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Understanding the Cavs’ newfound defensive success

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The Cavs have altered their defensive scheme in the playoffs. But can their success continue against Warriors?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense in the playoffs has been good. But has it been good enough?

That is the operative question as the Cavs gear up for a Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors. After posting a 108 defensive rating (22nd overall in the league) in the regular season, the Cavs rank third in the playoffs with a 104.6 defensive rating.

The biggest changes have been two-fold. First, the Cavs are only surrendering 1.02 points per possession in transition in the playoffs (third best) after giving up a historically bad 1.18 points per possession in the regular season. But more importantly, the Cavs have altered their defensive scheme to aggressively attack the pick-and-roll.

In the regular season, the Cavs’ pick-and-roll defense was all over the place, but they were largely content dropping a big man back to defend both the handler and roll-man while the guard fought over the screen.

This is no longer. Instead, the Cavs are aggressively hedging or trapping pick-and-roll ball handlers to take the ball out of the hands of players like Paul George, DeMar DeRozan and Isaiah Thomas.

As a result, opposing roll men have finished nearly two percent more possessions in the playoffs, but are scoring just 1.02 points per possession, down from 1.1 points per possession in the regular season.

The intended consequence of this hyper-active defense is the Cavs’ willingness to surrender open jump shots. After taking the ball out of the opposing star’s hands, the Cavs have forced players like Lance Stephenson, DeMarre Carroll and Marcus Smart to beat them from deep.

So far, this strategy has been successful.

In the regular season, 59.7 percent of the Cavs’ opponents catch and shoot jumpers were unguarded. They posted a 55.4 eFG% on these shots.

In the playoffs, the Cavs have not guarded 63 percent of the opponent’s catch and shoot attempts, per nba.com/stats. But the Pacers, Raptors, and Celtics have only posted a 52.1 eFG% on these attempts.

The plan is simple: make players who are not comfortable shooting the ball beat you. In Game 3, Smart (a career 29 percent three-point shooter) did just that, going 7-10 from downtown en route to the Cavs only loss of the playoffs.

But the Warriors are a different animal. They have posted a 64.3 eFG% on unguarded catch and shoot jumpers in the playoffs after posting a 59 eFG% on such shots in the regular season.

Aside from Andre Iguodala, who is just 3-24 on open threes in the playoffs, every other Warrior is a problem to leave open from outside.

The Cavs find themselves in a bind: fall back into a more regular season-like scheme or continue leaving jump shooters open on the backside of the defense. While the latter sounds like signing you own death sentence, the former was exposed in Game 3 against the Celtics.

Cleveland responded to Thomas’ injury by reverting back to a conservative defensive scheme, void of a star to trap in the pick and roll.

The result was Boston creating 31 open three-point attempts (making 14 of them), up from 23 in Game 2 and 24 attempts in Game 3.

While the old adage “live by the three, die by the three” usually applies on the offensive end, it embodies the Cavs defense so far these playoffs. To this point, the Cavs have lived. But the Warriors, with their legion of shooters, pose an entirely unique challenge to Cleveland’s newfound defensive success.