When Tyronn Lue took over as the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach in January 2016, he immediately began talking about playing with pace and he hasn’t stopped since. After a Game 1 loss in the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue faced ridicule from the media, saying that he was playing right into the Golden State Warriors hands by pushing the pace. “Trying to speed up against the Warriors sounds a bit like challenging Secretariat to a footrace,” said Sean Deveney of Bleacher Report. Still Lue remained steadfast in his message to his team.
“I don’t think we played fast enough...I don’t think we pushed the pace and were aggressive attacking in transition. I think in the third quarter you saw when we were able to get stops and get out in transition, that really opened the game up for us and we were able to go from a nine-point deficit to going up three points by playing faster and being more aggressive in transition.”
The Cavs played with speed and pace and we all know how that chapter ended.
So far in the 2017 NBA Playoffs the Cavs have been at it again, pushing the pace more and more with each series until Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals saw some of the best Cavs basketball since this group was assembled.
In Game 1, the Cavs deployed the same trapping, aggressive defense that limited Paul George and Demar Derozan in rounds 1 and 2 onto Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics. The pressure proved more effective than ever, forcing Thomas into bad shots and turnovers. The Celtics had no answer and even worse for Boston was what it lead to on the other end of the floor. Feeding off of their defensive intensity, the Cavs played offense at a torrid pace, pushing the ball at every chance they could get. The result was an impressive blow-out win at the TD Garden.
In Game 2, the Cavs came out with even more intensity on defense, completely bottling up Thomas before he left the game at halftime without a field goal on 0-of-6 shooting from the field. The Cavs took their offensive pace to a whole other level as they combined their frenzied pace with great shooting and ran the Celtics right out of the gym.
With news between Game 2 and 3 that Thomas would miss the rest of the playoffs with a hip injury, most assumed we would just see more of the same from the Cavs in Game 3. What we didn’t take into account was how Thomas’ absence would change things.
Certainly, The Celtics took a different approach without Thomas. They were forced to move the ball and get into their sets quicker because there was no Thomas to play high pick and roll with. On the defensive end they didn’t have to worry about hiding Thomas and could play without the fear of him ending up in a horrifying mismatch.
Still, the biggest change occurred just because Thomas wasn’t on the floor, not because of anything the Celtics did in particular. With no Thomas to focus on shutting down the Cavs went away from their double teams and high traps, sitting back in a conventional man to man defense. It affected the Cavs pace right from the start, but no one noticed because Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were raining in triples from everywhere.
With no Isaiah Thomas to key on the Cavs defense lacked the swarming, harassing identity it had taken on. By not trapping and being forced to sprint across the floor to contest open shooters, they lost the urgency they played with in Games 1 and 2. In Game 1, the Cavs had nine steals as a team and turned the Celtics over 14 times. In Game 2, they had 10 steals and the Celtics coughed it up 20 times. However, without Thomas in Game 3, Cleveland had just five steals and Boston limited their turnovers to just nine. It comes back to playing with pace and speed, turning the Celtics over led to run-outs and transition baskets which led to momentum which leads to more speed, which is when the Cavs are at their very best.
Their is no doubt that the Celtics deserve some credit for the way they played and the resolve they demonstrated in a truly improbable win. It should be pointed out though, that the Cavs took themselves out of what they were doing best because their opponent’s star player was no longer present. Should the Cavs start running two guys at Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley? Probably not, but they must find a way to get back to the intensity they had ratcheted up when they were blitzing Thomas and making the Celtics uncomfortable. Not just because defense wins, but in this case, because intense defense leads to fast offense.