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Cleveland Cavaliers pay for sins of regular season in NBA Finals loss against Warriors

By Chris Fedor • Jun 13, 2017 at 5:30 PM

OAKLAND, Calif. — The troublesome numbers were there throughout the regular season, always casting a dark cloud over the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA title chances.

The Cavs were asked about it, informed of the stat repeatedly: No team outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency had gone on to win the NBA championship since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers.

Cleveland, an at-times disjointed group with myriad defensive issues during the regular season, finished outside the top 20. In the latter stages of the regular season, during a grueling March while re-integrating Kevin Love and J.R. Smith from injury and working the newbies into the rotation, the Cavs dropped to 29th, only better than the dreadful Los Angeles Lakers.

Still, these were the Cavs, a team capable of defying odds and one that chuckled at the mere mention of outsiders doubting them. Silly numbers didn't matter to them. They have LeBron James and, with him, the improbable becomes possible, just as it did last year in The Finals.

But in the end, not even James, the ultimate trump card, could make numerous flaws hidden beneath a pile of lesser opponents vanish against the Golden State Warriors.

In Game 5 of the NBA Finals -- and throughout the shorter-than-expected series -- the Warriors unmasked all of them, starting with Cleveland's undisciplined defense.

It takes precision, communication, sound rotations and unrelenting mental focus to contain the Warriors. During the regular season, the Cavs didn't show those traits consistently. Instead, they seemed to rely on an ability to crank up the intensity, lock into one opponent and use smart schemes to pester stars during the playoffs.

A few things improved, but the Cavs' run through the Eastern Conference was a reflection of an historic offense, led by a group of prolific 3-point shooters and an array of offensive weaponry that made defensive shortcomings irrelevant.

In the Finals, the Cavs needed to take it up a notch, perhaps even flip the made-up switch. Only there was no power.

The Warriors prey on flaws, they take advantage of the slightest opening and cause confusion with a plethora of screens and off-the-ball actions. They don't allow defenses to relax or recover from self-inflicted wounds.

It became obvious early that the principles needed to win a championship were never mastered and kept the Cavs from keeping most games within striking distance, despite a sprinkling of offensive genius from James and Kyrie Irving.

"That team makes you pay, they make you pay at an unbelievable rate when you make a mistake or you're a split-second slow or you miss an assignment or for just a second you're not conscious with what they're trying to do and who they are," veteran James Jones said. "They do a great job of reminding you of that every time you make a mistake. That's not a team you can beat unless you're focused on limiting your mistakes and being in the right place and executing at an extremely high level."

In five games, the Cavs allowed 121.6 points on nearly 47 percent shooting and had a defensive rating of 117.5.

The issues were numerous -- shoddy pick-and-roll coverages, breakdowns at the point of attack, poor switches stemming from an unwillingness to fight through screens, helping off the wrong players, a lack of rim protection, lazy rotations and poor weak side help.

When the Warriors weren't bombing uncontested 3-pointers, part of the strategy because the Cavs knew they weren't good enough to defend on an individual basis, they were carving up Cleveland's interior defense with snappy passes, lobs and drives to the basket.

All that finger-pointing after the countless failures was back. So, too, was the dreadful transition defense, another season-long problem.

Part of Golden State's fast-break success can be attributed to Cleveland's hurried shots and poor offensive possessions. But who didn't see the numerous fast-break chances coming? The Warriors boasted the league's best, most efficient transition offense. The Cavs, well, they ranked 28th defending against it.

Every time the Warriors plucked a rebound, Kerr waved his hands furiously, imploring his team to run. The Warriors sprinted up the floor, seeking early offense, which came in a variety of forms. There were uncontested dunks, full-throttle layups and dagger 3-pointers.

In the Game 5 clincher, the Warriors had 18 fast-break points. They averaged 21.8 in the series.

Poor effort. Lack of attention to detail. Running out to 3-point shooters instead of stopping the ball. It was all there. The Warriors broke the Cavs' defense quickly and easily.

Some of the issues are personnel-related, as the Cavs' roster is littered with negative defenders and one-way players, especially off the bench.

Go to Kyle Korver, one of the league's best shooters, and the defense suffers. Same with Channing Frye, who was a key component during a bulk of Cleveland's postseason run before the NBA Finals, a series where he's rendered ineffective by the Warriors' speed and athleticism.

There were calls for springy, young Derrick Williams, but the floor shrinks with him on the offensive end, making things more difficult on Irving and James, especially against a locked-in Golden State defense capable of switching everything. Deron Williams, who replaced Derrick Williams in the second unit, didn't score his first Finals points until Game 4 and struggled on defense.

It was just a few months ago when James called the Cavaliers "top heavy." It seemed like the trade for Korver and pickups following waivers had remedied that issue. Shortly after, there was even was chatter about the Cavs' being one of the league's deepest teams. Against Indiana, Toronto and Boston it appeared that way, as the James-led group that typically started the second and fourth quarters crushed teams.

But the enigmatic second unit, which ranked 28th in scoring, returned at the worst possible time, getting routed by the Warriors' subs.

There's a reason Golden State uses the slogan "Strength In Numbers," which is plastered all over Oracle Arena and stitched into the shirts. Golden State's bench outscored Cleveland's, 35-7, in the finale. For the series, it was nearly as lopsided: 145-92.

All of the questions asked of the Cavs in the regular season were unfortunately answered. Turns out, the concerns foreshadowed reality.

The regular season was never about locking up the top seed and flexing muscles against the feeble East. It was about developing habits and having something to fall back on. It was about sharpening focus and tactics, allowing the team to grow over time. It was about rising to the Warriors' level, reaching the standard they set.

Maybe Kevin Durant's addition was always going to be too much, a knockout punch thrown during this past summer when he met with Golden State's All-Stars in The Hamptons. Perhaps the Warriors showed that their offense wasn't going to be stopped weeks ago, shredding San Antonio and Utah.

But maybe, if the Cavs had laid down a defensive foundation in the regular season, the Warriors wouldn't have made offense look so easy.

On the biggest stage, in the pressure-filled moments, a team's true identity shows. The Cavs were always too reliant on The Big Three for offense and never good enough on defense. But no team had the talent to make them pay for their sins. Until June, until they went up against a relentless offensive juggernaut that had James stressed from the moment the matchup was set.

This loss was easy to spot months ago.

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