Since he was hired, Tyronn Lue has preached pace with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and heading into the Finals, he says that he wants them to push the pace against the lightning-fast Warriors, per Cleveland.com.
"We just have to play our game," Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. "We're not going to slow the ball down and be at ease. We're going to push the pace, try to get easy baskets early in transition but make sure we're taking good shots."
Lue's insistence on fast-paced basketball has many chalking up the team's offensive burst to its commitment to playing with pace, but the numbers don't really jive there.
The Cavaliers offense did indeed improve significantly under Tyronn Lue, posting a 110.6 offensive rating, which was good for third in the NBA in that span. That was improved from an ORTG of 105.6 under David Blatt. That doesn't mean they were playing faster.
Prior to David Blatt's firing, the Cavaliers played at the league's third slowest pace at 95.05 possessions per game. That's actually slower than the famously slogging Memphis Grizzlies. Under Lue, the Cavs have only averaged 95.91 possessions per game. Obviously, that's a higher number, but it's not indicative of a paradigm shift.
Instead, getting Kyrie Irving, who missed much of the first half of the year, back on the court is likely the better explanation for the team's offensive growth. Also, the team acquired Channing Frye to bump their three-point shooting and scaled back Timofey Mozgov's minutes in the process.
In the playoffs, the Cavaliers have held true to the form they showed all year. They've played the third-slowest pace of all 16 teams, with an average of 91.83 possessions per game. The slowest team was the Pistons, who, as you might know, played the slug-speed Cavaliers in their only playoff series this year.
This isn't an indictment of Tyronn Lue's system, by the way. It's proven to be literally impossible to get a LeBron James-led team to play fast, despite his pretty obvious transition prowess. The only time any LeBron team has finished higher than 15th in pace was his rookie year under Paul Silas. He's just a methodical player, preferring to choose selective times to leak out and really push. He likes to think the game, and that often holds up in the halfcourt.
It's easy to be fooled by the Cavs high-octane offense so far. The team is making more threes than any team the history of the Playoffs at 14.4 per game, and 15.7 per 100 possessions. In the pace-and-space era, there's a tendency to assume pace with three-point bombing, but this team still picks its spots.
The team also has seemed to run into its sets a little faster, which appears to up the pace. They're still methodical once they get into those sets though, but the extra time that comes with getting into your set with 20 seconds left as opposed to 17.
Despite the fact that Tyronn Lue would like to play fast, the slow pace is probably helpful against the Warriors. The Cavaliers have been among the best teams in stopping their opponents from getting buckets in transition so far these playoffs. They're second among the 16 playoff teams in opponent fast break points per 100 possessions at 8.5. In fact, the Cavaliers are in the 100th percentile in points allowed per possession in transition defense so far in the playoffs. The Warriors, for a frame of reference, have scored 16.7 fast break points per 100 possessions, so that tug of war is going to be an worthwhile battle to watch.
The Cavaliers are still very effective in transition when they do decide to run. They actually finished second in the NBA in points per possession in transition at 1.20, per NBA.com. That doesn't necessarily mean they should lose their minds and attack in transition at all times against the Dubs. Part of their efficiency comes with picking their opportunities, and that could drop off if they are a little less picky.
In summation, the Cavaliers aren't playing faster, and that doesn't seem to be a problem. They're very effective in the halfcourt, and they can still score efficiently when they look to push the pace. The personnel is different this season, but the battle over who controls the pace of each game could still define the series. Luckily, this year the Cavaliers are equipped to do both.