No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs No. 8 Detroit (44-38)
Detroit had a solid season. They were the No. 12 defense this year, with an emphasis on defensive rebounding (No. 2 in the league) and avoiding fouls (No. 6). Their starting lineup is full of athletic players: Reggie Jackson at the point, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris manning the forward positions, and they are anchored by one of the best young centers in the league, Andre Drummond. He has a real chance to become the best rebounder in league history. Stan Van Gundy is an excellent coach. He built some of the best defenses of this era around Dwight Howard in Orlando. How did the Cavs fair against this lot?
Game 1: 125.0 offensive rating
Game 2: 118.4 offensive rating
Game 3: 121.8 offensive rating
Game 4: 116.5 offensive rating
Series average: 120.4 offensive rating
For reference, the Golden State Warriors had one of the best offenses in league history this season. Their offensive rating was 114.5 for the year.
How did the Cavaliers accomplish this? Let's break it down piece by piece.
Two-point shots: 97/196, 49.5 percent.
Three-point shots: 57/138, 41.3 percent (setting a record for three point makes in a four game series).
Free throws: 49/67, 73.1 percent.
What is interesting here is not the shooting efficiency, which looks pretty normal, but rather the distribution. In a given game, a team will usually make a little more than twice as many free throws as they do three point shots. In this series the Cavaliers made eight more three pointers than they did free throws. They were shooting from the perimeter on an astounding 41.3 percent of their field goal attempts.
It is generally accepted that team defenses have far more control over how many three pointers the opposing team takes than the percentage they shoot. So while we can't fault Detroit for Cleveland nailing their three point attempts at a high rate, the fact that the Cavaliers produced so many quality looks from deep means that they effectively broke the Detroit defense.
Was it typical for Detroit to allow lots of three pointers? They actually had the lowest defensive three point attempt rate in the league this year at 24.3 percent.
Offensive rebounding: 40/163, 24.5 percent.
The Cavaliers made the second best rebounding team in the league look like the Brooklyn Nets on the boards. The Cavaliers effectively nullified their greatest strength.*
Turnovers: 31 turnovers on 394 plays, 7.9 percent.
During the regular season the Pistons forced turnovers on 12.5 percent of plays. This ranked 24th in the NBA, so it wasn't a strength. The Knicks were the worst in the league, only forcing turnovers on 10.5 percent of plays. Logically, given that the Cavaliers were producing so many quality shot attempts, one might expect there to be a cost in the turnover department. But in this facet of the game they once again performed far better than anyone could have reasonably projected before the series.
Okay, but the Pistons were merely above average on defense. How would the Cavs do against a team that's elite on that end?
No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs No. 4 Atlanta (48-34)
The Hawks finished season with the No. 2 defense. They are armed for battle on that end of the floor with athletic point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder, quality defensive wings Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and the often underrated Kyle Korver, and versatile big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford. Millsap made the second All-Defense team this year, and deservedly so. Zach Lowe put him third on his defensive player of the year ballot, having this to say about him:
Choosing Millsap for the No. 3 spot will raise some eyebrows, especially in Miami, where Hassan Whiteside rejected everything in sight. People don't think of Millsap as an elite defender. They don't think of him much at all, really. Being a low-key dude in Utah and Atlanta will do that.
But he has developed into the keystone of the league's stingiest defense since Jan. 1 -- a jack-of-all-trades with the speed to extinguish pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the basket, glue-trap hands that rip more steals than almost any big man in league history, and the guts to initiate an airborne collision at the rim. Millsap is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, by far a career high, and he's the only rotation player in the league topping 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per night.
He gets those numbers without gambling, and he can guard any position in a pinch. He's a horse on the glass, always does his job in transition and plays hard on every damn possession.
The Hawks defense finished the season third in eFG% and fifth in both TOV% and FT/FGA. Their lone weakness was on the boards, ranking 25th on the defensive glass. Surely these guys would prove a challenge for the Cavaliers? Let's see:
Game 1: 117.1 offensive rating
Game 2: 136.1 offensive rating (and a record setting 25 three-pointers)
Game 3: 127.7 offensive rating
Game 4: 110.3 offensive rating
Series: 122.9 offensive rating
Simply incredible. Let's break it down once again:
Two-point shots: 81/191, 42.4 percent
Three-point shots: 77/152, 50.7 percent (shattering the record they set against Detroit)
Free throws: 55/84, 65.5 percent
Wow. Look at those three pointers. That total is tied for the second most in a series of any length, and it happened in a slow-paced sweep. And once again notice the distribution: 44.3 percent of the field goal attempts were from beyond the arc. The Rockets led the league this year by taking 37 percent of their field goals from downtown. And yet, the Cavaliers were able to produce these looks almost effortlessly.
