Every team in the East has long been written off with good reason. The Cavaliers are playing their best basketball across two LeBron James stints, and this time around their offense is classified as Warriors-level lethal. Previous versions of the Cavaliers had used James as a tank – a bruising, unstoppable force that couldn’t be physically coped with. The plan against those Cavs team was to focus on the weak links, who were often left starved of shots and touches, as the Cavs method of using James was that of Doug Collins with Michael Jordan in the 80s: give the ball to Michael and get out of the way.
The Cavaliers landscape has changed and they have plenty of triple-threats (shoot, drive, pass) on their team, which when fueled by James offer a lot more than if they were complements to James. Below is a sampling of the type of offense the Cavaliers run, and these clips are all taken from Game 4 of their series with the Hawks, which is the last game they played.
LeBron as the decoy
Here’s a soft double stagger screen by Thompson and Love where LeBron’s man is just brushed enough to give him space to drive into the paint. This action is a decoy but who can blame anyone for falling for it? The next screen is set by Thompson on Love’s man as Love shades to the corner. The pass from LeBron is on point and it’s an open look for Love. Horford is understandably concerned with the incoming LeBron drive so he’s not paying any attention to Love, and as the center, he has to protect the paint. The onus here is for Millsap to fight through the screen and cover Love, which doesn’t happen. Replace Millsap/Horford with Patterson/Biyombo and you have the same issue.
Asking your bigs to be this tuned could be a big ask, so the best line of defense is for the guy checking LeBron to not trail, but go entirely under the action. You concede the jumper, but that might be your best option.
Who helps the helper’s help?
Here’s another precarious position for the defense. Once again, Sefolosha trails the screen as Millsap is worried about Love, so LeBron has a clear path into the paint. Yet again Horford comes out to defend him, which is his duty as the rim protection. As Horford rotates to LeBron, Bazemore tries to rotate to Thompson and is on his back (not a good position). At this point, LeBron has an easy pass to Thompson for the dunk, but picks out J.R Smith who Bazemore also happens to be neglecting. You can enter a debate here as to whether it’s Teague’s responsibility to help Bazemore who’s helping elsewhere, but the take home messages is this: your primary rotation isn’t enough, and secondary and tertiary rotations are even more important because James can pick out shooters.
Mismatch creation, recognition, and exploitation
You often see big on small mismatches go unpunished because they’re either too far away from the rim, or the big man lacks the requisite skill to make the smaller defender pay without turning it over. On this play, Teague is switched off Irving to LeBron, and the Hawks deem this undesirable. They make a conscious effort to have Horford switch on LeBron and Teague on Love, who they view as a perimeter threat. Here’s the pinch: Love immediately goes into the paint without the ball, and is found by James. Great play by James who already has a mismatch but seeks out a greater mismatch, the one the Hawks wanted to avoid.
The Hawks make another switch and put Humphries on Love but Teague still has nowhere to hide as he’s now pinned down by Thompson and the big-to-big pass results in an easy score. The issue started with the initial Teague switch off Iriving and through some patient passing and mismatch recognition, ended up in an easy layup.
Pick how you’ll get beat
You don’t see a sandwich screens that often in the league anymore, but here it is giving LeBron an option to face up against Schroeder or Humphries. He picks on Schroeder and backs him down, and the Hawks over-help big time! They send a triple team through Bazemore and Humphries while LeBron isn’t even in the painted area, and now LeBron has options in Dellavedova and Shumpert – either is a good one. Dellavedova because Bazemore is shading off him, and Shumpert because Korver has now dropped down to help on Thompson (who Humphries left to triple team James).
This is a situation where doing less on defense is better than doing more. If this were Lowry being backed down by James, let him take the soft fade from 10 feet, it’s a helluva lot better than getting speared the way the Hawks did.
Sometimes the guy who doesn’t even touch the ball has a massive impact, and this is a constant theme in the Cavaliers offense. The LeBron drive setup by the wing screen is fairly routine, it sucks in the defense (especially Horford), but the real problem is that even though Millsap knows Love is open in the corner, he can’t rotate out to him because Thompson is in excellent position to catch-and-dunk so Millsap has to pay attention there. Sefolosha probably has to rotate out to Love and take his chances with Smith being open, while hoping someone else rotates out to him. The Hawks don’t do that, though, and rely on Millsap sticking to Thompson and covering Love on the perimeter – this is damn near impossible.
Once again, the responsibility of rotations (both interior and exterior) has to be outlined for the Raptors because, as you can see, there’s so much action on the court that it’s very easy for someone like Terrence Ross to lose his mind on who he should be covering. Replace Millsap with Patterson in this scenario and he probably has a better chance of covering two men, but it’s hardly a viable strategy.
I love this play because it puts a big man in a passing situation in the high post. You don’t see enough of this with the Raptors, if any at all. Amir Johnson was the last guy who we could afford to play like this (maybe Bebe in the future?), and you can see why it’s so effective. Irving sets a back-screen on Sefolosha as James cuts, and Love’s pass is accurate but probably a split second too late for it to be an uncontested layup. As it is, James gets a good look but Horford contests it enough, except that James is still covered by a smaller guy so he’s got an offensive rebounding advantage.
Replace Horford with Biyombo and you could see the Raptors contest and get the rebound, however, the problem originated with the back-screen set by Irving. This is a play which the Cavaliers could run when they need to pick up fouls on Lowry but putting him in compromising situations. If this does happen, it’s imperative that Lowry doesn’t foul.
When all else fails…
You always have the 1-4 clear out.