It’s hardly groundbreaking to make the claim that the Cavaliers offense is exceptionally hard to guard. Just ask the Blazers, who gave up 46 points in the first quarter to the Cavaliers on Wednesday night at the Q.
Amidst Kevin Love’s 34-point explosion, the Cavaliers had an offensive possession that was striking in how unfair it was to an opposing defense to try to guard. Let’s take a look.
The Cavaliers open this set with a Kyrie Irving-LeBron James pick and roll, and the Blazers are probably dead in the water the second they decide to switch the action. LeBron can bend the entire defense to him once he gets the ball in the post with Lillard on his hip, but it’s not as though the Blazers had a particularly palatable option.
This pick and roll is one of the hardest things to defend in the league. If Lillard and Turner trapped Irving, LeBron would have had a free roll towards the hoop and is one of the best short-roll passers in the league. If you go under the screen, Kyrie will pull from three, something he’s doing more often than he has in his entire career (6.2 3PA/game as compared to a 4.7 3PA/game career average.) A hard hedge and recover doesn’t really work either, as LeBron is too athletic and Kyrie’s ability to turn the corner is very real.
It’s also worth nothing that Evan Turner likely is not even remotely used to defending the screener in a pick and roll. Most teams can’t run a 1-3 pick and roll like this, so it’s foreign to a lot of defenders. In short, the Blazers might have played the opening action with more gusto, but they were picking their poison no matter what, and that poison led to LeBron James in the post against a weak defender and a mismatch in Damian Lillard.
At this point, the Cavaliers have spread out to give LeBron James as much room as possible. They’ve got the mismatch they want, and now it’s time to give LeBron room to attack. Tristan Thompson, the only non-shooter on the floor, hangs along the baseline, presumably for cleanup duty in the event of a miss.
Most teams would be content to let their player attack the mismatch with a field goal attempt, but as LeBron makes his move and draws the defense in, it’s very clear that they had loftier goals in mind.
LeBron James blows past Lillard, forcing Thompson’s man, Ed Davis, to help. This is the right choice, as Mo Harkless needs to check Kevin Love, but needs to stay close to keep Tristan Thompson off the glass as well as the Blazers have now committed Thompson’s man to helping on a LeBron shot.
Meanwhile, Love does something the best off-ball players do when the defense’s back is turned - he drifts to a better spot on the court. This disorients the defender to turn to find his man isn’t where he thought he was, and in this instance, gives LeBron a better angle.
Tristan Thompson looks like he’s blasting towards the rim to clean up a field goal attempt on the boards, but that is very much not what’s happening.
Instead of ducking in for an offensive board or shovel pass, Thompson absolutely levels Harkless with a (very illegal) backscreen. Harkless has absolutely no chance to get to Love (though he might have if Love had stayed on the wing instead of drifting the the corner) and Kevin continues his electric quarter with a wide open three.
Allen Crabbe could have potentially closed out, but that would have just left Kyrie open for a three at the top of the arc.
This kind of weak-side action is what separates good offenses from bad ones. The Cavaliers weren’t just content to get a LeBron-on-Dame postup. They got that play, sure, but then they took advantage of the defenses attention to get a wide open shot on the opposite side.
The Blazers made a few mistakes here and there, but this play is emblematic of the impossible choices the Cavaliers force you to make defensively. With this much shooting, passing and playmaking on the court, along with nuanced and interesting sets, the Cavaliers just put you in a position to fail defensively.
The Blazers just happened to be the latest victim.