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How the Cleveland Cavaliers lost their offensive identity in Game 3

Overreliance on guard screens after a rough first quarter left the offense unrecognizable.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ offense is at it’s best when it’s flowing north to south. The bigs, particularly Jarrett Allen, are their most effective when they’re rolling to the rim with the guards attacking downhill. That is where the Cavs are most lethal as this can also open up their outside shooting.

The Cavs started out Game 3 against the New York Knicks with this in mind as they were able to generate good offense during the first nine minutes despite not getting much to fall. Darius Garland was getting wherever he wanted on the floor during this stretch, but couldn’t convert anything as he went 0-8 from the field. This included missing four uncontested threes, two open midrange jumpers and two layups in traffic. Him connecting on just a few of those shots in the opening quarter turns around the tenner of this game.

It’s a make or miss league. The Cavs simply need Garland to be better in order to win a playoff series. Having the primary ball handler start out slow from the field can cause a knee jerk reaction like it did in Game 3. But the offensive adjustments didn’t do him any favors.

The Cavaliers have resorted to unconventional means to free up their guards this series. In Game 1, Cedi Osman’s screens for Donovan Mitchell kickstarted their offense back into gear after a rough first half. In Game 2, Caris LeVert primarily took on this role and was able to create for himself and others in these situations.

This was the immediate adjustment to try and get the Cavs going in Game 3. The problem was, it took away what the offense has done best all season.

The guard screen frees up shooters, but make it nearly impossible to attack the basket due to the bigs clogging the lane. These actions often result in the bigs being stationary on the block which nullifies most of their rim pressure.

The below clip shows that well. LeVert rejects Mitchell’s screen here, but LeVert has nowhere to go with the Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle waiting for him at the basket.

Given the Cavs’ two non-shooting bigs, the only outcome for this type of play is a three-point shot. Mitchell gets the ball quick enough to attack the four on three, but Robinson and Randle are still able to cut off anything forcing a LeVert corner three.

While this would be considered a good offensive outcome in a vacuum, the lack of options off of it make it too one dimensional to rely on to this degree.

When the outside shot isn’t falling like it was in Game 3, forcing Garland to take more shots he isn’t confident in — as evidenced by his hesitation — isn’t what’s going to break the team out of their slump.

This only increased in the second half. The Cavs had their best offensive stretch in the beginning of the third because of this, but the one-dimensional aspect of this type of player didn’t jumpstart the rest of the offense. It was more like a solo home run in a game you’re trailing 7-1.

The biggest inditement of this style of play is how uninvolved the bigs were after the first quarter. Allen didn’t register a shot over the final three quarters while Evan Mobley notched only 8 points over the final three quarters.

Playoff series are about adjustments. The best teams make adjustments on the fly to counter what their opponent is showing that night. However, those adjustments shouldn’t come at the expense at what the team does best.

The Knicks were able to mostly keep Robinson parked under the basket where he’s best defensively instead of getting him out in space. The Cavs need to do a better job of engaging him with Allen screens and forcing him to defend more in space.

The few times the Cavs did this it worked really well. The empty strong-side pick-and-roll has been a staple for the Cavs this season. LeVert being on the court means the Knicks can’t leave a guy in the empty side. Randle isn’t the disruptor in the paint Robinson is. Garland takes the floater here, but he could’ve also lobbed this to Mobley as well.

There are more options off of this kind of play as well. If Jalen Brunson did come down to help on Mobley quicker this is an easy pass to LeVert which could’ve ended with a Mitchell three depending on how Josh Hart reacted.

At the end of the day, this still comes down to making shots. Twenty-seven of the Cavs’ 33 threes were open or wide-open. They only converted five of those threes for 18.5% shooting from deep on open shots.

The Cavs ran good offense at the start of the first quarter, but didn’t get anything out of it. Some questionable rotations to close the quarter and trying too hard to recreate what worked in Games 1 and 2 left the offense unrecognizable throughout the final three quarters which iced out their bigs and downhill game.

Sometimes the best adjustment is to not stray too far from what got you too this moment in the first place. The Cavs desperately need to regain their identity, and hit some open shots, in Game 4.