The Cleveland Cavaliers are shattering records for three point makes so far this postseason. Alex Ralston did an excellent job explaining how this has happened. In this article I'm going to examine the degree to which the Cavaliers have altered their style of play.
The Cavaliers were a high-volume three point shooting team all season long. They had the third-highest percentage of field goal attempts taken from beyond the arc at 35.2 percent, trailing only the Houston Rockets (37 percent) and the Golden State Warriors (36.2 percent). League average is 28.5 percent, so all three of these teams are definite outliers in their shot selection.
But in the postseason they've taken this tendency to a whole different level. Here's a breakdown of where they shot from both in the regular season and the postseason:
Restricted area: 29.9 percent in regular season, 27.6 percent in the postseason
Paint (non-restricted area): 13.6 percent in regular season, 10.5 percent in the postseason
Mid-range: 21.3 percent in regular season, 19 percent in the postseason
Three-pointers: 35.2 percent in regular season, 42.9 percent in the postseason
No team has ever taken more than 40 percent of their shots from beyond the arc for a whole season. It is simply unprecedented.
Let's zoom in on the player most responsible for this change. J.R. Smith took 60 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in the regular season. He's now taking 88 percent of his shots from deep so far in the postseason. Digging deeper, he took 10.8 three point attempts per 100 possessions over the course of the year. That's up to 12.1 over the last seven games. But what's really interesting is that his usage has actually decreased drastically, from 17.8 percent to 12.8 percent.
He's not the only one to see a decrease in usage:
- Tristan Thompson: dropped from 11.6 percent in the regular season to 10.6 percent in the postseason
- Iman Shumpert: dropped from 13.3 percent to 10.3 percent in the postseason
- Richard Jefferson: dropped from 13.6 percent to 10.5 percent in the postseason
- Timofey Mozgov: from 16.5 percent in the regular season to 9.3 percent in the postseason
- LeBron James: from 31.1 percent in the regular season to 28.9 percent in the postseason
If all these players are decreasing their usage, then who is absorbing the extra shots?
During the regular season LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love played on average 68.5 percent of the available minutes in any given game. In the postseason this has jumped to 75.1 percent. They've maintained roughly the same usage rate as a group, but the fact that they are simply on the court more often has greatly helped the supporting players to stick strictly to their roles. They don't have to create anything or make things happen. So when they do take a shot you can be confident that it's a very high quality look (okay, maybe not always with Smith but this is certainly true of everyone else).
But there's another factor that you might not expect. Matthew Dellavedova has seen his playing time decrease from 24.5 minutes per game in the regular season to 15.9 minutes in the postseason. However, this decrease in playing time has allowed him to make a much bigger impact when he is on the court. His usage is up to 19.1 percent, compared to 15.9 percent in the regular season. His true shooting has increased by 1.8 percent. His assist percentage has jumped from 26.5 percent to 36.8 percent. Often, an increase in usage or assists will correspond to an increase in turnovers. However Dellavedova has actually decreased his turnover rate drastically. During the regular season his assist to turnover ratio was 2.91, which is a solid number.
Chris Paul, perhaps the most efficient passer in the league, had a 3.8 assist to turnover ratio. In the postseason, Delly has a 9.33 assist to turnover ratio. That's just an incredible number. His minutes have dropped by 35 percent, but he's increased his usage, his shooting efficiency, and his assist rate while decreasing his turnovers. While I can only speculate as to the reasons for these frankly unbelievable changes in his game, there is no doubt that his performance has had a huge impact on the effectiveness of the Cavalier bench. He's really the only player outside the Big Three that has retained any ball handling and shot creation responsibilities in the postseason.
It is often debated in the media whether teams can 'flip a switch' for the postseason. It's easy to doubt a team that is performing far differently than the baseline established over 82 games in the regular season. But the reasons for the changes in the Cavalier's performance make sense. LeBron, Kyrie and Kevin are playing more minutes and thus absorbing a greater share of the shot attempts.
This allows the role players to decrease their usage and only take good shots. It also allows the bench players to focus their energy into fewer minutes, allowing them to be more effective while on the court. It may seem like a small and straightforward change from the regular season, but perhaps many of us simply underestimated the impact of having three stars on the court for a long time every game. While 46.6 percent three-point shooting likely isn't sustainable, the high quality shots the Cavs are consistently producing may last for the duration of the postseason.