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Visualizing the run to the NBA Finals: A look at what's working for the Cavs

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The Cavs have found their winning formula

Jason Miller/Getty Images

For the first time in the team's history, Cleveland will have back-to-back shots at an NBA Championship. Now they just need to win one. The Cavaliers punched their ticket to the 2016 NBA Finals over the weekend, closing out the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors in six games with an 113-87 win in Toronto. They'll face the winner of the Western Conference Finals Game 7 starting on Thursday. I pulled game log data from the Cavaliers 14 game postseason run to help visualize the Cavaliers journey to the finals.

Through three series in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have looked like a better version of their regular season selves. Much of this is owed to adjustments from the players themselves: Kyrie Irving has come all the way back following his knee rehab (up almost 5 points per game in the postseason) and functions as a formidable counterpoint to LeBron JamesKevin Love found a place in the offense (and a shot) after struggling to find a rhythm in season, and James has been comfortable sharing the championship expectations and workload with his teammates.

A look at the playoff minutes and points per games from the starting units and benches reveals an interesting trend, as the Cavaliers starting five (James, Irving, Love, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson) have shared the most minutes per game of any of the final four teams, and a slight edge in points per game. This, in large part, from James's role as the leader of the second unit. However, with the starters workload, the remaining players in the Cavs rotation have averaged the fewest minutes and second fewest points (31 combined points per game almost the same as Oklahoma City).

In the graph, "starters" were defined as players with at least half the game starts for the postseason (Sorry Bismack Biyombo). The minutes and points disparity spells out a couple things for the Cavaliers. For one, the minutes gap could have been even bigger except that the Cavs starters have sat out three fourth quarters entirely (and Love and Thompson sat out two more quarters). It's also in the nature of playoff basketball, where the gap exists to some degree for all Conference Finals teams. The teams with the smallest drop-off in minutes, Toronto and Golden State, have had to rely on their bench after key injuries to a starter (Shaun Livingston for Stephen Curry, Bismack Biyombo for Jonas Valanciunas).

There's also the bias of playoff basketball to consider, the limited number of opponents can affect averages based on the level of difficulty and defense. With these playoff asterisks in mind, however, the Cavaliers starting unit is right there with the Thunder and Warriors, they may just need a few more minutes to get there.

A more detailed look at the scoring distribution of the Cavaliers tells an interesting story: consistency from James and Irving, and some variability from Love and Smith (and even Frye). Based on game log points totals, I created the below box and whisker plots. (A quick note on the plots: the grey box represents the range of scoring performances for 75% of the games. The extending lines, or whiskers, represent 1.5x the range of the grey box. All points outside those lines are typically considered outliers.)

In the postseason, Irving has a median points total (slightly) higher than James, but both have been consistent and shared leaders for the offense. Shooters like Love, Smith, and even Frye have had their games as well, with others like Love's 4-of-13 performance in Toronto. Meanwhile, Tristan Thompson has yet to score in double digits all postseason. A look at rebounds and assists helps fill in the playoff picture with the role that the bench has filled (and how much of a box score monster James continues to be, a 24/8/6.5 median).

Two more graphs (some of my favorites from nyloncalculus.com), give an idea for what the Cavs are capable of in the Finals, some incredible shooting:

  • A plot of playoff player true shooting percentages versus usage percentages (filtered by at least 10 minutes per game) shows James and Irving up there (although not quite) with Curry and Klay Thompson. Some impressive shooting from Smith, and a ridiculous hot-streak anomaly from Channing Frye that begs to be tried out in the Finals (82.1% TS).

  • A look at 3-and-D-ness (three-point percentage and defensive box plus minus), something that the Cavaliers will certainly need against the perimeters of both Golden State and Oklahoma City, shows positive signs. Adjusted for at least 3 attempts per game, the Cavaliers three-point parade from earlier rounds hasn't quite gone away. The Cavs have three players (Smith, Frye, Love) in the positive for DPBM at or above 44 percent three-point shooting. James, has been on par with Green defensively, but maybe shouldn't be shooting three-pointers. The case for Frye's minutes is also pretty convincing if he can stay on that "other" level (I doubt he will against the West.) Look also at how much Thompson and Curry have struggled against the Warriors defense. Durant also appears to be on a three-point shooting slump worse than even the Raptors. Both Thunder players are attempting almost 6 three pointers in the postseason, without much payoff.

(Waiters Island Note: Shout out to Dion Waiters, a 40% three-point shooter and plus defender in the playoffs.)

The biggest take aways from the Cavaliers journey has to be three-point shooting, second unit minutes for James, and consistent scoring from Irving. It's a winning formula that has gotten them to the Finals. To win the last four games for a Championship, they'll need to keep the Warriors (probably) off the perimeter with Smith and Irving. They'll need Love to play up to his higher potential against front courts like Ibaka and Green. And they may need Channing Frye to stay right where he has been (but maybe with a few more minutes).

All data for graphs and figures from Basketball-Reference.com

[Bonus content: Check out and hover through the planetary-orbit-like game-by-game true shooting and usage of the Cavs through the postseason. The Cavs are gravitating towards 60%TS with Irving leading the way.]