, according to ESPN.com. "It's part of the things we got to learn as a team, especially if we want to win in this league. It's more or less a commitment that we have to make day in and day out and commit ourselves every single play that every possession is important. Once we realize that [we will improve]."
If that’s the case, then perhaps Cleveland is closer to turning the corner than their recent performances indicate. But at the same time, the Cavaliers aren’t exactly loaded with top-end defensive personnel. They lack rim protection, Irving and Dion Waiters offer little resistance on the perimeter, Kevin Love can be had on the low block and even James has shown some slippage this season.
The good news is that the Cavaliers have most of the regular season in front of them to figure things out. How that process will unfold remains to be seen.