The last team with an undefeated record in the playoffs is the Cleveland Cavaliers. For all the trials of the regular season, the team appears to be clicking at the right time and taking care of business against the Detroit Pistons, and now the Atlanta Hawks. I hesitate to say that this team has flipped the switch, because that would suggest that they willingly were not playing this way all season and were waiting for the games to matter to start trying. Grievances have been aired throughout the season, adjustments and sacrifices have been made by everybody and it's culminated in where the team is standing today.
The biggest difference between the regular season and the playoffs has been the play of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. All three have been assertive, decisive and playing within defined roles. The aggressiveness of Love, taking open shots when he has them, battling for position and playing physically in the post offensively and defensively has been big for this team. When the offense would look disjointed in the regular season, it would usually be a result of guys passing up open shots, not knowing where to be and simply relying on their talent to try and make bad shots. With the way the big three is playing, it allows everybody else to settle into their roles and know what is expected of them. There is no guessing game. Even when one of them is struggling or going through a shooting slump, they are still taking the same shots and playing the same way. They know who they are and are playing with an identity, which allows players like J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and the rest of the bench to fill in the cracks of whatever else is needed.
The catalyst,as always,has been LeBron. He's been playing with an incredible level of fire and intensity throughout the playoffs and it's opened up opportunities for the rest of the team. A staggering 45.5 percent of his shots are coming from within three feet of the basket. But not only is he applying pressure by attacking the basket, the percentage of times he passes when he drives is up to 41.8 in the playoffs from 30.1 percent last season and 25.7 percent his final year in Miami. James is showing confidence in his teammates, the ball is moving and they are getting great shots as a result of it. When your best player is this unselfish, aggressive and trusting in the players around him it's hard not to follow that lead.
Irving and Love have also been stellar in the playoffs. Irving has a PER of 28.2, an assist to turnover ratio of 3.67 while averaging 26 points and 5.7 assists per game on a true shooting percentage of 60.2 percent. He has been a hyper-efficient terror that has taken over whenever the team has needed a lift. While Love has contributed a strong 17.2 points and 12 rebounds a game in the playoffs. While he'll never be a defensive ace, his man is shooting 2.5 percent worse than their expected FG% overall and has held Al Horford to 7-20 shooting so far in the playoffs. He is erasing second chance opportunities for the other team with his defensive boards and buying extra possessions alongside Thompson up front.
While five man lineup data is noisy and the Cavs starters have only played 133 minutes together, they have a plus 23.1 net rating in the playoffs. You can't say enough about the contributions of Thompson and Smith and the intensity they have brought on both ends of the floor. Smith has shown discipline and maturity while still keeping his undying belief that he can make any shot at any time, while Thompson continues to do all of the little things, create extra possessions and play defense at a near elite level so far in the playoffs. The Cavs are finally putting their best players on the floor together and the chemistry is through the roof.
The Cavs have played two very well coached teams and Tyronn Lue has shown that he is a quick learner in the playoffs. Don't be deceived by how the games against Atlanta have gone so far, they are a very good team loaded with talent. The Cavs present a matchup nightmare for them, but unless the San Antonio Spurs advance to the Finals this will be the best defense the Cavs will face in the playoffs.
The focus of this season has largely, and deservingly so, been on the historic season put forward by the Golden State Warriors. But if the Cavs can keep playing like this and stick to this new-found chemistry and identity, they should be able to push the Warriors and have a fighters chance in the Finals, should they face them. The team is having fun, trusting each other and playing a beautiful brand of basketball. No matter how the playoffs end, as long as they play this way the ride should be incredible and enjoyable.