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With no Love or Irving, Cavs have been pretty good


VIDEO: Finals Media Availability: LeBron James

OAKLAND — Kyrie Irving has a broken knee cap, Kevin Love is recovering from shoulder surgery and Anderson Varejao has been out since Christmas. The Cleveland Cavaliers have been decimated by injuries to three of their best players.

But they’ve still made it this far. They still have a chance to steal home-court advantage in The Finals in Game 2 on Sunday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). And they still have LeBron James, who’s been a pretty good one-star show this season.

James has played only 545 (less than 18 percent) of his total minutes (regular season and playoffs) with neither Irving nor Love on the floor. But the Cavs have outscored their opponents by 149 points in those 545 minutes, playing great on both ends of the floor.

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Most of those minutes have been played with just one big alongside James. But in the one-star scenario, the Cavs have been good playing either big or small. With two bigs, they’ve been fantastic defensively. With James at the four, they’ve been much stronger offensively.

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The Cavs’ two most-used, no-Irving-or-Love lineups have been both great. The small lineup — with Matthew Dellavedova, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, James and Tristan Thompson — is a plus-53 in 87 minutes. The big lineup (likely to start Game 2) — with Timofey Mozgov in Smith’s place — is a plus-59 in 82 minutes.

Both of those lineups have allowed less than 90 points per 100 possessions. But the Cavs’ defense has been at its best in those no-Irving-or-Love minutes with Mozgov on the floor.

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Of course, the Cavs were a minus-13 in less than 10 minutes with Irving off the floor in Game 1 on Thursday. The Warriors have been the league’s best team all season. And Cleveland will need to figure out how to bend the Golden State defense a little, so that James can get more support from his supporting cast.

James has used 37.1 percent of the Cavs’ possessions when he’s been on the floor in the playoffs, a mark that leads the league by a wide margin. In 224 minutes with Irving off the floor in the playoffs, James’ usage rate is an incredible 46.4 percent.

So, how the Warriors defend him and how the Cavs deal with that defense becomes all the more important.

In Game 1, Golden State went one-on-one with James (for the most part), taking away his passing lanes and forcing him into tough shots. The result was a not-so-efficient 44 points from the Cavs’ star and not enough help from the guys around him.

But the Cavs were inches away from winning the game. And James made it clear on Friday that his 44 points were more about his ability than the Warriors’ defense.

“First of all, you can’t let me have 40,” James said when asked about the opponent’s game plan. “I go get 40. It’s not like they’re just getting out of the way. So those guys aren’t saying ‘we’re okay with letting him have 40.’ You don’t let me have 40. I’m making those shots.”

He also said that the Warriors’ defense wasn’t as simple as it may have looked.

“They’re not just giving me one steady dosage of ‘we’re going to just let him play,'” James said. “That’s what they want to get out to you guys, but that’s not what’s happening. Yeah, I see it all throughout the course of the game. They’ve given me different matchups, just trying to keep me off balance.

“But I’ve seen it all, and I’ve got to do a better job as well getting my other guys involved. I’m okay with getting big numbers and things of that nature, but I feel much better when I’m able to get my guys in rhythm and get them guys some more looks.”

Cavs coach David Blatt wants to see his team look for more opportunities to score before the Golden State defense is set up. Just seven of the Cavs’ 94 shots came in the first seconds of the shot clock on Thursday, according to SportVU. And it’s also on James’ teammates to get the defense to move when he has the ball.

“We can do a little bit of a better job moving without the basketball, attacking more in transition,” Blatt said Friday. “I didn’t think there was any particular advantage to playing him one way or the next. But because the result was what it was, you could interpret it that way.”

Most observers will count the Cavs out of this series after losing Game 1 and losing Irving in the process. They may ultimately be right. But there’s hope in just how well James has carried his team without its other two stars to this point.

