The Cleveland Cavaliers’ 51-win season was overshadowed by a meltdown in the first round. The New York Knicks dictated the terms of engagement en route to a gentleman’s sweep. After giving it some time to breath, here’s what we learned from the series.
The number one defense couldn’t make life difficult for Jalen Brunson
Brunson’s fourth quarter in Game 1 helped stave off the Cavs’ comeback. They responded by doubling some Brunson ball screens in Game 2, but ramped up the intensity in Games 3 through 5. This included trapping screens. On top of that, they shaded Jarrett Allen over to Brunson whenever he had the ball in his hands to show additional bodies in the lane.
This scheme did little to stop Brunson as he notched 20 or more points in every game. Trapping can cause opposing players to get rid of the ball making it difficult to take off the dribble threes, but high pressure with a big still in the paint, means that taking midrange shots is one of the things that style of defense is designed to allow. That didn’t bother Brunson as a majority of his looks this season have come from the midrange.
Defensive rebounding issues were partially self inflected
Doubling and shading towards Brunson broke the Cavs entire defense. Brunson still got his typical looks, but his teammates were able to get open shots while Robinson was left on his own on the offensive boards creating a nightmare situation.
Constantly doubling and rotating back means that the defense is never truly set and is always scrambling. This yielded disasters results when Brunson was on. From Game 2 on, the Knicks grabbed 42.1% of their misses with Brunson on the floor. When he was off, that number dropped to just 23.7%. This led to the Knicks having a 113.5 offensive rating with Brunson on and a 74.6 with him off.
The Cavs got outmuscled, outworked and whatever other empty sports cliches you want to use to describe their performance on the glass. All of which are true. But the defense needlessly breaking of its own choosing is more of a reason.
The coaching staff lost the benefit of the doubt
J.B. Bickerstaff has completely turned the Cavs’ culture around, or at least played a big part in it. He’s one of the reason they were competitive last season despite the injuries and is a big reason why they racked up 51 wins this season.
That said, Tom Thibodeau coached circles around him by mostly letting Bickerstaff implode.
Most of the Cavs’ issues come down to a lack of trust or misplaced trust. Bickerstaff didn’t trust Isaac Okoro so he was yanked in and out of the rotation despite being the best defender on Brunson by a mile. He didn’t trust whoever was guarding Brunson so they doubled screens and helped off with their bigs. Bickerstaff didn’t trust Cedi Osman and Danny Green all season, but did in the playoffs. And he didn’t trust the playing style that brought them 51 wins to hold up in the postseason.
This, combined with adjusting out of some of the things that worked in Games 1 and 2 despite the Knicks not showing they had a counter for them, is a big reason why the Cavs are watching the second round from the couch.
Coaches can grow and improve just like players. That’s possible. But there was little about this series that would make you confident Bickerstaff is the one to lead this group to the next level.
It’s fair to question Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley’s playoff fit
The Cavs lack of shooting came back to bite them. The two bigs have made up for the poor spacing most of the season with their ability to put pressure on the rim. That disappeared in the playoffs.
Cleveland relentlessly tried to beat the defense with high ball screens. But, New York bringing the big up to the level of the screen and forcing the bigs to beat them in the short roll with little off-ball movement or shooting killed the offense. As a result, lineups with both Allen and Mobley posted a 107.4 offensive rating in five games.
Defensively, this duo was beaten on the boards repeatedly. While the scheme was an issue, it was far from the only one. Both took turns being pushed around by Robinson and Julius Randle.
The tradeoffs of pairing two non-shooting bigs together was always obvious. The Cavs unfortunately didn’t get the benefits they were expecting either as New York’s frontline was more physical, got more rebounds and played better defense. That simply can’t happen.
The Cavs need off-ball shooters defenses respect
The Knicks made it difficult for Mitchell and Garland to get their pullup threes by hedging on screens and packing the paint. The duo’s lack of off-ball movement doesn’t help. They weren’t able to create space for each other as most of their catch-and-shoot threes this season came off of drive and kicks. But when no one can get to the basket, there’s no drive and kick game. All of this led to the duo shooting 25-76 (32.9%) from beyond the arc.
They weren’t able to get any help from their teammates. The rest of the team combined to go 25-77 (32.4%).
The lack of shooting hurt, but the lack of a threat of shooting stalled the offense even more. The Cavs desperately need to find players who cause defensive attention and they need to do a better job of weaponizing Garland and Mitchell off-ball. You simply can’t have two non-shooters in the lineup and this little production from the rest of the lineup.
Donovan Mitchell needs to improve as a playmaker
The half court offense was a mess and has been at various points throughout the regular season. Mitchell always seemed to find a way to save them though. He wasn’t able to do so as the Knicks effectively took away his outside shot and ability to get to the rim.
While Mitchell was put in a tough spot, this series did highlight how he needs to improve as a facilitator. The Knicks were going to make sure Mitchell wasn’t going to beat them with his scoring. He did a good job of setting his teammates up in Game 2, but wasn’t able to do so as the series progressed as he averaged as many turnovers as he did assists (5) from Game 3 on. He wanted to be the scorer for this team, but with the Knicks swarming him like they were, this often resulted in him dribbling into traffic without many counters for when he wasn’t able to get to the basket.
The playoffs have a way of revealing player’s weaknesses. That is an area he will need to improve in for him to be the best version of himself.
Lack of depth doomed the Cavs
As varying degrees of disappointing the core four of Garland, Mitchell, Mobley and Allen played throughout the series, lineups with all four were a +1 in 121 minutes which was nearly half the series. Lineups without them all together were outscored by 28.
These four players need to be better, but this highlights the lack of depth and versatility on the roster. This team will always be their best when all four share the court, but they need to be able to somewhat keep their identity when one of those four are off.
There’s going to be a lot of conversation about what the Cavs need most. The easy answer is shooting, but the correct one may be playable basketball players. The Cavs really only had five of them this series counting LeVert and the core four. That simply won’t cut it.