Cavaliers’ win streak powered by strong defense, generous schedule

After a stumbling start to the season, the Cavaliers are currently riding an eight-game winning streak. How did they get here?

The Cleveland Cavaliers started this season as an obvious work-in-progress, unable to quickly adapt to the changing circumstances resulting from an offseason full of big moves. Static on offense and a complete mess on defense, the team lost several games to less talented opponents as it searched for answers on the fly.

Roughly six weeks later, those stumbles look like the prelude to an ascent up the Eastern Conference ladder. The Cavaliers have won eight straight games, most by double-digits, and are now just two games behind the first-place Toronto Raptors with a 13-7 record.

Coming off a 105-101 win over Toronto on Tuesday, the Cavaliers increasingly look like the contenders we all expected entering the season. While there are certainly still some questions lacking solutions and some signs that the team hasn’t put it all together yet, there’s little doubt that Cleveland is making progress.

But how much improvement has the team really shown? Can it last?

Improved defense

One of the primary issues for the Cavaliers early this season was a dysfunctional defense. It was clear that some players had not fully grasped David Blatt’s new defensive schemes, and over the first dozen games this season, the Cavaliers allowed 100-plus points on eight occasions.

However, we’ve seen a much different Cavaliers defense during the win streak, one that’s been far more fluid and reactive to opposing offenses. Only three teams (Clippers, Thunder, Hawks) have allowed fewer points per 100 possessions over their past eight games, per NBA.com, and as a result the Cavaliers have outscored their opponents by more than 15 points per 100.

A big part of the improvement has stemmed from greater play around the basket. During the win streak, opponents are taking just 16.4 free throw attempts per game, and the team’s overall figure of 18.8 FT attempts allowed per game is the lowest in the league.

The Cavaliers still aren’t a particularly good team at protecting the rim — only the Timberwolves and Kings allow higher shooting percentages inside 5 feet — but they’re figuring out how to make things work with the roster at hand. Tristan Thompson has been a huge part of that, and expanding his role even more could improve Cleveland’s defense over the long haul.

LeBron balancing out

We still haven’t seen LeBron James hit the peaks that occurred during his days in South Beach, but he’s looked much more efficient during the winning streak. Here’s a brief comparison of his numbers for the first dozen games of the season and the most recent eight:

PPG RPG APG SPG BPG TOV FG%
First 12 games 24.7 5.9 6.8 1.1 0.8 4.0 46.7
Recent 8 games 24.9 4.9 9.0 2.1 0.4 3.5 48.9

Almost across the board, you can see the improvement in James’ performance, whether it’s the massive improvement in his assist-to-turnover ratio or the nearly doubled steal rate. This has clearly been a learning process for LeBron as much as it’s been for some other players, and it appears he’s starting to figure things out with each passing week.

The other stars settling in

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love faced the biggest adjustments of any players on the roster entering the season, and it showed early on. However, the win streak is a good example of the progress they’ve shown in accepting their current roles.

Irving has been a revelation in recent games, maintaining his high level of production while matching it with previously unseen efficiency. The point guard is shooting 51 percent from the field during the win streak. Arguably more impressively, he’s turning the ball over just 1.3 times per game while averaging 5.4 assists.

That kind of smart play from Irving, coupled with eternally efficient players like LeBron and Love, makes Cleveland devastating on the offensive end.

It also helps that Love has found some consistency, averaging 18.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game during the winning streak. He’s shooting nearly 52 percent from the field and 38 percent from three during that time. Like Irving, he appears to be gaining a better understanding of where to find his shots in the offense.

But … the schedule

Here’s the wrench to be thrown into the whole “HERE COME THE CAVS” narrative. As good as Cleveland has looked while rumbling over opponents the past few weeks, every single win came against the weak Eastern Conference.

In other words: the Cavaliers beat up on inferior opponents. As good as teams like Toronto and Washington might be, they don’t quite match the ongoing gauntlet that is the Western Conference.

For all the praise about the Cavaliers’ team’s defensive improvement, four of their opponents — Magic, Nets, Knicks and Bucks — are ranked in the bottom 10 in points scored per 100 possessions. The Wizards are middle of the pack, and while limiting the Raptors’ attack for a couple games was impressive, both victories came with DeMar DeRozan injured. That’s not to totally diminish those wins — most of those teams are competitive primarily because of good defense — but it should temper expectations for Cleveland’s defensive improvement.

The Cavaliers are undeniably making progress, and winning games against inferior teams is a key part of earning a high seed for the playoffs. But the team’s evolution into a legit contender is still in its early phases, and there will surely be more bumps along the road. The team gets a chance to top a Western Conference opponent when it faces Oklahoma City on Thursday, giving us another chance to gauge its legitimacy.

Until then, this winning streak is just the Cavaliers going through the process.

December 10, 2014 by : Posted in Uncategorized No Comments

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