The Raptors Are Daring the Cavaliers to Shoot, and It's Working
Toronto has tied the NBA Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2 by protecting the paint and letting the previously scorching Cleveland Cavaliers miss open three-pointers. Can the Cavs find their strokes in Game 5?
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
This article is part of VICE Sports' 2016 NBA Playoffs coverage.
Former NBA coach and longtime basketball analyst Hubie Brown famously said that shooting makes up for a multitude of sins. For the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, and really for the first ten games of the playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers' sins were hidden deep beneath a mountain of made baskets. In their four-game sweep of the Atlanta Hawks, the Cavaliers shot 50.7 percent from beyond the arc on an almost comical 152 attempts, and finished with 77 made three-pointers—just two shy of the all-time record for made threes in a playoff series.
However, over the past two games of what has become a surprisingly competitive series against the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland has cooled off. And heading into tonight's pivotal Game 5, the Cavs' previously masked flaws are beginning to reveal themselves.
The Raptors entered Games 1 and 2 with an emphasis on guarding the Cavs' perimeter players very closely, the better to prevent open looks from behind the arc. In the clip below, Bismack Biyombo guards Tristan Thompson on the elbow but refuses to sag off into the paint in preparation for a potential Kyrie Irving pick-and-roll. With Biyombo drawn outside of the paint, J.R. Smith is able to curl into the lane for an easy dunk:
This possession embodies the trade-off made by the Raptors. By protecting the perimeter at all costs, they were a half-step late protecting the rim. LeBron James feasted on the spread-out Toronto defense, scoring 24 points in Game 1 on 11-for-13 shooting, with all 11 of his makes coming at the rim.
In Game 2, the Raptors stuck with their game plan of stretching their defense and sticking closely to shooters, but were much quicker to rotate on James when he drove to the basket. Responding to Toronto's collapsing defense, James found open shooters and cutters en route to 11 assists and another blowout win.
The takeaway for the Raptors? Spreading their defense didn't work. While Toronto limited Cleveland's three-point makes—just seven three-pointers in each of the first two games—the Cavs still tallied a scorching 116.3 ORTG, over six points per 100 possessions higher than their regular season mark, a number that would have ranked No. 1 in the NBA during the regular season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Raptors changed their defensive emphasis in Game 3, allowing their guards to sag off of shooters a half-step farther, and having Biyombo patrol the paint. This was a gamble: Could Toronto wall off the key and still be quick enough to close out on Cleveland's shooters? In the below clip from Game 3, watch as the Cavs run the same action as above—only this time, Biyombo fully commits to blocking off the paint, taking away the curl cut:
The Raptors' defensive shift completely changed Cleveland's shot selection. In Games 1 and 2, the Cavs took 59 field goal attempts at the rim, making 42 of them; in Games 3 and 4, they took just 45 shots and only made 27. Conversely, the Cavs took three times the number of three-pointers in Games 3 and 4 than they did in Games 1 and 2.
The adjustment was—and is—a risky bet. The Raptors can't wall off the paint and adequately contest every Cleveland three-pointer. However, the Cavs have to make the most of their perimeter opportunities—and suddenly, they're struggling.
In the first half of Game 4, the Cavs shot zero-for-nine on what SportVu tracking cameras define as "wide open" three-point attempts—that is, shots when the nearest defender is farther than six feet away from the shooter. Moreover, Cleveland was two-for-seven on "open" three-point attempts, or shots when the nearest defender is between four and six feet away.
As the misses piled up, Cleveland's rhythm fell apart. Kevin Love, who is usually a very reliable and crafty post-up scorer and passer, allowed himself to get sped up on his post touches against the undersized DeMarre Carroll. Turnovers like the one in the clip below also led to wide-open Toronto transition looks, as the Cavs were routinely mixed up defensively on the break:
Even James, who usually makes excellent reads out of the pick-and-roll, was disrupted by Toronto's paint-packing strategy. In the clip below, he receives a double high screen and gets an excellent opportunity to attack Biyombo in the paint, with Channing Frye as a safety valve rolling to the rim. Yet rather than take his time and force Biyombo to pick between himself and Frye, James throws a telegraphed pass that DeMar DeRozan tips out of bounds. Biyombo's presence is certainly a deterrent, but James is usually very good at converting those types of plays at the rim:
Biyombo's defense has been key to Toronto's resurgence. He has made a couple of highlight blocks, including one on James, and has forced the Cavs to second-guess every drive to the basket. He also has started switching onto James in the post, allowing Carroll and Toronto's other wings to stick closer to shooters. When James gets isolated against Biyombo on the wing, the Raptors' big man simply sags into the paint, daring James to shoot. It's an interesting strategy, and so far it has worked—in part because of confusion and shock value, and in part because Biyombo has shown he can hang with James one-on-one in a pinch.
The good news for Cleveland heading into tonight's game is that there are plenty of ways to combat Toronto's adjustments besides just "shooting better." With Biyombo switching onto James in the post, the Cavs can use those post-ups as misdirection and immediately segue into a dribble handoff—because if Biyombo continues to sag off of James, he won't be in position to stop a shooter coming off the handoff.
In Game 4, the Cavs also found success with Frye at center and Richard Jefferson alongside Irving, James, and Matthew Dellavedova. That five-man combination scored on the first ten possessions of the fourth quarter and even grabbed the lead for a few minutes late in the game. Jefferson replaced Smith, who has been absolutely torched by DeRozan in this series—so much so that the Raptors will gladly spend ten seconds of the shot clock running DeRozan off of screens just to force Smith to have to switch onto him before attacking in isolation.
Yet as much as Smith has struggled against DeRozan, he is far from the worst defender on Cleveland's roster. The Raptors routinely seek to attack both Irving and Love in pick-and-rolls, and with good reason. Irving in particular has bizarre and inconsistent habits when fighting through screens. In the clip below, Jefferson expects that Irving has switched onto DeRozan, especially after Irving appears to take a swipe at the ball. But Irving suddenly abandons DeRozan and recovers to Kyle Lowry, who has Jefferson pinned behind a screen. As a result, DeRozan gets a wide-open ten-foot jump shot:
These types of miscommunications happen far too frequently for a Cleveland team with championship aspirations. After all, it's one thing to make simple mistakes when you're draining three-pointers at a historical rate; it's quite another when you're trailing by ten points in the fourth quarter of a road playoff game and trying to make up ground. In the third and fourth quarter of Game 4, the Cavs scored on 14 straight possessions, yet they were only able to make up eleven points on the Raptors thanks to consistently terrible defense.
The Cavaliers will likely hit shots in Game 5. They are far too talented to continue to miss so many good looks, and they seemed to figure some things out in the second half of Game 4. They'll also be playing at home. Above all, they have James, who hasn't lost an Eastern Conference playoff series since 2010. The question is: Can Cleveland hit enough of those shots to force Toronto's defense to revert, and to cover up for their own defensive shortcomings? Shooting makes up for a multitude of basketball sins, but only when the ball goes in.