Another playoff series, another sweep. The Cavaliers finished off the Raptors Sunday for their eighth straight victory this postseason and 11th straight playoff win overall dating back to the 2016 Finals. After three lopsided wins, it might seem difficult to find new takeaways, but there are still a few things that can be gleaned from the Cavs’ 109-102 series-clinching win Sunday.
Kyle Korver is still giving opponents nightmares.
Now, coming off the bench for 18 points while going 4-6 from three-point range is obviously enough to frustrate any opponent. However, it goes deeper than the box score. Korver irritates defenders simply by being on the floor.
In the second quarter of Sunday’s game, LeBron James went to set a down screen to free up Korver. Rather than getting Korver open, the screen actually freed up James because both Raptors defenders jumped to suffocate Korver for fear of hi knocking down an open 3-pointer. Aggressively guarding Korver on the screen burned Toronto because James was wide open for an easy slam after rolling to the basket. On the following possession, Cleveland went right back to the same set, and it resulted in another Cavaliers basket. This time, though, Toronto did not jump to Korver. Instead the Raptors attempted to just fight through the James screen, which allowed Korver to get enough space to sink a 20-foot jumper.
Plays like these happened several times in the Cavaliers’ first round series with Indiana as well, and it is easy to see why. Because of Korver’s shooting ability, there is practically no way to guard that set. Either take your chances with Korver shooting a jump shot or overplay him and leave James open on the roll. Even if the defense rotates to the rolling James, there will still be someone open on the back side, and James is more than capable of finding the open man in that situation. All this is to say that Korver is in his opponents’ heads. His mere presence on the floor changes the way defenders think and forces them to make mistakes. Oh, and then there’s the fact that he is one of the best shooters in the NBA. That frustrates opponents too.
Kyrie fought through a tough shooting day
Through the first three quarters Sunday, Kyrie Irving was 7-18 from the floor. In the past, a less than stellar shooting day like that might have gotten to Irving, causing him to withdraw from the game. That was not the case in game four, though. Despite struggling with his shot for three quarters, Irving stayed engaged at both ends of the floor. While he was not hitting like normal, Irving again affected the game in ways other than scoring.
The most notable way he did this was by distributing the ball to his teammates and helping them get easy looks. One of the many criticisms that have plagued Irving in his fairly young career is that he is prone to play selfishly offensively by pounding the ball repeatedly and then forcing up a tough look. Though Irving did not totally stop looking for his own shot during his slump, he clearly made a conscious effort to get everyone else involved, which is evidenced by his team-high nine assists. Irving was equally active on the defensive end Sunday. Sure, he will likely never be classified as a lockdown defender, but four steals, a block and five rebounds is a pretty impressive stat line for just about anybody.
It’s reasonable to think that his overall activity throughout the game helped fuel his 11 point fourth quarter. Had he disconnected from the game like he used to, Irving likely would not have had that crucial 11 point outburst over the span of 2:15 late in the fourth. Irving’s consistent effort is an encouraging sign for Cleveland because the deeper the Cavaliers go in the playoffs, they will need their second-best player to be active and engaged regardless of production.
The Cavaliers’ defensive strategy is based on risks
For the fourth straight game, the Cavaliers blitzed DeMar DeRozan nearly every time he came off a ball screen. They alternated hard and soft double teams when he had the ball in isolation situations. Basically, they never let him get comfortable. He finished with 22 points Sunday, but he did so on 8-18 shooting from the floor and 6-9 shooting from the free throw line. Slowing down DeRozan is a winning game plan because everything that Toronto did went through him. Giving him so much attention came at a price, though. It meant that other Raptors were left open. For the first three games in the series, this was not an issue, as Toronto had shot a meager 27.9 percent from three-point range in the series coming into Sunday.
It was a different story in game four because the other Raptors actually made Cleveland pay when they were left open. P.J. Tucker went 4-7 from deep on his way to a 14-point game. Serge Ibaka scored a team-high 23 points while going 10-18 from the floor. Cory Joseph put up 20 points to go along with his 12 assists. Looking at the stats for Tucker, Ibaka and Joseph, it may seem like Cleveland’s defense struggled Sunday, but their big days were still not enough for Toronto to extend the series because it could not get DeRozan going against the Cavs’ defense. Playing DeRozan so attentively and essentially letting everyone else get theirs was a bit of a gamble, but it was a smart one. Few teams have the firepower and depth to go shot for shot with the Cavaliers, so why not bate them into trying?
It would not be surprising to see the Cavs take a similar approach against their next opponents. Given that the Celtics rely heavily on Isaiah Thomas and that the Wizards do the same with Wall, it would make sense for the Cavs to do it again regardless of who they end up facing in the Eastern Conference Finals. It is important to remember that if someone is left open opposite of a double team, it is probably intentional because the Cavs will continue to dare role players to beat them until they prove that they can.