VIDEO: Best of Phantom: Toronto vs. Cleveland Game 1
CLEVELAND — The Toronto Raptors did not want to get beaten by a barrage of 3-pointers like the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks did.
The Cleveland Cavaliers averaged 16.8 threes per game through the first two rounds, shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. After getting through a seven-game series against a Miami Heat team that wasn’t going to beat them from the outside, the Raptors adjusted their defensive game plan.
The result was only seven 3-pointers from the Cavs on 20 attempts in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday. Good defense from the Raptors?
Instead of shooting 3s, the Cavs just went to the basket, early and often on their way to a 115-84 blowout in Game 1. The Cavs’ 25 baskets in the restricted area on Tuesday were the most they’ve had in any game this season and the most any team has had in a game in the 2016 playoffs. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving combined to shoot 17-for-18 at the basket.
Across the league, 3-point shooting has been trending up for several years. But even with the Golden State Warriors and, now, the Cavs taking 3-point shooting to new levels, layups are still more valuable than 3s. Even with their increased proficiency from beyond the arc in the playoffs, the Cavs’ shots in the restricted area — shot at 63 percent — have been worth 1.26 points per attempt this year, while their 3s — 37 percent — have been worth just 1.12 points per attempt.
The Raptors have been one of the league’s best teams at protecting the paint, and allowed the Cavs to get just 35 buckets in the restricted area over their three regular season meetings. But on Tuesday, bad on-ball defense was exacerbated by a lack of help near the basket.
- NBA.com/stats video: Watch all 25 of the Cavs’ baskets in the restricted area in Game 1.
This doesn’t have to be a simple choice between taking away 3s or taking away layups. You can do both if, when you’re aggressive on the perimeter, you have a rim protector as a second line of defense. Bismack Biyombo is the Raptors’ rim protector, but he often wasn’t in position to actually protect the rim in Game 1.
One issue is that the Cavs’ have only one non-shooting big in their rotation. And when Tristan Thompson goes to the bench, they have five players, with Kevin Love or Channing Frye at center, who can shoot 3s.
Here’s Iman Shumpert catching a pass from Irving after setting a screen and having a clear lane to the basket, because all five defenders have both feet outside the paint:
Here’s all 10 players on the perimeter, opening the paint for Matthew Dellavedova to cut through and get an and-one off a pass from Frye:
But Thompson was on the floor for 13 of the Cavs’ 22 non-garbage time layups and dunks. Five of those 13 were in transition, but there were other examples of Biyombo just not being in position to help.
Here are two examples of DeMarre Carroll being left on an island with James while Biyombo is on the other side of the paint with Thompson:
The dilemma here is that, if Biyombo slides over to the strong side to help on James, one of the other weak-side defenders has to slide down into the paint to prevent a duck-in from Thompson. If that happens, a shooter is open on the weak-side and nobody throws cross-court darts to open shooters better than James.
But there were other times on Tuesday when Biyombo got caught too far away from the basket without that weak-side worry. Here’s Irving crossing over Cory Joseph and rejecting a screen from Thompson in transition, with Biyombo’s feet above the foul line:
So the Raptors have to figure out how they’re going to protect the rim better in Game 2 on Thursday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), both with Thompson on the floor and with him on the bench. For Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey, defensive improvement has to start on the ball. Carroll, in particular, got beat off the dribble too often in Game 1.
“You have to pick your poison with those guys,” Casey said Wednesday. “Some of the straight-line drives, it’s just like in the summertime, you’re guarding a guy one-on-one, you’ve got to get down in the stance and understand your cushion that you can have on the guy. If you get too close, he’s going to blow by you. If you’re off too far, he’s going to pull up.”
As for defending the Cavs’ five-out lineups, Casey says a more tactical adjustment is in order.
“We made some adjustments on that to make sure we still have help there at the rim,” Casey said. “We’ve got to take away the first beast, which is their 3-point shooting. We did that, but now we’ve got to make adjustments to make sure we have bodies on the drives.”
Casey was on the staff in Dallas when the Mavs beat James’ Miami Heat in the 2011 Finals, using a zone at times to keep James away from the basket. The Raptors have rarely used zone this season, but when he was asked if he had a zone look in his back pocket, Casey’s response was clear.
“Always,” said. “Always.”
Desperate times could call for desperate measures.