The first two games of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ series against the Toronto Raptors has been rather comfortable. The Cavs have jumped out to a 2-0 series lead, and haven’t met much resistance along the way.
The two-pronged attack of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has been effectively neutralized. Lowry has played well, as he’s averaging 20 points and eight assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three. But he’s had his production, at the very least, matched by Kyrie Irving. Who has recorded 23 points, 10.5 assists, and two steals per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from three. This was a matchup that Toronto needed to win by a significant margin to have a chance, but that simply hasn’t been the case.
The other significant factor in controlling the Raptors has been the limitation of DeRozan, who is averagig 12 points per game this series while shooting 33.3 percent from the floor. The Cavs scheme of aggressively trapping DeRozan has proven to be incredibly effective, however the individual defense of J.R. Smith deserves the most credit when it comes to shutting down the All-Star.
With Smith on the floor, DeRozan is shooting 22.2 percent. With Smith off, a blistering 55.6 percent. When you look at the regular season, this isn’t an anomaly. DeRozan shot 37.5 percent with Smith on the court during the regular season, compared to 46.3 percent when he sat, per the NBA’s Impact stats.
On the offensive end, Smith isn’t setting the world on fire. While he is shooting well, he’s scored just six points in each of the games against the Raptors. Yet he is finding a way to significantly impact the game.
Not only is Smith playing aggressive defense on DeRozan, but he is also playing it with discipline. The Cavs trapping schemes have made it difficult for DeRozan to gain momentum, and make his way to the basket. But in addition to that, Smith is not falling for pump-fakes or any of the other tricks DeRozan uses to get to the line when his route to the basket is cut off.
As a result of this, he has only attempted eight free throws through two games. A significant success for a team who stated their goal was to force the Raptors’ guards to make shots, rather than letting them get to the line.
The efforts of Smith on the defensive end have not gone unnoticed by the team. Both Tyronn Lue and LeBron James spoke about Smith after last night’s win had the following to say per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
"I really challenged J.R., especially with Paul George, of just saying that, 'You have the assignment of guarding Paul George, and we're going to [let] LeBron roam. He's going to guard him throughout the course of the game and the course of the series, but you have the responsibility,'" Lue said. "By doing that, it's given Bron a chance to play extended minutes and being able to roam and play fast and play with a pace. Like I said, you've got to give credit to J.R."
"That's two of the best 2-guards we have, especially in the Eastern Conference, if not the whole league," James said of Smith's task of shifting from George to DeRozan. "He's accepted the challenge. We've tried to just communicate on the back line of defense, second and third of the defense. Just let him know that we're protecting him or what's coming up or what's going on behind him. He's taking the challenge, so we just want to continue to do that."J.R. definitely made himself into a two-way player. We said it all last year, said it in the offseason, and because of injuries, he didn't get much of a rhythm for the regular season. But I feel like he's back in form where he left off last year in the postseason."
Smith’s defining trait will always been his three-point shooting, and the childlike joy he gets from the game of basketball. In many ways, he breathes life into this Cavs roster and will always be one of the more cherished members of the team. But what separates him from the team’s other shooters is his ability to do the little things, to dig in defensively, as well as provide play-making if needed.
It’s these traits that separate Smith from the rest of the shooters on the team. He can bring more than one thing to the table and is a significant piece to the Cavs championship puzzle (literally and metaphorically). It’s why the Cavs invested in him with a four-year deal worth $57 million. Two of the biggest question marks on the defensive end heading into the playoffs were the health of Smith and Tristan Thompson. We know that LeBron will elevate his game, but the Cavs need their best wing and interior defenders to be stellar in order to allow James to fill in the cracks.
When those three are fully engaged defensively, it becomes possible for this roster to compete at the required level to truly contend for a championship. With Irving and Love increasing their defensive effort, the starting lineup becomes truly formidable on both ends of the floor.
Over the last three games, the Cavaliers have put up a defensive rating of 101.1 — well below their regular season number. There were hiccups on the defensive end at times and moments of inconsistency. But with this team healthy and fully engaged, they are looking like the contender they told everybody that they were. The switch has been flipped, and Smith has been essential.