The Other Side of the Ball

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

It's getting increasingly difficult to put LeBron James' postseason heroics into historical perspective. His production has made an extremely good offensive team (109.7 points/100 possessions in the regular season), even more ruthless in the postseason (up that to 111.9/100).

That's an impressive gain, but only a fraction of the improvement the already sturdy Cavs defense has shown in the playoffs. Cleveland has whittled its 99.4 points/100 possessions defensive rating (3rd best out of 30), down to a minuscule 90.8/100 in its two postseason series. Granted, Atlanta and Detroit weren't exactly offensive juggernauts, but their respective offensive ratings in the regular season of 106.6 and 104.5 suggest that the Cavs are tightening their defensive vise with brutal efficiency.

The Cleveland roster isn't composed of guys you'd immediately classify as defensive stoppers. With a defensive rating in the 104 range (number of points allowed per 100 possessions as an individual defender), Delonte West has been rightfully praised for his defense. West's defensive ratings in the four seasons prior to this one? 107, 107, 108, 108. As a Milwaukee Buck, Mo Williams had a reputation as a horrendous defender (and the numbers to prove it), but for Cleveland this season, he's been downright gritty, and his defensive rating dropped from 114 to 106. Did Williams just miraculously grow defensive fangs? Even Wally Szczerbiak, Ukrainian for "has lost some lateral quickness," is posting career-best numbers in various advanced defensive metrics. Nothing eye-popping, but more than passable.

A few hundred video clips of Cleveland defensive sets -- both from the postseason and from post-All-Star Game matchups against playoff contenders -- begin to tell the story. Mike Brown, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, insists that his defenders play straight-up position defense. The Cavs don't gamble a lot (in team steals, you'll find them in the middle of the pack), don't trap off the screen/roll very often, and though they doubled Joe Johnson quite a bit in the Atlanta series, they prefer man-to-man defense most nights. If a Cleveland defender gets beat on a screen or off the dribble, there's an instant rotation, more often than not by Anderson Varejao. For a guy who gives off a lot of hyperkinetic energy, Varejao moves around the court with great purpose. He's my choice for ROY -- Rotator of the Year.

Since Mo Williams isn't a great individual defender, and does get beat on a regular basis, this part of Cleveland's defensive scheme is all the more impressive. When Williams gets taken out of the play by a hard screen, the rotator will immediately pick up the loose end, by moving to either the ball man or the screener. Williams, meanwhile, recovers quickly and intently. He'll immediately dart over to the guy who the rotator/helper has left open (also known as Roger Mason), preventing a kick out or, at the very least, an open look.

It's here, on the back half of a defensive possession, where Cleveland's defense forces bad shot after bad shot. Mo Williams, like most point guards, is going to get nailed by his share of screens from 250-pound centers. That's a given. Good team defenses compensate a couple of ways: [a] How quickly does the rotator pick up Williams' man (or the big man, if a switch is in order)? [b] How effectively does Williams recover and run out on the open man? Bad defenses get beaten by a failure of [a], but even some decent defensive teams can get burned in the closing seconds of a possession by breaking down on [b].

Not Cleveland. You can go through nearly twenty clips of defensive possessions before witnessing a single blown rotation. Every Cavalier closes out on every shooter, and contests every shot. The Cavs move around the court mindful of every open space, chasing guys off their spots, and walling off anyone with the temerity to drive or cut to the basket.

LeBron's explosiveness is undoubtedly the story of the Cavs' scorched earth playoff run, but their stifling defense is the silent killer. If you shaved off a third of James' offensive output, the Cavs' team defense would still make them the favorite in any series going forward.