- Cleveland's win over the Raptors showed that LeBron can occasionally bail the Cavs out but they still have major defensive liabilities.
Here’s what we know:
• So long as the Cavs have LeBron James, they can create quality offense against any team in the league.
• And so long as their roster is constructed as it is now, their defense will spring leaks all over the floor.
Cleveland’s win Wednesday over the top-seeded Raptors served as a stark reminder of both. It was James who propelled the Cavs to a thrilling comeback with 35 points, 17 assists, and—somewhat miraculously—zero turnovers. Yet it was Cleveland’s defense that created the need for such a performance in the first place. The Cavs have been notoriously deficient on that end of the floor this season, but on this night they were in rare form. It took only a half for the Raptors to pile up 79 points, a shocking proportion of which were scored in completely uncontested fashion.
That doesn't spell doom for the Cavs—only intrigue. Last season, Cleveland breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs with just a single loss. They outscored their opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions, exercising a systematic dominance that rendered a return to the Finals inevitable. The margin has since narrowed. The Raptors are playing their best basketball in franchise history. The Celtics, assuming Kyrie Irving's return from injury, play a smart brand of basketball demanding of their opponents. A LeBron-led team is in command until some challenger proves otherwise, but the fact that there are plausible challengers at all sets the stage for a dramatically different postseason.
If a good team moves the ball against Cleveland, great looks will materialize—a fact that Toronto demonstrated in front of a national television audience. Rebound consistently and the Cavs will give up ground. Play with physicality and their smaller lineups become less viable. Cleveland is both a tremendously talented team and one that cannot be counted on to make multiple defensive efforts. Extending a possession with side-to-side movement and multiple drives often finds their breaking point.
Their style of play—on both ends—facilitates high-level offense. The Cavs' own scoring efforts are in the best of hands. James made every incisive play necessary to secure a win Wednesday, no matter how improbable that seemed at halftime. No player in the league is better at internalizing the rhythms and movement of an opponent's defense. Some stars read and react. James just knows. The passes he makes are informed less by what a defense has done and more by what it intends to do—exploiting gaps in the coverage before they've even materialized.
To call the Cavs the favorite in the East only pays due respect to that level of comprehension. But consider this 132-129 barnburner against the Raptors a taste of what's to come. Cleveland may have marginally improved its coverage since turning over its roster at the deadline, but don't be fooled by its average defensive standing since the trade deadline. The new-look Cavs have only defended better than two or three teams who are actually trying to win games—a trend made apparent whenever a playoff-quality opponent pops up on the schedule.
The cakewalk is over. This is a defense accommodating enough to actually elevate its opponents—a vulnerability so significant as to demand the best of LeBron in response. Anyone who watches will be winners for it.