The Hawks’ equal-opportunity offense that consistently ranked in the NBA’s top five in terms of assists per game, effective field goal percentage and offensive efficiency was the envy of the league.
The Cavs’ defense, meanwhile, wasn't making anybody lose any sleep. It consistently failed to stop dribble penetration at the point of attack and its rim protection was equally suspect.
It was so bad early on that Cleveland coach David Blatt called out his defense for being “lethargic” and “falling asleep for parts of the game” even after a win.
Fast forward through the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, and an improbable storyline is playing out: The Cavs’ defense has been downright suffocating.
Atlanta is averaging just 85.5 points on 42.9 percent shooting (including 20.4 percent from 3-point range) in the series thus far, well below the 99.8 points per game it put up through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The performance has followed suit with the Cavs’ defensive turnaround all postseason long. Of the four remaining teams in the playoffs, Cleveland ranks first in opponent points per game (91.4), opponent field goal percentage (41.2), opponent 3-point percentage (28.6) and blocks per game (7.0).
“When our roster changed in January, we also changed our approach and tactics defensively,” Blatt said Saturday, "and with the personnel and with the guys buying into what it is that we wanted to do as a team defensively, our defensive performance improved markedly. And it's only gotten better, which is logical because the guys have had time to trust the system and to believe in it and to work within it.
“Fortunately, it's just gotten better and better.”
Just as the infusion of a rim protector in Timofey Mozgov and two able perimeter defenders in J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert sparked a turnaround, the subtraction of Kevin Love -- out with season-ending shoulder surgery after the Cavs’ first-round series against Boston -- has also ended up fortifying the Cavs’ defense.
Now Cleveland has Tristan Thompson playing close to 40 minutes a night, covering the court, rebounding, blocking shots and comfortably switching out on the perimeter in pick-and-roll coverage.
“[Love] being gone forced us to evolve or to change somewhat and to play to our strengths with what we had,” Blatt said. “I think we've done a good job of that, and certainly the players have done a good job of recognizing that and buying into it.”
LeBron James, himself a spotty defender for most of the regular season in part due to health and in part due to pacing himself, has also been a defensive beast in the postseason, locking in and being the Cavs’ vocal leader on that end, calling out coverages and movements that need to be made.
“It's the commitment, the commitment to the game plan, first of all, that the coaches give us, and we go out and we execute it,” James said. “We execute at a high level. We cover for one another. It's not always perfect, but we're communicating and flying around and helping each other, and that's resulted in us being in the position that we're in today.”
The beauty about having a strong defensive identity is the Cavs don’t need to be perfect on the offensive end -- especially considering Love is out and Kyrie Irving has been hobbled -- to win this string of games on the biggest stage. They just have to continue to make it hard on the other guys.
“Well, at least you're not depending on your shooting percentage if you're defending every day,” Blatt said. “I believe, and it's been my experience, that there's a lot of ways to win basketball games, and there's even different ways to win championships, to be honest with you.
"But having the ability to lay your hat on the defensive end of the court makes it a lot easier because you can show up with that every single day.”