DETROIT -- It’s a thought LeBron James would have scoffed at just a couple months ago. After an early-season game, James motioned to the opponent’s field goal percentage board the Cleveland Cavaliers hang in their home locker room and was disgusted by its reflection on his team’s performance. The board was a constant reminder mocking the Cavs’ ineptitude on that end and showing their ranking among the league’s worst at preventing the other team from making shots.
But here we are in late January, past the midway point of the season, and not only is Cleveland suddenly winning at a consistent clip, but it is also winning because of -- not in spite of -- its defense.
Tuesday’s 103-95 win over the Detroit Pistons wasn’t just the Cavs’ seventh straight, it was also their fifth straight game of holding their opponents to under 43 percent shooting from the floor (Detroit shot 42.2).
Even with its defensive improvement the past several games, Cleveland still ranked 27th in the league in defensive field goal percentage coming into Tuesday and was allowing opponents to make 46.5 percent of their shots.
That is a number that simply had to improve if the Cavs were to have any hope of meaningful success down the line. Out of the bottom 15 teams in the league in that category, only the Cavs, Clippers, Heat, Suns and Raptors would qualify for the postseason if the playoffs started today.
The difference between 46.5 and 43 percent might not seem like a whole lot, but over the course of a 100-possession game, that could be six to 10 points -- enough to decide the outcome of plenty of games.
Golden State leads the league and is holding opponents to 42.2 percent.
It was no accident by Cavs coach David Blatt when he cited the 42-43 percent range when asked earlier in the season for the ideal percentage for his team to limit the opposition to.
Blatt couldn’t help but smile when reminded of that goal after the game Tuesday, with a reporter pointing out that -- at least for the interim -- his team had reached the defensive standard he desired.
“There’s a great saying in Hebrew,” Blatt said before reciting a phrase he went on to translate. “It means a prediction that comes to reality ... That’s basically what we’ve been looking for, and that’s what we’ve been getting.”
Now, it should be noted that all five of the teams the Cavs have beaten on their stingy streak -- Detroit, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Utah and Chicago -- rank in the bottom half of the league in offensive field percentage, so it’s not like Cleveland is stopping the Atlantas and L.A. Clippers of the basketball world, but it’s a start.
Exactly how it has happened is a combination of a few things. First and foremost, as in all things with this team, the return to the lineup of a healthy LeBron James playing committed defense cannot be understated.
Then, of course, there is the addition of a couple live bodies on the perimeter, in J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, as well as the man James affectionately calls a “giant,” Timofey Mozgov in the middle.
“Tactic, principles, personnel and commitment,” Blatt said in summing up the turnaround. “We have our full team on the court with players that have the ability to defend.”
The Cavs have been hush-hush about how their tactics have changed, other than acknowledging they did tweak their schemes during their recent West Coast road trip.
Without giving away the farm, the change was explained by a person familiar with the Cavs’ defense as Cleveland now “downing” side pick-and-rolls (also known as “icing” or “bluing”) and forcing the ball handler toward the baseline, where there is a defender waiting and taking up that space. The Cavs used to “show” on side pick-and-rolls, asking the defender down low to come up to the point of the screen to try to disrupt the action with his presence before hastily retreating back to the lane. The new scheme doesn’t ask for as many constant rotations out of the Cavs, though it does allow the ball handler to get closer to the hoop, which presents its own challenges.
“We changed up our defense. I don’t want to get too specific about it,” Kevin Love said. “I think it’s been an easier adjustment for both sets of players, whether it’s the bigs or the guards. I think it’s been us trusting each other, even when we’re not shooting the ball particularly well, that we’re able to hold the other team to a low field goal percentage.”
It’s easy to trust when you have a 7-foot-1, 250-pounder such as Mozgov behind you.
“It’s truly a luxury,” Irving said of Mozgov. “I’m just truly thankful that we have a guy like that that understands the game and can definitely challenge fives and has the toughness game-to-game to challenge anybody and everybody.”
None of it works without increased effort across the board.
“Everybody is hungry, [everybody] want to play,” Mozgov said. “Everybody is showing it on the floor. Diving for the ball. Getting 50-50 balls. Everybody help each other. It just feels great.”
It all seemed to solidify in Detroit, especially because, even though the Cavs finished with 103 points to run their record to 21-1 when scoring north of 102, they started atrociously on the offensive end. They missed 15 of their first 19 shots as a team. Yet the deficit never swelled to more than seven points because of their defense.
“You got to be able to defend in this league,” James said. “It’s the greatest athletes in the world. These teams are put together for a reason. And it’s an offensive league. So the teams that defend give themselves a great chance to win every night.”
The increased defensive commitment has completely changed how James looks at his team.
“We’ve come very, very far,” James said when asked to compare the Cavs team that lost in Portland the third game of the season to the current team, which will try to make it eight wins in a row when it hosts the Blazers on Wednesday. “It’s part of the reason why we’ve kind of turned the corner for our season. I’m not saying it’s going to result in a win every night, but I think as far as professionals, we’re starting to understand what it means to be a professional daily. You approach not only the game, but how you approach off-the-court things and everything. That helps.”
It’s the reason hardly a word was spoken about James' scoring 32 in Detroit or Irving's tying a season high with 38 or Love's only putting up seven on 3-for-11 shooting (besides Stan Van Gundy’s interesting take on it: “That’s how talented they are. You go into a game, and I don’t know, Kevin Love’s been an All-Star for what? Three, four years. You don’t even talk about him in your preparation, hardly. That’s how good the other guys are.”)
They’re becoming a unit best viewed as a whole.
“It’s fun to go out and compete and play for your brother,” James said. “That’s what it’s about right now. We’re playing for one another. There’s no personal agendas. There’s no sense of entitlement. We go out and play for one another, and that’s what it’s about.”