Film Study: One-on-one with LeBron


VIDEO: Stu Jackson breaks down how the Warriors guarded LeBron James

OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors went with the “Don’t let the other guys beat us” strategy in Game 1 of The Finals. And though it almost backfired, it ultimately helped them pick up a 108-100 overtime victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.

LeBron James scored 44 points, but J.R. Smith shot 3-for-13, Iman Shumpert shot 2-for-6, Tristan Thompson scored two points, James Jones could only get one shot off in 17 minutes, and Matthew Dellavedova didn’t take a single shot. All five of those guys went scoreless (in almost 78 combined minutes of playing time) after halftime.

It sounds weird, but James’ 44 points were good for Golden State, not just because it kept his supporting cast relatively quiet, but because those 44 points came on mostly tough shots. James’ true shooting percentage* in Game 1 was worse than that of the Warriors’ two leading scorers and his two primary defenders.

*True shooting percentage measures scoring efficiency. TS% = PTS / (2 * (FGA + (0.44 * FTA)))

Golden State’s defensive success — they held what was the postseason’s best offense to about a point per possession — was a combination of strategy and skill. (more…)

The Finals Stat: Game 1


VIDEO: LeBron James misses a shot to win Game 1 in regulation

Game 5 basics
CLE GSW
Pace 90.6 90.6
OffRtg 98.7 109.4
EFG% 46.3% 50.0%
OREB% 26.0% 25.6%
TO Ratio 11.8 12.2
FTA rate 0.202 0.250

OAKLAND — LeBron James scored 44 points, the most he’s scored in 28 Finals games, but it wasn’t enough, as the Golden State Warriors took Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday. One stat stood out from the rest in the Warriors’ 108-100, overtime victory.

The stat

4 – Points scored by the Cavs on their final 14 possessions of the game. Also, the number of turnovers the Cavs committed on those final 14 possessions.

The context

The Cavs were having a strong offensive game against the league’s No. 1 defense, scoring 96 points on their first 84 possessions of the game (a rate of 117 per 100). But over the final two minutes of regulation and all of overtime, they shot 1-for-13. And the one make was a conceded layup from James on the final possession of the extra period, with the Warriors up 10.

Cavs' shot chart over the final 7:00 of Game 1

Cavs’ shot chart over the final 7:00 of Game 1

James had missed his other five shots in those last seven minutes, and all five misses came from outside of five feet. Andre Iguodala forced him into tough looks – including the potential game-winner at the end of regulation, a turnaround jumper from 21 feet out – and James might have worn down after shooting a total of 38 shots in 46 minutes. He was also responsible for two of the Cavs’ four turnovers down the stretch, getting stripped by Stephen Curry in the high post and throwing a pass behind Tristan Thompson the final minute.

The Warriors may have benefited from Kyrie Irving apparently reinjuring his left knee. He left the game with 2:02 left in overtime. But Golden State was already up seven at the time, getting four free throws from Curry and a corner 3-pointer from Harrison Barnes.

That came with a super-small lineup on the floor for the Warriors. A lineup of Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Draymond Green was a plus-6 over the final 3:17 of overtime. They were able to spread the floor and make things tough on the Cleveland defense.

But it was the other end of the floor that really determined the outcome.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
EFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA
OREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TO Ratio = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTA Rate = FTA / FGA

Cavs still face questions about their D


VIDEO: GameTime: Comparing Andrew Bogut and Timofey Mozgov

CLEVELAND — Is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defense good now?

That may be the most important question heading into The Finals.

The NBA started counting turnovers in 1977. Since then, no team had reached The Finals after ranking as low as 20th in defensive efficiency in the regular season … until now.

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Ranking anywhere outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency is not a good sign for your hopes of winning a championship. Only three teams — the ’01 Lakers (19th), the ’95 Rockets (12th) and ’88 Lakers (11th) – have won the title after ranking outside the top 10 in the last 37 years. And all three had won the championship (with a top-10 defense) the year before. (more…)

Cavs and Warriors: How they were built


VIDEO: Road to the Finals: Growing pains in Cleveland

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors reached The Finals in very different ways.

