The Cleveland Cavaliers eviscerated their opponents in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals as if they were embodying the “6-foot turkeys” for which the Toronto Raptors are named.
Toronto hopped out to a 7-0 lead early, but it was all downhill from there. The Cavs led at the end of every quarter, and they eventually won by a staggering 31-point margin. Interestingly, the blowout victory was not tied to scorching-hot three-point shooting, which has come to define the Cavs’ recent postseason success.
In fact, Cleveland finished a mediocre 7-of-20 from downtown (35%). So how did the Cavaliers thoroughly dismantle the North? The answer lies in their game plan to attack the basket and draw contact. The Cavaliers went to the line 33 times and had more points from the charity stripe (26) than they had from beyond the arc (21). LeBron James scored a whopping 22 points right at the bucket, including a powerful, one-handed slam after he burned DeMarre Carroll on the baseline in the second quarter.
It was a dominant performance that showed the Cavs are truly rolling in the playoffs, three-point barrage or not.
Nevertheless, floor spacing and three-point shooting remains key for Cleveland’s title hopes. Using visualizations from PointAfter, we’ll break down what has made the Cavs so lethal this postseason, and what that means for the Raptors in this series.
Despite what Hakeem Olajuwon waxed poetic about for The Players’ Tribune, the traditional NBA big man is now an endangered species—well, at least those who don’t possess skills similar to "Hakeem the Dream" or Shaquille O’Neal. Plodding centers who are slow of foot and lack the capacity to knock down outside (or inside) shots are being phased out by small-ball lineups and an infatuation with the three-point shot.
Case in point: Timofey Mozgov.
The Russian center, who was acquired from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for not one, but two first-round picks in January 2015, has seen his role with the Cavs all but disappear this postseason. After playing 76 games (48 starts) and notching an average of 17.4 minutes during the regular season, Mozgov sightings have been only slightly more common than appearances from Bigfoot.
The 7'1" center has played in only five of Cleveland’s nine games thus far, averaging 6.6 minutes. He has as many personal fouls (five) as rebounds, and as many turnovers (two) as points.
Instead of leaning on Mozgov’s sheer size, head coach Tyronn Lue has turned to the three-point shooting of Channing Frye, small-ball lineups with Kevin Love at center, as well as the rebounding chops of Tristan Thompson. According to Basketball Reference, the top four five-man combinations Lue has used this postseason in terms of total minutes exclude Mozzy. He’s been banished to garbage time.
Frye, however, has provided a huge spark. As you can see in the visualization above, the veteran has made nearly 70% of his treys above the break—a truly absurd hot streak even in a small sample size.
He’s been a menace for opposing teams in pick-and-pop scenarios, flashing out above the three-point arc after setting screens for Kyrie Irving and others on the perimeter. Give Cleveland’s front office a lot of credit for going out and trading for his shooting and playoff experience earlier this year, because it’s paying big dividends.
Hot Hands Galore
Frye isn’t the only Cavalier raining down from beyond the arc. Irving, Love and J.R. Smith have all been virtually automatic from downtown, which has been the biggest reason why Cleveland remains undefeated in the playoffs through nine games.
All three guys are lighting it up like the rim is the size of a hula hoop. Even Smith, who cashed in on 40% of his three-point attempts during the regular season (tied for No. 21 in the league among qualified shooters), is somehow making them count at an even more efficient clip.
Even though Cleveland had a modest showing from three-point territory in Game 1, the hot shooting in the playoffs overall is a terrible omen for Toronto. During the regular season, only the lowly Phoenix Suns surrendered a worse opponent three-point percentage (37.7%) than the Raptors (37.3%).
Now, part of that equation is obviously poor luck; but perimeter defense plays a part, too. The Cavs didn’t need a barrage of threes to bury the Raptors by more than 30 points to start this series. So, what happens if they once they fire on all cylinders from deep? It’s safe to say Toronto doesn’t want to find out the answer to that question.
Ultimately, however, it hardly matters if the Cavaliers score by raining down from deep or charging back to the free-throw line. If Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan don’t find a way to rid themselves of their respective postseason slumps, the Raptors will suffer the same demise met by the Pistons and Hawks: a four-game sweep.