If I told you before the playoffs began that the Cavs would have a 102.2 defensive rating after 4 games against the Indiana Pacers, you would probably have expected to be congratulating the team on a sweep.
Instead, the team that finished 3rd in offensive rating post-All Star Break limps into Game 5 deadlocked 2-2 with the Pacers because of its offensive struggles. Cleveland has posted a 101.1 oRTG though four games — dead last in the playoffs — and an abysmal 89.1 oRTG in second halves.
LeBron James has been his usually dominant self, averaging 32.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 8 assists on 54 percent shooting. But the struggles of his supporting cast have forced James to shoulder a massive burden — both in minutes per game (42.9) and usage rate (32.3 percent).
Let’s take a look at why the Cavs’ have struggled on the offensive end and what adjustments they can make heading into Game 5.
Looking for Love in all the wrong places
Arguably the largest reason Cleveland’s offense has struggled in the series is Kevin Love’s struggles. For the first time in his Cavs’ tenure, Love is being relied upon as the second option in the playoffs and he has yet to follow through on a strong close to the regular season.
Love is averaging 12 points per game and shooting just 36.2 percent from the field (47.5 True Shooting percentage). Game 4 was arguably the worst of his Cleveland tenure as he posted 5 points on 2-10 shooting (0-3 from three) and turned it over twice in just 29 minutes due to early foul trouble.
Never a high turnover player, Love has nearly doubled his turnover rate from 9.6 percent of his possessions to 17.9 percent of his possessions in the series.Thad Young’s physical brand of defense deserves a ton of credit for Love’s sub-par performance.
Love is shooting just 4-21 from the field when guarded by Young in the series and has committed 8 turnovers as opposed to just 3 assists. The Cavs have a putrid 90.3 offensive rating in the possessions Young has guarded Love in the series.
And there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight — Young was on the floor for every single one of Love’s 29 minutes in Game 4.
So what can the Cavs do to free Love from the clutches of Young and get him going in Game 5?
What they cannot continue to do is look for Love in the post. Love has scored just 7 points on 13 Post-Up possessions and only 3 of those have come when guarded by Young — all at the free throw line.
It was in this moment in Game 4 where Love looked completely beaten down by Young’s physicality.
Love does not have the strength advantage against Young and his inability to move him on the block has sapped one of his main strengths against most PFs.
So what can the Cavs do?
First, they can involve Love in more ball screen actions. Love has finished just 3 plays after setting a ball screen all series — and none since Game 1. And not the James-Love ball screen actions that the Pacers are switching.
But these 1-5 ball screens that the Pacers have been loathe to switch and have created pick and pop space for Love.
While this does require George Hill — battling back spasms that forced him to miss Game 4 — to be healthy, Love needs more space to operate rather than jostling for position with Young all game.
Speaking of space, another way the Cavs can get Love free are these Minnesota-style pindowns that Cleveland ran for him when he came back from injury.
Note again that Hill is the player setting a screen for Love to pop free — an important detail to avoid the Pacers simply switching the action.
Simply put, Cleveland has to put Love in better positions to succeed (and more positions to escape the clutches of Young). They cannot open Game 5 with another ambling Love post up and expect the same moves to yield different results.
Pick Up the Pace
After playing at a pace of 100.7 possessions per game (11th in the NBA) after the All-Star Break, one of Cleveland’s largest advantages appeared to be the speed their influx of new players brought to the court.
Partly due to Indiana’s defense, partly due to personnel combinations and partially due to LeBron James’ fatigue, this series is being played at a snail’s pace of just 93.6 possessions per game. That is over four possessions per game slower than the Kings’ 30th-ranked pace this year. No team has played that slow since the 2015-16 Utah Jazz.
After the Trade Deadline, Cleveland was an excellent transition team — running on 17.5 percent of possessions and adding 3.9 points per 100 possessions over average (per Cleaning the Glass).
In the playoffs, the frequency has not faltered (17.9 percent of possessions) but the effectiveness has. The Cavs are adding just 1.3 points over average in transition — a mark that would have only surpassed the tanking Suns and Mavericks in the regular season.
Despite his second half fatigue, LeBron James has not been the problem. Per Synergy, James has scored 24 points on 17 transition possessions in the series. But the rest of his teammates have scored just 38 points on 50 transition possessions — a putrid 0.76 points per possession.
Eleven of Cleveland’s 21 shots at the rim in transition belong to James and another two belong to Hill — including this Game 3 slam.
Part of it is a conscious personnel decision. The Cavs have gone to starting a LeBron + shooters lineup that features Korver, Smith and Love. While all three players are Spot Up threats, none are ball handlers and they are certainly not built to push the pace.
Cleveland’s main transition engines — Jordan Clarkson (1.34 ppp), Rodney Hood (1.23 ppp) and Jeff Green (1.17 ppp) have all seen their minutes slashed in the postseason.
But Cleveland is playing slow when they do play and particularly slow with Clarkson on the floor (a crawling 90.9 possessions per game pace). Maybe some of it involves giving Clarkson and Hood some rope and seeing if they can put downhill pressure on the defense.
Perhaps pushing the pace would be another way to get Love involved. He flashed some deep range on trail threes after returning from injury in the regular season.
Stuck in the Corner
One of the features of any LeBron James offense is his innate ability to create corner three pointers. In fact, James led the NBA with 128 assists on corner threes this season — 42 more than second place Russell Westbrook.
To align with that skill, Cleveland’s front office created a roster stacked with corner three-point specialists. A perfect match appeared to be born.
After the trade deadline, Cleveland attempted 9.8 percent of its shots from the corners and shot a scalding-hot 44.7 percent on these shots.
Cleveland has attempted 9.8 percent of its shots from the corners in this series, but the shooting has turned ice cold — just 25.8 percent. That’s four percent worse than Orlando’s league-worst mark in the regular season.
The cold shooting from the corners has come despite increasing looks for great shooters like Love and Korver and decreasing looks for bad shooters like Clarkson and Osman.
This is a bit simplistic but using every player’s 3-year average on corner three point shooting, the Cavs are shooting 14.7 percent worse than expected on these shots through 4 games.
Cleveland is shooting just 34 percent on wide open threes — down eight percent from their post-Trade Deadline mark. Expect the Cavs to turn that around at some point.
Indiana knows Myles Turner is a problem defensively. That is why he has spent time hiding on everyone from JR Smith to Jose Calderon to Jeff Green in the series.
But the Cavs cannot seem to press the right buttons to target him in space — only scoring more points per 100 possessions than expected when he has matched up with Kevin Love and George Hill.
James’ eyes light up every time he has the opportunity to attack Turner 1-on-1 and the results have been overwhelmingly positive for the Cavs:
Though he only has one block in the series, Turner has been able to impact shots at the rim by roaming off Cleveland’s guards.
So how do the Cavs get Turner more involved guarding in space? Enter Tristan Thompson.
Thompson was a +7 in his seven first half minutes in Game 4, but inexplicably did not return to the game. James scored four points in quick succession at the rim due to Thompson’s ball screens:
This is just an absolute beast of a screen from Thompson. Probably the most space James has had on a single screen all series, forcing Turner to switch. And, as we have discussed previously, Turner simply cannot guard in space pic.twitter.com/Ye8LaytEwZ— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) April 23, 2018
Thompson certainly does not deserve starter’s minutes. But with how Larry Nance Jr. has struggled in the series, playing Thompson alongside James and forcing Turner to guard in space should produce positive results for Cleveland.
P.S. — Stop Playing Jeff Green.