After making major changes last summer, the Cavs struggled out of the gate and made more changes in early January. Dion Waiters was sent to Oklahoma City. Timofey Mozgov was acquired from Denver, while Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith were brought in from New York.

In comparison, the Warriors have been rather stable. Like the Cavs, they made a coaching change a year ago. But while only 39 percent of the Cavs’ regular-season minutes were played by guys who were on the roster last season, that number was 82 percent for Golden State. And the Warriors were the best team in the league from start to finish, making only a minor change to their roster (swapping Nemanja Nedovic for James Michael McAdoo).

Still, if you look at the Warriors’ roster construction, it’s as much a mix of players acquired via the Draft, free agency, and trades as the Cavs’ roster is.

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Note: Andre Iguodala and David Lee were acquired via sign-and-trade deals, which are counted here as trades.

But the Warriors’ mix isn’t so even when you consider who’s getting minutes in the postseason. Steve Kerr is leaning heavily on the guys the Warriors drafted over the years.

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Only two of the six guys the Warriors acquired via free agency – Leandro Barbosa and Shaun Livingston – are in their playoff rotation. And those guys rank seventh and eighth in minutes played. Their top four guys in minutes – Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes – all came via the Draft.

The Cavs’ minutes pie leans more toward trade than free agency because Shumpert, Mozgov and Smith all rank in the top six in minutes, while Shawn Marion, Mike Miller and Kendrick Perkins aren’t in the rotation.

The contrast between the two teams is even bigger when we look at playoff production, as measured by the efficiency statistic.

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

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The Warriors are getting 2/3 of their production from guys they drafted, headlined by those four starters noted above. The Cavs, meanwhile are only getting about 1/4 of their production from guys they drafted (and didn’t lose to Miami for four years). Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson account for basically all of that. LeBron James was acquired (the second time) via free agency, and he accounts for about 1/4 of the Cavs’ production himself.

This is a copycat league at times, but there’s no definitive way to build your roster. For the Warriors, it’s been about the Draft. For the Cavs, it’s been about the best player in the world looking to come home, as well as some clever moves made in January.

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Numbers preview: The Finals


VIDEO: The Starters preview The Finals

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers each made history in reaching The Finals.

Since the NBA starting counting turnovers in 1977, no team had made The Finals after leading the league in pace — like the Warriors did — or after ranking as low as 20th in defensive efficiency — like the Cavs did — in the regular season. That’s 37 years of trends that have been bucked, in two different ways.

These are special teams. Statistically, the Warriors are the best team we’ve seen since the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls, outscoring their opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. The Cavs, meanwhile, have fought through a myriad of changes (via trades and injuries) to get here, improving defensively along the way.

And the Cavs have been statistically better, both offensively and defensively, than the Warriors in the playoffs, even when you account for weaker competition. Cleveland has better marks in adjusted efficiency (taking their opponents’ regular season marks) on both ends of the floor.

This is also a matchup of the MVP and the world’s best player, the two guys who lead the league in postseason usage rate. Stephen Curry and LeBron James won’t be guarding each other and have very unique games, but some of their playoff advanced stats are very similar.

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Curry has been the more efficient scorer, while James has provided more for his team on defense and on the glass. Curry has the deeper supporting cast, but James has been here before.

When this series is done, he’ll either be 3-3 or 2-4 in The Finals, and either the Cavs will have their first championship or the Warriors will have their first one in 40 years.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more. (more…)

Bulls fire Thibodeau

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Chicago Bulls announced Thursday afternoon that they have fired coach Tom Thibodeau.

The rift between Thibodeau and Bulls management — specifically vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman — has never been a secret. In the news release, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf made it sound like Thibodeau refused to listen to other people in the organization and leaked information about the team’s internal issues.

