The Cleveland Cavaliers currently have the longest winning streak in the league with seven games. While their offense has been very good for most of the season, it’s been their ability to turn things around on the defensive end that has helped the wine and gold move up in the standings.
While the absence of Derrick Rose has helped increase the ball movement and fluidity the team plays with, assigning all the blame to him wouldn’t be fair. With the roster turnover the team faced, it was always going to take time for them to develop chemistry and continuity. Over the winning streak the Cavs communication has been much better and you can see guys know where to go and when to rotate.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com did a great breakdown of the Cavs blitzing defense and how it has helped turn things around on defense. In the piece, Kevin Love opened up about how the blitzing strategy is a good fit for this roster:
"I feel like once we have gotten our rotations down we've always been able to be good in the blitz," Love said. "We're just a group that thrives on that because we don't have -- even with Channing (Frye) -- a five-man that's like a classic big."
"We knew something had to change. Or something had to give," Love admitted. "We're still not where we need to be and you can see that. We're still not putting it together like we should be able to for a large span. I'm not saying in the past we always did that, but we did it for longer efforts and more sustained effort while we were historically good on offense."
The intention of this strategy is to limit penetration to help make up for the lack of a rim protector. By forcing elite wings to give up the ball and not allow them to get into the paint, you force teams to initiate their offense with players that aren’t as comfortable doing so.
Tyronn Lue credited the Cavs blitz for their ability to limit Kemba Walker during the Cavs 100-99 win over the Hornets:
"I mean, the best pick-and-roll player in the league I think they said, um, numbers wise," Lue said. "Tough cover, so we just wanted to try and get it out of his hands and I thought by us blitzing him, him trying to dribble around the blitz and split, he got a little worn down, got a little tired, and the shots he usually makes, he missed because I thought the blitz really wore him down."
Early in the season the Cavs communication wasn’t at the point where they could play this way, but now we’re starting to see that trust grow.
The pairing of Jae Crowder and LeBron James on the perimeter was supposed to negate a lot of the easy penetration from the wing that we’ve seen in the past. But with James in “chill mode” at times and Crowder adjusting to a new team and role, that defensive effectiveness didn’t materialize, leading to Tyronn Lue going back to a frontcourt of Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love and LeBron.
It’s very encouraging that the Cavs are finding a way to be effective defensively without their anchor in Thompson. While Thompson was likely limited by knee pain prior to his calf strain, he should be able to help take the team to another level defensively if he returns and remains healthy.
The season-long numbers are still ugly, but we are seeing the capability for this team to play defense well enough to make another Finals appearance. When you consider that we are still in November with a lot of the team hurt, it’s hard not to feel good about the direction of the team this season.