The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night, falling behind early to the Toronto Raptors before a comeback ultimately was quashed in a 105-99 loss. That evened the series at 2-2, and a big reason for both of those wins now has been the play of Bismack Biyombo. Biyombo has been unstoppable on the boards in the past two games, following up his enormous seven point, 26-rebound effort in Game 3 with five points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks last night. Biyombo has been a significant problem for the Cavs, even more so than DeMar DeRozan (32 points in both games) or Kyle Lowry (who had 35 points, five assists and five rebounds last night).
Biyombo has done most of his damage on the glass, grabbing an astounding 42 of 53 rebound chances across both games. Grabbing 79.2 percent of available rebound chances is a near impossible task - for reference, LeBron James led qualified players in total rebound chance percentage in the regular season at 74 percent. What Biyombo has done on both sides of the glass has been pretty incredible, and it's coincided with a big dip in Tristan Thompson's rebounding numbers. Thompson has gathered a healthy 17 rebounds over the two losses, but they've come on 37 chances - a 45.9 percent chance rate, well below his healthy 62 percent conversion rate for the playoffs.
Biyombo and Thompson have spent a lot of time matched up with each other, and Biyombo has taken the advantage on the glass on both ends. On the defensive glass, Biyombo has done a great job of beating Thompson to ideal positioning, forcing him to take the long route to a rebound, or simply just getting a body on him:
On the offensive end, he's been in the right place at the right time, using his incredible reach to get in lanes that most players couldn't dream of accessing.
Tristan's long and athletic, but he has struggled in this series to combat the little extra limb length and quickness of Biyombo in the paint. Biyombo also has the fortune of being able to be around the rim more than Thompson has this series. The Raptors are still playing more of a traditional look, with Biyombo usually sharing the floor with one of Luis Scola or Patrick Patterson. Those two have the presence and ability to be able to act as the primary screeners and offensive options the Raptors need to free up Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, allowing Biyombo to crash into the lane. Meanwhile, the Cavs' offense has allowed Biyombo to do the same on the defensive end. For a majority of the series, the Cavs have played in four-out sets, with three shooters surrounding a pick-and-roll that often involves Thompson. As you can see in the second image above, Biyombo does not consider Thompson a threat beyond 10 feet, and is able to slink back into rebounding position as soon as the shot goes up. The Cavs have had effectiveness with this plan before, when they make their threes; but shooting 27-82 on three-point attempts opens up a lot of rebounding chances, and Biyombo's been a major beneficiary.
Biyombo has also been a problem on the defensive end, where he's contested 29 field goal attempts in the two games, per SportVU. He's been able to stick back at the rim for much of these two contests, where he's a formidable challenge due to his length. He's also capable on the perimeter in isolation and pick-and-roll situations, where he's been able to get a hand on a few shots and done a decent job when tasked with defending Kevin Love and even LeBron James for stretches. His seven blocks and Game 3 success rate at the rim (Cavs shot 1-8 with Biyombo contesting) have, along with the lack of three-point success, helped to totally dishevel the continuity of the Cavs' offense.
However, in the fourth quarter of Game 4, as the Cavs were making their roaring comeback into the game, they rediscovered the problem that frustrated the Raptors so much in Game 1. They went to a lineup of Channing Frye, Richard Jefferson, and LeBron James in the frontcourt, and that group quickly turned a 78-69 deficit into an 84-83 lead, setting the stage for the wild finish between the two teams. With Frye and Jefferson in over Love and Thompson, the Cavs were able to blitz the Raptors' five-out lineup with Patterson and James Johnson up front, and when Biyombo checked back in, they were able to neutralize him while he guarded Frye, opening up lanes to the basket for LeBron and Richard Jefferson.
Frye is Biyombo repellent on defense, as he both takes away Biyombo's presence at the rim and after a shot, because it's harder to crash the glass when a shot goes up when you're trailing a guy who moves around the perimeter off the ball like Frye. Biyombo only had one defensive rebound in his first six minutes of fourth quarter action, before the game slowed down in the final two minutes and he picked up another pair. The way the Cavs used Frye did a great job of neutralizing all of the things that made Biyombo a weapon in the previous seven quarters.
Now, I am not (NOT) advocating for playing Frye over Thompson and Love here. The Cavs were still very bad defensively with Frye at the five, and that five-out lineup had no realistic way of deterring DeRozan and Lowry, the Cavs' biggest issue in the fourth quarter. They need Thompson for that, because of his quickness and ability to switch pick-and-rolls onto either, and also could stand to use Love, with the way he's played defensively in this series. However, they can use the same principles they use with Frye to do damage with their starting lineup.
Bless Biyombo for all of his physical attributes, but the more you make him think on the defensive end, and the easier things will be for your offense. When the Cavs have gotten Biyombo in help defense situations, he's been hesitant to commit to one decision versus the other, and that has opened up some good looks for the Cavs earlier in the series. Even if Biyombo is sticking to Thompson, the Cavs can make him work by sticking Tristan out wide away from the basket, and then running a LeBron/Love pick-and-pop to the opposite side, with Kyrie and J.R. Smith. If LeBron gets a step to the rim, he forces Biyombo to think about whether he wants to rotate to LeBron, or risk giving up offensive rebounding position and alley oop potential to Thompson. hit the pick-and-pop to Love, and that split second hesitation can create other rotational miscues around the Raptors defense, freeing up open looks for the shooters. Heck, even running backside action with Thompson as a decoy screener has been enough to get Biyombo zeroed in and out of position in this series:
Biyombo has been fantastic in the Raptors' wins, opening up many things that the Raptors have wanted to do offensively while helping to eliminate Cavs possessions through rebounds and impact plays at the rim. However, he is not an unsolvable puzzle. The Cavs can neutralize Biyombo on the defensive end by making him play help defense, forcing him to make quick decisions and pulling him out of position with more complex offensive actions. Making more than 31 percent of your threes would help, and that will likely help open things up for the Cavs as well, which will help them better dictate the game. Jonas Valanciunas also should be ready for Game 5, which will inherently limit the time Biyombo gets on the floor, allowing the Cavs more opportunities to play without an elite rim protector on the floor. While the Cavs have struggled with Biyombo, helping his cause for a potential max contract this summer, they can also very easily neutralize him, by going back to what made them successful early in the series.