While the head of each department of the organization must be free to make final decisions regarding his department, there must be free and open interdepartmental discussion and consideration of everyone’s ideas and opinions. These internal discussions must not be considered an invasion of turf, and must remain private.

Thibodeau came to Chicago from Boston, where, as an assistant, he was the architect of one of the best defenses in NBA history. The Bulls had a top-five defense in each of his first four seasons, but fell off on that end of the floor last season.

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Chicago dealt with major injury issues in each of the last four seasons, starting with Derrick Rose‘s ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs. Thibodeau loaded his best players with heavy minutes at times, and the input that he refused to welcome likely had to do with injury prevention.

Still, he can probably have another job as soon as he wants one. Denver, New Orleans and Orlando are all looking for new coaches and all ranked in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency last season.

Hawks not hitting their open shots


VIDEO: GameTime: Korver out for remainder of playoffs

CLEVELAND — Diagnosing just what has gone wrong for the Atlanta Hawks is not easy.

Maybe they peaked too early, going 33-2 between Thanksgiving and Jan. 31. Maybe they lack a go-to guy to get them a shot when they really need one. Maybe they’ve been undone by untimely injuries. And maybe they just aren’t ready for this stage.

Whatever it is, the Hawks need to figure things out quickly. They’ve arrived in Cleveland for Game 3 of the conference finals (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, TNT) in an 0-2 hole, facing a team that is 24-2 at home since mid-January.

They were tied 2-2 with the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets and trailed 2-1 to the John Wall-less Washington Wizards, but this is obviously the most desperate situation the Hawks have been in. And never have they had fewer answers for what’s been going wrong.

The Hawks have had issues on both ends of the floor. But despite LeBron James‘ brilliance and some hot shooting, Atlanta has held the Cavs to almost five points per 100 possessions below a regular season mark that ranked fourth in offensive efficiency. It’s on offense where Atlanta has struggled most, scoring just 95 points per 100 possessions through the first two games.

In the regular season, 79.4 percent of the Hawks’ jump shots were uncontested, a rate which led the league by a pretty wide margin (New Orleans ranked second at 75.9 percent), according to SportVU. And their effective field goal percentage on those uncontested jumpers was 52.9 percent, a mark which ranked third (behind only the Warriors and Clippers).

The Hawks have yet to match those two numbers in any of their three playoff series. And they’ve hit new lows in the conference finals.

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The Cavs deserve some credit. They were a pretty awful defensive team early in the season, and even after showing improvement with the additions of Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, they got chewed up by the Atlanta offense in their March 6 meeting. Cleveland finished 20th in defensive efficiency for the season.

Since the league started counting turnovers in 1977, no team has reached The Finals after ranking that low. But the Cavs been much improved defensively in the playoffs. In this series, they’ve denied the Hawks’ primary options, and have backed that up with multiple efforts and sharper rotations.

And while the Hawks are still getting a decent amount of open looks, it’s not hard to see that their offense isn’t nearly as sharp as it was in December and January. Open looks aren’t necessarily in-rhythm looks.

The bottom of the above table tells us that their success is less about the number of open looks they get and more about what they do with them. If you’re making a case that this is a make-or-miss league, you can start with the Hawks’ effective field goal percentage on uncontested jumpers in wins (52.1 percent) vs. losses (37.8 percent) in these playoffs.

Now, the Hawks have to play without their best shooter. In the regular season, Kyle Korver had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 74.8 percent on uncontested jumpers. And even if he was contested, he was the Hawks’ best option. He shot better on contested 3-pointers (43.4 percent) than any of his teammates shot on uncontested threes.

Korver has seen fewer open looks (per 36 minutes) in the playoffs, and he’s shot worse on them. But his presence on the floor and the attention he gets from the defense is still a huge key to what the Hawks are doing offensively. They’ve scored 102.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor in the postseason, and just 95.8 with him on the bench. In this series, Korver is 7-for-15 from outside the paint, while his teammates are 13-for-64 (20.3 percent).

