The Cleveland Cavaliers are two wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance since 2007, when LeBron James led a 50-win, second-seeded Cavs team past the top-seed Detroit Pistons before getting swept in the conference finals by a superior Western Conference power, the San Antonio Spurs.
Could history repeat itself? Time will tell. But how has this 2015 Cavaliers team evolved from regular season to postseason? The change in play of Cleveland’s prominent role players, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, between the regular season and postseason is staggering.
While comparing each player’s offensive ratings between the regular season and postseason, each has had a noticeable jump. Thompson increased his offensive rating by 13, Smith by eight and Shumpert has had the biggest jump by 23. Each player’s defensive rating hasn’t suffered much from their stellar offensive play.
How is this possible? Some may argue that defenses are more focused on James in the postseason, and that looks to be the case. When you look at James’ difference from the regular season to postseason, he has been considerably worse offensively and defensively, with his offensive rating declining from 112 to 104 and his defensive rating falling similarly from 105 to 98.
James’ shot has abandoned him this postseason as well, as he is shooting a postseason career-low from three, at 16.1 percent. But his teammates are stepping up from long-range, hitting timely shots that are back-breakers in certain situations. Kyrie Irving is shooting 46.9 percent this postseason, up from 41.5 percent in the regular season, despite dealing with nagging injuries.
Shumpert has also been hitting outside shots more frequently, shooting 35.7 percent from three, up from 33.8 percent during the regular season. Smith continues to make highly-difficult shots from all ranges when James is and isn’t on the court. Thompson acts as an energizer for the team and is always around the rim for an offensive rebound, while Timofey Mozgov has stepped up as a rim protector, averaging 1.83 blocks per game this postseason.
The Cavs’ defense is where they have been separating themselves most from Atlanta. The versatility and defensive ability of Dellavedova, Shumpert and James paired with the shot-blocking of Mozgov is a dangerous combination. When Smith is engaged defensively, there are simply no weaknesses for opposing teams to attack. It’s all come together at the right time for Cleveland, and now they are on the verge of history, being the first team since the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers to make it to the NBA Finals after winning the No. 1 overall pick the year before.
It’s surely been a group effort for a Cavaliers team that didn’t quite look this good in the regular season. It will be interesting to see how the team plans to rest Irving after already missing Game 2, especially with Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter Kyle Korver ruled out for the rest of the series. They’ll need a 100 percent Kyrie Irving to have any chance of beating either of the two teams coming out of the Western Conference.
Will history repeat itself? If the supporting cast keeps this level of play up, expect the Cavs to be far more formidable in the Finals this time around.