Tyronn Lue and the Cleveland Cavaliers have proven that they are willing to sacrifice in order to protect their game plan. The Cavs defense drew the ire of many on-lookers as they lost multiple games down the stretch of the regular season while giving up elevated point totals to their opponents. Still they stayed their course and stuck to their plan. Despite national ridicule, the Cavs showed no signs of panic. While fans cried out for tangible improvement, the team remained steadfast in their defensive preparation only to be unveiled in the post-season.
The coaches and players worked behind closed doors, knowing how they would attack their opponents defensively but never showing what they were fine-tuning. All the while losing winnable games to keep their strategy under wraps. Lue said as much in late March after his team had just surrendered 125 points in a loss the Washington Wizards:
"We've got to hold back. We can't show our hand early because ... these are some good teams and we don't want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do...We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there, and then we will see what happens."
With the playoffs well underway, it’s been so far so good as the Cavs have looked like a different team defensively, handily discarding of their first two post-season opponents in back-to-back four game sweeps. With the Eastern Conference Finals tipping on Wednesday, are the Cavs still holding something or someone back?
Richard Jefferson was phased out of the Cavs rotation in their 1st round series against the Indians Pacers. In Games 1 and 2, Jefferson was on the floor for 18 minutes and then 11 minutes after averaging 20.4 minutes per game over the entire regular season. In Game 3, he played just four minutes before being completely omitted from play in their close-out game Game 4, in Indianapolis. There are plenty of plausible reason for this when looking at the Indiana series. Perhaps Lue didn’t feel the match-up was right for Jefferson.
However, the trend continued as Jefferson would only see the floor for six total minutes in the Toronto Raptors series, all of which came in Game 2 as he received DNP’s in the other games of the series. Now, Jefferson has been a mainstay on the Cavs second team for the entire season. Did he just get squeezed out by a shrinking playoff rotation? I think it’s unlikely.
Jefferson is 36 years old and was all but retired after last year’s run to the NBA Championship. It is more likely that as Lue saw his team hitting their stride and dominating their first and second round opponent, he found it unnecessary to burden the aging Jefferson with minutes. Even as the Cavs would empty their bench at the end of games in the Raptors’ series, Jefferson remained comfortable on the sidelines in a long sleeve t-shirt and tear-a-way pants, congratulating the starters as they came off the floor. If Jefferson had simply received a demotion of sorts, he surely would have been deployed in garbage time. However, he remained in high spirits on the sidelines as if his absence was part of the plan.
Remember the role that he played in the 2016 NBA Finals. Jefferson was vital to the Cavs success against Golden State’s small ball line-ups. He averaged 5.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals a game while averaging 24 minutes per, in the epic seven game series. He was even more impactul when you look at his lines in the Cavs four Final’s wins.
Game 3: Win 120-90 - 33 Minutes, 9 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals
Game 5: Win 112-97 - 14 Minutes, 8 points, 3 steals
Game 6: Win 115-101 - 32 Minutes, 3 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals
Game 7: Win 93-89 - 26 Minutes, 2 points, 9 rebounds, 1 steal
It remains unclear what Jefferson’s role will be against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but if the Cavs continue to be dominant with a combination of Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye and Deron Williams in the rotation, it could be part of the Cavs plan to rest Jefferson for the Finals, a spot in which he was immensely effective against the Warriors last year, and when he is needed the most.