There is no easy answer with Korver out, not that there was one if he was perfectly healthy. What was the Hawks’ strength in the regular season has failed them when it matters most.

Numbers preview: Warriors-Rockets


VIDEO: GameTime: A look ahead to the West finals

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The Houston Rockets are seemingly facing long odds in the Western Conference finals. Their opponent — the Golden State Warriors — was the league’s best team in the regular season by a wide margin, has home-court advantage and a 43-3 record at home, and swept the season series.

But the Rockets faced long odds in the conference semifinals, as well. And they became the ninth team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series, coming back from 19 points down late in the third quarter of Game 6 along the way.

This is a matchup between the MVP and the guy who finished second. Both averaged between 25 and 26 points in those four regular-season meetings, but Stephen Curry did so much more efficiently than James Harden.

With a healthy Dwight Howard, Harden will have more help than he did earlier in the season. Still, the Warriors look to have a good shot of reaching The Finals for the first time in 40 years.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Western Conference finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Golden State Warriors (67-15)

Beat New Orleans in four games.
Beat Memphis in six games.
Pace: 94.3 (14)
OffRtg: 107.4 (2)
DefRtg: 98.8 (5)
NetRtg: +8.6 (2)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Houston: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Warriors playoff notes:

Houston Rockets (56-26)

Beat Dallas in five games.
Beat L.A. Clippers in seven games.
Pace: 104.8 (1)
OffRtg: 105.9 (6)
DefRtg: 106.8 (12)
NetRtg: -0.9 (8)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Golden State: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Rockets playoff notes:

The matchup

Season series: Warriors won 4-0
Pace: 104.5
GSW OffRtg: 109.6 (2nd vs. HOU)
HOU OffRtg: 95.8 (22nd vs. GSW)

Matchup notes:

Numbers preview: Hawks-Cavaliers


VIDEO: All-access: The top-seeded Hawks and Warriors advance

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Though they both looked vulnerable at times, the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers took care of business to give us the conference finals matchup we’ve been anticipating since the Hawks went on a 33-2 run after Thanksgiving.

This series is a contrast of styles. The Cavs are a team that relies heavily on LeBron James, especially with Kevin Love out for the postseason and Kyrie Irving dealing with leg injuries. The Hawks, meanwhile, like to share the wealth.

While James has been to the conference finals seven times in his 12-year career, this is the first trip there for the Hawks since 1970. Kyle Korver (in 2011 with Chicago) and Paul Millsap (in 2007 with Utah) are their only rotation players who have been here before.

But the Hawks have the knowledge that they tore up what had been an improved Cleveland defense in the final regular-season meeting between the two teams. In the regular season, only one team — New Orleans — scored more efficiently against the Cavs than Atlanta did.

The Cavs scored pretty efficiently against the Hawks too. And the conference finals promises to bring new wrinkles to this matchup. James faced the San Antonio Spurs in the last two Finals. To get there again, he’ll have to get through the Spurs of the East.

Here are some statistical notes to get you ready for the Eastern Conference finals, with links to let you dive in and explore more.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Atlanta Hawks (60-22)

Beat Brooklyn in six games.
Beat Washington in six games.
Pace: 96.8 (6)
OffRtg: 102.0 (9)
DefRtg: 98.2 (2)
NetRtg: +3.9 (4)

Regular season: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Cleveland: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Hawks playoff notes:

Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29)

Beat Boston in four games.
Beat Chicago in six games.
Pace: 92.9 (16)
OffRtg: 108.2 (1)
DefRtg: 98.8 (4)
NetRtg: +9.5 (1)

Overall: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
vs. Atlanta: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups
Playoffs: Team stats | Player stats | Lineups

Cavs playoff notes:

The matchup

Season series: Hawks won 3-1 (2-0 in Atlanta)
Pace: 95.4
ATL OffRtg: 114.2 (2nd vs. CLE)
CLE OffRtg: 110.8 (4th vs. ATL)

Matchup notes: