Have the Cleveland Cavaliers finally rounded into a real threat to the Warriors and Spurs?
Midway through the season the Cavaliers—owners of the best record (30–11) in the Eastern Conference—fired their coach, David Blatt, and replaced him with assistant Tyronn Lue. A month later a loss to the Wizards dropped them to 41–17 and left the team just two games ahead of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference.
Since then Cleveland has gone 24–8, a mark bettered only by the Warriors’ 26–6. Included in that run are eight straight postseason wins. Behind shooting guard J.R. Smith, who has made 31 three-pointers and two two-pointers in the postseason, the Cavs have twice broken the NBA record for threes in a four-game series, with 57 against the Pistons and 77 against the Hawks.
So what do we make of Cleveland’s turnaround? SI hoops writers Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney and Andrew Sharp discuss.
Have the last three weeks changed your mind about the Cavs’ title chances?
BG: Yes. Last year’s playoff run bore many curses: terrible injury luck, tension with Blatt, and an offense that became reliant upon LeBron James to an unhealthy degree. Cleveland can’t ask for better fortune, camaraderie or offensive balance this season. Through the first two rounds the Cavs rank first in offensive efficiency and first in three-point percentage. Last year’s knockdown, drag-out style that featured heavy doses of James in the post has given way to a more modern look that has made full use of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, while also encouraging nice contributions from shooters like Smith and Channing Frye. With an easier path to the Finals than any of the teams in the West and the opportunity for plenty of rest now, the Cavaliers are sitting pretty. Their title hopes still rest on how their so-so defense holds up against the league’s most efficient offenses, but the last three weeks suggest James & Co. can keep up in a shootout, something that was simply impossible last year.
RM: It’s good to see Cleveland put away all the extracurricular nonsense to play its best basketball yet. The Cavs are excellent. I’m just not sure they’ve done much to ease the skepticism regarding how they would match up with the even better squads likely to make it out of the West. It’s not really a criticism, after all, to say that they aren’t quite up to the level of two historically great opponents.
AS: Yes. This Cavs’ regular season was full of subtweets and existential dread. I watched them get blown out by the Wizards in February, and even the notoriously carefree J.R. Smith said, “We gotta figure out what’s wrong with us.” Now. . . . They appear to like one another? Basketball actually looks fun for them again.
This is psychology as much as strategy. Sometimes you just have to beat up on the Hawks to remind yourself that the world is not ending because of Steph Curry. Winning meaningful games has helped everyone relax and trust each other, and that makes a difference on the court.
Did firing Blatt make a difference?
BG: The underlying logic was sound. There was simply no natural connection between James and Blatt, and a team with championship aspirations can’t withstand such an obvious and important weak link. The Cavs eliminated an ongoing source of passive-aggressive conflict and trusted that a reinvigorated James would carry them through the transition. Catering to James can be a double-edged sword, as Cleveland learned in 2010, but the short-term effects have been undeniable. James appears happier and the on-court chemistry appears better. The next time someone says, “Boy, the Cavaliers really miss Blatt,” will be the first.
RM: It has, in subtle ways that are good for the team’s overall health. For all that Blatt did well, the players never seemed to trust him fully. Lue garners more respect. It’s funny how that helps, whether in a baseline commitment to the game plan or in receptiveness to in-game adjustments.
AS: In a literal sense, no. Blatt could have gotten them this far, right? But the players had tuned him out, and adding Lue is probably part of the momentum that’s helped change the mood in Cleveland.
Will Irving, LeBron work together?
BG: The James-Irving tandem has never functioned more effectively than it has during the first two rounds. While James remains firmly in the driver’s seat, Irving is helping him enjoy a less-is-much-much-more postseason. James’s scoring, shot attempts and usage are all way down from last year’s playoffs, but he’s been more efficient and his shooting percentage is up because he’s playing fewer minutes, he’s taking fewer low-percentage shots and he’s no longer the sole initiator on offense.
When both James and Irving were on the court against Detroit and Atlanta, Cleveland’s offensive rating was an off-the-charts 119.5, as they took turns breaking down defenses. Lue turned to smaller lineups loaded with four or five shooters to max out Cleveland’s drive-and-kick weapons and force the Hawks into grueling perimeter rotations. It took two seasons for James and Dwyane Wade to fully click in Miami, and history seems to be repeating itself with James and his newest sidekick.
RM: The trouble comes when the matchups turn and a team—likely one in the West—is able to actually make the Cavs sweat. The play-to-play stakes just haven’t been high enough in these first two series to create any real tension.
AS: Kyrie has looked much healthier than he did during the regular season, and he’s spending less time dominating the ball on possessions that end with contested 22-foot jumpers. That’s a good thing, because LeBron becomes significantly more dangerous on a team that’s whipping passes all over the court. Will it last when the Cavs play the best teams in the league? TBD.
J.R. Smith. Explain.
BG: He needs a clearly defined and stable role to be successful. He found that in 2013, when he won the Sixth Man Award for a Knicks team that reached the second round. But when health problems decimated Cleveland’s ’15 postseason, he was in over his head. Expecting Smith to step up as a No. 2 guy against the Warriors in the Finals was asking too much. As a fourth option, though, he could be the x-factor that helps tilt the 2016 Finals in Cleveland’s favor.
RM: If Smith could be explained—and thus understood—he might be a superstar. Something about his game is downright mystical. When J.R. is able to tap into the ether to become one with the universe, he hits damn near every shot he takes. When he gives in to his whims, he often winds up tanking the Cavs for minutes at a time. His judgment, shooting and focus are all so deeply variable that it should put Cleveland on edge.
AS: J.R. Smith should be enjoyed responsibly by mature adults over the age of 21. If your offense is becoming dependent on J.R. Smith on a nightly basis, seek professional help immediately. If you’re pregnant or think you may become pregnant, do not watch J.R. Smith, as your baby may emerge shooting 30-footers and riding a floating scooter.
Who’s the player not enough people are talking about?
BG: Iman Shumpert. Beating the West’s best will require the Cavaliers to maximize their perimeter versatility and interchangeability. At 6'5", Shumpert has length, intensity and quickness. Cleveland will likely find itself pressed into using ultrasmall lineups in the Finals—with James or Love at center—and Shumpert would be a natural fit thanks to his ability to defend multiple positions.
RM: How about this for a deep cut: Richard Jefferson looks like an actual, semieffective postseason rotation player in the year 2016. Sometimes he’s a small-ball four, taking on certain responsibilities so James doesn’t have to. In other cases he works as LeBron’s backup—and one of Cleveland’s more consistent wings.
AS: Delly. He’s the sort of obnoxious, relentless role player that becomes twice as valuable late in the playoffs. This is a guy who went so hard he wound up dehydrated in the hospital during last year’s Finals. If you were a superstar guard, would you want to deal with him?
The Cavs hit 77 threes against the Hawks. What do we make of that?
BG: The phrase everyone will be screaming is regression to the mean. That type of torrid shooting just doesn’t last, especially as the competition gets tougher. After ranking 11th in assist ratio during the regular season, Cleveland is up to No. 2 in the postseason. Its spread lineups are making simple passes to find open shooters in much the same way that San Antonio and Golden State have.
RM: This is who the Cavs are now. A clean look at a three is a great shot for them. And with the best drive-and-kick engine in the league surrounded by so many marksmen, they can create those shots whenever they want.
AS: Those threes were so cruel. It’s like the Hawks wandered into the middle of a natural disaster. It wasn’t a fluke, though. Most of those threes came on wide-open looks, so of course they were falling. In that way the shooting numbers are both a) outrageous; and b) a good indication of how well this team has been running its offense the past few weeks.
Can the Cavs win a rematch with the Warriors?
BG: The Warriors swept the season series with ease, they were demonstrably better defensively this season, and their go-to small-ball lineups would dictate the matchup terms in the series. But the Cavs are a much tougher out this year, not only because Irving and Love are back but also because LeBron should be far less burdened. They’ll be poised to capitalize if the Warriors can’t recapture their regular-season brilliance once Curry returns or if his injury issues resurface.
RM: They could avoid it by playing the best defense this team has ever played. Smith and Shumpert will have to track Klay Thompson step for step. Irving and Love will have to guard the pick-and-roll with uncanny precision. Transition defense cannot be an optional exercise, nor can closeouts to the perimeter. The Cavs have it in them to do most of these things at a reasonably high level. Beating the Warriors would take more.
AS: They can go small with Love and/or Frye up front. Let LeBron be the best player in the world, and see if he can make everything else irrelevant. Hope that a balky knee renders Curry a little bit more mortal. There are a lot of ways it could work.