Down two stars, Cavs thrive by getting defensive

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Monday, June 8, 2015

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Here was the situation the Cavs were in Sunday: They had to activate a player who was 2,400 miles away and in a hospital bed because they didn't have enough players to even field an active roster.

So Kyrie Irving, a day after having surgery on his knee, was on the active list along with Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao, who were in suits on the bench.

Predictably, without Irving and Love, the Cavs have become an offensive disaster weighed down with stagnation and inefficiency. However, there has been a vital and breathtaking side effect even the most analytical minds working for the Cleveland Cavaliers probably couldn't have seen coming:

The team has turned into a defensive juggernaut by replacing two players with spotty defensive reputations with two limited offensive players who have relentless defensive dispositions.

Yes,LeBron James is why the Cavs are headed home with the NBA Finals tied at 1-1 after a 95-93 overtime win over the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 on Sunday. James' triple-double and 50 minutes of force carried them to victory after his 44 points in Game 1 came up just short.

But there's no way the Cavs could have stayed competitive without the contributions of Matthew Dellavedova and Tristan Thompson--the less glamorous replacements for Irving and Love -- who have stunned the Warriors with their smothering defense.

"It's not cute at all," James said. "If you're looking for us to play sexy, cute basketball, then that's not us. That's not us right now. Everything is tough. You know, we're going to come in with an aggressive mindset defensively."

The Cavs won despite shooting 32 percent from the field against a Warriors team that was fully healthy and playing at home, where Golden State had lost just three times all season.

They won because they hounded Stephen Curry, who was 0-for-8 with four turnovers going against Dellavedova -- some of the most jaw-dropping stats you'll ever see in the postseason. While Irving played a fantastic defensive Game 1, it's no secret he's often a target defensively and unlikely to be the centerpiece of Curry having a 5-for-23 shooting night, as Dellavedova was.

They won because they were extremely physical with the rest of the Warriors, knocking them from their comfort zone of playing with swagger and finesse as they usually crush teams with free-flowing offense. Though there were some fouls the Cavs were upset weren't called, the fact officials were allowing more contact actually played into their hands because it enabled their defense to be even more effective at the other end.

"We've got a good game plan in place for how we want to defend," Cavs coach David Blatt said. "And our guys are really, really, really locked in and defending and making an effort and making multiple efforts on every single play. ... And that is the only way to play against the Warriors, because they're so potent offensively and they can put up points so quickly and in a multitude of ways that you have no choice but to be aware or get beat."

The Cavs have come a long way on the defensive end. At midseason, the Cavs were 19-20 and, by some metrics such as defensive efficiency and defensive field-goal percentage, were one of the three worst defensive teams in the league. Love was racking up double-doubles and Irving was having some moments while learning to play alongside James. But the Cavs' opponents were regularly shooting better than 50 percent, crushing the team's pick-and-roll defense and putting up more than 100 points with ease. The team's margin for error, even with some remarkable talent at the top end of the roster, was shockingly narrow.

To talk of the Cavs even making the NBA Finals at that point, much less holding the fearsome Warriors offense to less than 100 points in regulation in two games on their floor would have been laughable.

But it's all about the personnel. The Cavs, of course, made trades and acquired better defensive players in Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert, whileJ.R. Smith seemed to rediscover his defensive motivation that had eroded while playing for the New York Knicks at the bottom of the standings.

With those moves and some maneuvers Blatt employed that were effective, the Cavs became a better defensive team. It could be argued that at certain points they were even a good defensive team. What they have going on so far in the Finals, though, is great defense against the best offense in the league.

Now in the lineup there's Dellavedova, who is an expert at defensive positioning and contesting without fouling despite his physical limitations. And Thompson, who is one of the most versatile defensive big men in the league. Because of Dellavedova's relentlessness, and Thompson's ability to switch on to guards and at least hold his own, and Mozgov's rim protection, and Shumpert's length and expert ball-hawking, and James' general defensive skills, the Cavs are difficult to score on right now.

This wasn't by plan -- this was by necessity.

It's not something the Warriors were ready for, it's not something they really faced too much during the season. It's not something the Cavs would choose either. But at this point, it's about all they have.

Players who are great scorers but don't do much at the other end are sometimes known for believing that their offense is their defense, that they will outscore the opponent because they have more talent. This is an equation as old as the game itself.

The Cavs, even to their own surprise in some ways, have inverted the principle. Their defense is their offense.

"For us to win a Finals game shooting 32 percent from the field, it's just a testament of how gritty we can be," James said. "It has to be that for the rest of the series, no matter how many games it takes."

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