Alex Raulli from the Cavaliers blog Fear The Sword was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the Cavs and Celtics leading up to the series kicking off tonight. Here are his answers to my questions.
1. Much hand wringing was done during the regular season, in particular in reference to the Cavaliers' defensive woes. It seems that the switch was found and Ty Lue's "secret plan" was unveiled. What changed?
The most important change is the level of effort from the Cavs. LeBron James has shifted into playoff gear and the rest of the team has followed suit. Iman Shumpert looks great after a rather dreadful regular season. J.R. Smith has drawn the assignment of the top wing scorer in each of the first two series and done a solid job. Deron Williams no longer looks like a train-wreck. And Tristan Thompson looks rejuvenated after taking some games off for the first time since his rookie year.
The other notable change to my eye is that the defense is now being tailored to our opponents. Instead of playing basic, vanilla defense like the regular season the Cavs are aggressively attacking the top scorers on the opposing team. Paul George scored 28 PPG against the Cavs, but his TS% was 3.5 points lower than his regular season mark despite shooting 42.9 percent from beyond the arc. This is because he shot a dreadful 16-46, .348 inside the arc, proving unable to score either from mid-range or in the paint. Likewise, DeMar DeRozan scored 20.8 PPG in the Toronto series, but his TS% was 4.1 points lower than during the regular season. You can expect a defensive game plan centered around Isaiah Thomas, perhaps with a wing like Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith cross-matching as the primary defender. The goal will be to make your primary scorer less efficient than the team in general, a goal the Cavs accomplished in both series to date.
2. LeBron James and 4 shooters is nightmare-fuel. I don't even have a good question for this. Please write words.
The good news: this postseason with LeBron on the court and Tristan Thompson off (every other guy in the playoff rotation is capable of making threes) the Cavs have a dreadful 124.4 DRtg. So you guys probably will be able to score on these lineups.
The bad news: they still have a +13.4 Net Rtg over these 193 possessions, due to an inconceivable 137.8 ORtg. It’s just not possible to defend these lineups well. LeBron James demands help defenders, but how do you help off Kyle Korver or Channing Frye? Do you allow Deron Williams to get the ball in a triple-option stance with his defender desperately trying to recover? A concession has to be made somewhere, and since these lineups are usually matching up with the opposing bench (aside from the 26-point comeback against IND and the occasional Love-Frye unit) they just aren’t equipped to handle it. The Cavs effortlessly produce great looks from these lineups. So do their opponents, of course, but the Cavs have better shooters than anyone except the Warriors.
3. The Celtics can also run out a 5-out offense where shooters spread the floor and give Isaiah Thomas room to penetrate and kick. In the past teams like the Cavs have been able to trap Thomas, but this year the Celtics have had more success finding the open man. What's going to be the Cavs best strategy to slow them down?
My best guess would be that the Cavs will pick what they consider to be the weakest link in your 5-out lineup and dare them to consistently drain the 3-ball. They’ll help off that player to contain IT, dare them to shoot, and not allow any second chances. If that player proves up to the task they’ll test out the next weakest link. This is a strategy they’ve consistently employed in the playoffs over the last several years: against Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green on the Warriors, Jeff Teague on any team that happens to employ him, Dennis Schroder on the Hawks, Serge Ibaka or P.J. Tucker on the Raptors, the shooting guards on the Pacers. More often than not, they get the better end of this deal. It puts the player in question in an uncomfortable situation, shooting more often than they’d like, or forced to try and make plays when that’s not their usual role.
If I had to guess whom they will target on the Celtics, guys like Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown come to mind. Al Horford and Amir Johnson likewise may get this treatment. So far this postseason they’ve admittedly shot well, but in each case the history is somewhat questionable. If the Cavs find a wing that LeBron can safely help off of then the Celtics offense is going to struggle.
4. The Raptors were supposed to be one of the few teams set up to slow down the Cavaliers. They had great guards (before Lowry went down), versatile wings and bigs, and they were top 10 in both offense and defense. They even made deadline deals to shore up their rotation specifically for the Cavs series. Other than Lowry getting hurt, why wasn't that series at all close?
That series really highlighted how good LeBron James really is. Toronto tried to defend him by taking away the paint, an approach Atlanta previously attempted. The primary defender would sag off a little bit in order not to get blown by. All Raptors had their eyes on James, ready to help in the paint. Instead of charging into the teeth of the Toronto defense, LeBron mostly picked them apart from the perimeter. Nailing pull-up threes and firing crisp passes to set up his teammates, who were using off-ball screens to spring open while the defense was watching LeBron. It’s just a very difficult task to both protect the paint and the perimeter against LeBron with 3-4 shooters around him. As the series went on the Raptors tried different looks, but when LeBron is draining jumpers he’s equipped to pick apart any defensive scheme. He mercilessly forced switches in the pick-and-roll, nailing threes in Ibaka’s face or posting up on guards. When they sent help he’d find the open man, and when they didn’t he’d get to the rim and dunk. The Cavs have managed a 118+ ORtg in seven of their eight games this postseason. For comparison, the Warriors have eclipsed that mark in just four of nine games. If the shooting cools off the Celtics may be able to hold them under that mark in a few games, but this is an offense capable of breaking even the best defenses when they’re shooting well from downtown.
5. Series predictions: Who wins, how many games, who's the MVP, and who's the unsung hero who steps up to swing a game or two?
The Cavaliers had a week and a half to prepare leading up to this series, and they’re playing their best basketball of the year (and some of the best I’ve seen since The Return). The Celtics are a good team and they have home court, but they’re coming off a long series against Washington with only a day off in between. I know you guys won’t like to hear this, but I think it’s going to be a sweep. Not because the Celtics will play poorly; Toronto played some very good basketball (particularly in game 2) and it just didn’t matter. LeBron is always the MVP in the playoffs, but Tristan Thompson and his rebounding will be a key factor in this series. It’s just so discouraging for opponents when they finally force a miss just to have Thompson give the Cavs a second or third chance, and he’s been very successful against Al Horford in the past.