Now, the Hawks were selling out to shut down the paint in this series, so keep that in mind when considering both the volume and the efficiency. But there's a reason the second best defense in the league chose this route, as Dwayne Casey would soon find out.
Rebounding: 54/174, 31 percent.
The Thunder led the league in ORB% at 31.1 percent this year, with the next best team at 29.0 percent. This is just punishing when combined with their shooting from deep.
Turnovers: 49 on 429 plays, 11.4 percent.
This would've been just ahead of Charlotte for No. 1 in the NBA this year.
Against the No. 2 defense in the league, the Cavaliers produced an unbelievable amount of open threes, hit them at better than 50 percent, and were elite at both getting second chances and not wasting their first chance. I think there's an argument to be made for this series ranking among the best offensive showings in playoff history.
No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs No. 2 Toronto (56-26)
The Raptors had the No. 11 defense this year, which they paired with the No. 5 offense. They were a very good team, right on par with Clippers in the Western Conference. Kyle Lowry received 43 points in the voting for the All-Defense teams, including nine first team votes. His backup, Cory Joseph, might be an even better defensive player. DeMarre Carroll, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and James Johnson give them many solid options on the wing. Patrick Patterson is a very active defender at the four, and while starting center Jonas Valanciunas missed most of this series his backup Bismack Biyombo is one of the better defensive anchors in the league. The Raptors were No. 8 in defensive rebounding, and solid in every aspect of defense over the course of the regular season. How did the Cavaliers fair against the Biyombo-anchored Raptors?
Game 1: 124.9 offensive rating
Game 2: 116.4 offensive rating
Game 3: 99.0 offensive rating (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love shot a combined 4/28 in this one)
Game 4: 118.0 offensive rating
Game 5: 123.8 offensive rating
Game 6: 127.7 offensive rating
Series: 118.5 offensive rating
Amazing. One blemish on the report card there, but it was bound to happen once in 14 postseason games. No other game has been below a 110 offensive rating, and only game four against the Hawks was below 116.
One more breakdown:
Two-point shots: 162/288, 56.3 percent.
Three-point shots: 68/175, 38.9 percent.
Free throw shots: 107/140, 76.4 percent.
The three ball cooled down a little, but the two point shooting soared. Why? I can only speculate as to his reasoning, but I assume that Dwayne Casey watched what we did to Atlanta and decided to stick to our three point shooters no matter what. LeBron started the game 10/10 with every shot coming inside the restricted area. Finally, he misses one, gets his own rebound and lays it back in. Then, for good measure, he jacked a heat check three (miss!) just before checking out in the third quarter of game one. Turns out, there's a reason why Mike Budenholzer packed the paint.
Adjustments were made throughout the series, but all-in-all the Cavs had far more room to work in the paint during this series compared to the others. Still, 37.8 percent of their shots came from beyond the arc. After shooting under 35 percent in each of the first four games they went bananas in the last two in order to finish with a solid 38.9 percent mark from downtown.
Offensive rebounding: 49/215, 22.8 percent.
BIYOMBO!! You may remember his 26 rebounds in game three, pummeling the Cavs into submission. What you may not remember is that he totaled 9 defensive rebounds in Cleveland. No, not in one game. In all three COMBINED. Still, the Raptors did a solid job on the defensive boards in this series.**
Turnovers: 70 on 595 plays, 11.8 percent.
Once again, the Cavs were elite at not wasting possessions.
Over the course of this playoff run the Cavaliers have a 119.2 offensive rating, easily No. 1 in this postseason. They are also No. 1 in 3PAr and 3P%, and No. 2 in 2P%. They have produced high quality shots at a far more consistent rate than any other team. They are taking care of the ball, rarely turning it over. And they've bludgeoned each opponent on the boards, grabbing far more offensive rebounds than their opposition.
Defense wins championships? Some believe this, even claiming that Kyrie and Kevin will struggle to share the floor in this series because the Warriors will expose them. Perhaps. But then again, maybe the Warriors defense will struggle to share the floor with them.
* They did this on both ends, actually. Detroit only managed to rebound 18.4 percent of their own misses, a mark that would've ranked dead last in the league this year.
** The Raptors did, however, lose the rebounding battle as a whole rather badly, managing an ORB% of just 17.6 percent.