Have the Cavs really flipped the switch defensively?

May 1, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives to the basket against Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) during the first quarter in game one of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 1, 2017; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives to the basket against Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson (13) during the first quarter in game one of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Cavaliers were horrible in the regular season on the defensive end. Have they flipped the switch in the playoffs?

Can the Cleveland Cavaliers flip the switch? 

How many times did you hear that after the NBA all-star break?

The defending champions after the all-star break played some of the worse defense in the league. Some of it was due to resting their stars, but most just seemed due to lack of effort. It got so bad that Cleveland finished the season 22nd in Defensive Efficiency – behind juggernauts like the Sixers, Pistons and Pelicans.

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Many started to winder if it was more than just the lack of effort. Were the Cavaliers flawed? Mayne the acquisitions of Kyle Korver and Deron Williams, both brought in for their offensive prowess, cost them more than believed on the defensive end?

When the regular season was all said and done, their ineptitude on the defensive end cost them the top seed in the East.

Didn’t matter, though. So far in the playoffs, the Cavs have swept both the Pacers and Raptors.

Playoff LeBron is in full force, Cleveland’s shooters are cooking and they are running teams off the floor. It has been impressive, but it has also got me thinking. Has Cleveland’s dominance been due to sheer firepower, or have they flipped the so-called switch defensively?

Last year Cleveland was a good defensive team, finishing 10th in Defensive Efficiency. In the NBA Finals, Cleveland ramped it up and all but shutdown Golden State’s high-powered and historic offense.

Several things led to the decline this year. Defending champions usually lose focus to start the year, and it happened to hit their defense most. This started with LeBron James; he is still a force defensively, but was rarely locked in during the regular season.

J.R. Smith’s injury had a bigger impact than most will admit. He is a better defender than he gets credit for, and missed exactly half of the season. Cleveland’s big mid-season acquisitions, Korver and Williams, are both minus defenders. Behind Tristan Thompson, there is no rim-protection. There are real problems beyond just the effort narrative.

In the first round against Indiana, the defense continued to struggle. Cleveland gave up 108.7 points per game to the Pacers, worse than the 107 they allowed during the season. To make matters worse, Indiana wasn’t even a great offensive team this season (they ranked 15th in Offensive Efficiency).

However, starting in the second half of Game 3 (against the Pacers), you saw signs of life from Cleveland on the defensive end. J.R. Smith got more minutes, Iman Shumpert replaced Richard Jefferson in the rotation and LeBron locked in.

James also playing 45 minutes helps. Playing Shumpert more was the right move; he is a versatile, tough defender who competes. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were benched in the fourth quarter of Game 3. A message from Ty Lue was sent. And received.

Against Toronto’s star guards, Cleveland trapped more. Something they don’t do often during the regular season. Kevin Love did a good job of sealing off any driving lanes for Lowry/DeRozan.

Cleveland only allowed 101 points per game in that series. That probably should be lower too, as most of Toronto’s big scoring came when the game was already decided. Cleveland won three of the four games by 10-plus points.

Lets compare all of Cleveland’s defensive numbers from the regular season to the postseason.

Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 12.18.21 PM
Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 12.18.21 PM /

(stats via espn.com and teamrankings.com)

When you combine two points less per 100 possessions, three more defensive rebounds, and a 2.4 percent decrease in opponents three-point shooting percentage, you have a much improved defense. Their opponents are shooting the same from two as the regular season. However, Cleveland is cleaning up the glass preventing offensive rebounds and extra possessions. Most importantly, they have defended the three well since Game 2 of the Pacers series.

A new lineup of James, Shumpert, Korver, Williams and Channing Fry has been particular effective. You add it all up and you’ve got the third best defensive team in the playoffs only behind the awesome Warriors and the pesky Bucks. So, while their offense has been the story, it is clear their defense has made some strides since an abysmal regular season.

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  • The Cleveland Cavaliers’ offense is first in efficiency, scoring a ridiculous 117 points per 100 possessions. The King is averaging 34 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on 55 percent shooting in 42 minutes a night in the playoffs. As much as a seven-year old fan in Memphis gets upset when Lebron rests, rest works.

    Moving forward, we all know Cleveland will destroy either the Celtics or the Wizards. Cleveland can rely on immense firepower and solid defense in that round. The real question will be whether they can play at the same level as the new-look Golden State Warriors?

    Can their defense take another step like it did in last year’s Finals? I remain a skeptic, but it is encouraging to see their defense heading the right way after the first two rounds.

    Their 105.9 points per 100 possessions mark is third overall in this postseason, but in the regular season that mark would have only been 14th in the league. Cleveland has jumped from 22nd to 14th, basically. They have gone from bad to average. Average doesn’t work against Golden State.

    They beat Golden State last year due to several different reasons. Draymond Green’s suspension, Andrew Bogut’s injury, both Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala not being 100 percent and Harrison Barnes shooting 2 for 127 or something ridiculous like that in the series.

    Cleveland can’t rely on all those things happening again. Golden State is healthy, rested, and hungry. Oh and they replaced Barnes with some dude named Kevin Durant. I hear he’s good.

    In order for the Cleveland Cavaliers to have a shot at beating the Warriors, they’re going to have to reach to another gear.

    This probably means playing LeBron 46 minutes, no Channing Frye, only Williams when Livingston is on the floor, and I’m not sure how much Korver can play in this series.

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    LeBron with shooters flanking him gives them a puncher’s chance, but at the end of the day their defense may have already hit their peak. In theory, you could say that the Cleveland Cavaliers have flipped a switch, because their results in the playoffs are the proof.

    However, Golden State is on a whole another level – and I’m not sure if the Cavs have a switch that could match it.