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Cavaliers preaching communication on defense; but what about the offense?

By CHRIS FEDOR • May 19, 2018 at 12:29 AM

INDEPENDENCE — The Cavaliers spent part of their practice Thursday afternoon watching film, focusing on the numerous defensive breakdowns from the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals.

That's obviously the area they believe needs to be corrected. Coach Tyronn Lue and center Tristan Thompson both pointed to communication as the root of the problem, counting up to nine breakdowns that stemmed from that.

"Some guys aren't huge communicators," Thompson said. "But at the end of the day, it's the playoffs. This is for all the marbles. We're down 0-2. If you don't like to talk, you're going to talk now. And if you don't want to talk, you can sit your ass on the bench. That's what it is. It's point blank, simple. So, if we're not all communicating — all five of us — we got no chance."

It's commendable that the Cavaliers recognize their defensive issues and want to correct them prior to Game 3. But this has been a season-long problem and the necessary habits weren't built during the regular season, as the Cavs finished with the league's second-worst defense — a horrible 109.5 rating.

They lacked attention to detail and hustle in transition. There wasn't much resistance at the point-of-attack. Closeouts were slow, sometimes even nonexistent. The lack of a rim protector led to the Cavs giving up a plethora of points in the paint on a nightly basis. And the pick-and-roll defense was sinful.

Those bad habits can't be broken now. They've been highlighted in this series. Locking into one opponent and increasing the intensity isn't enough.

Through 13 games in the postseason, Cleveland has been almost as poor, compiling a defensive rating of 109.1, which ranks 10th out of 16 qualifiers.

What the Cavs talked about Thursday is the equivalent of a golfer getting an invite to play famed Augusta National and instead of using the months leading up to that special opportunity getting ready and sharpening every facet of his game, he waits until the day before to dust off the clubs and hit the range. By then it's simply too late.

At this point it's hard to see them reach a higher level. It's not who they are, it's not part of their DNA. The personnel doesn't seem to allow for it.

Offense is the backbone of this team. It has been for a while now, finishing the 2017-18 season near the top of a few important categories, including efficiency.

It sure wasn't defense that led to a sweep against the Toronto Raptors. The Cavs finished those four games with an even worse defensive mark than they had in the regular season.

That matchup was, once again, about the other end of the floor. In the four games against the Raptors, the Cavs averaged 118.5 points on 51.6 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from 3-point range. They had six players average in double figures and boasted an overall offensive rating of 121.5.

Perhaps Boston's defense, ranked No. 1 during the regular season, is too stingy. But if the goal in the days leading up to Game 3 is to actually fix the correctable problems, the Cavs should probably start with the offense.

In the first two series, they averaged 103.4 points on 46 percent from the field. In a pair of games against the Celtics, the Cavs have yet to reach the 100-point mark, being held to 88.5 points per game.

If the Cavs can't find their offensive rhythm they don't have a chance.

In Game 2, LeBron James scored 42 points and recorded yet another triple-double. Kevin Love chipped in with 22 points. The seven other players that received significant playing time combined for 30 points on 12-of-33 (36.3 percent) from the field, as the Cavs lost by double digits once again.

"I've never seen a game scored in the 40s unless it's in the Big Ten with like Penn State, Illinois and Ohio State," Thompson said. "So other guys have to contribute and other guys have to step up. We all have to do it collectively. Of course, it's a huge luxury having LeBron on our team. At the same time, we have to be ready to play and we have to do our job."

Members of the Cavaliers have gone out of their way to compliment Boston head coach Brad Stevens. James called the Celtics one of the "most well-coached" teams in the league. Other players have made it abundantly clear how much they respect Stevens' system and the level of execution the Celtics have displayed to this point.

That's what the Cavs should be aiming for.

"I think Boston does a great job of moving the ball," Thompson said. "I think the ball, when everyone is touching it, it gets energy and it makes guys feel good. It makes guys feel good and as a player, you feel way more comfortable making a play if you touch it every possession. Not just if you're scoring, but if you just feel the ball instead of going five possessions and just getting the ball and you have to shoot it with five seconds on the clock.

"You've got to get the ball hopping and if we get bodies moving, we got the athletes and the players that if we can cause triggers, that's going to be in our favor."

While the Celtics have 51 assists on 83 made shots, the Cavs have just 36 on 68 field goals. James has 21 of the 36. Love has five. No one else has more than three. Starting point guard George Hill has one.

"I don't really play by 'Am I getting his many assists?' Or 'Am I getting this many rebounds or this many points?' I think you guys worry more about that than I do," Hill said. "I just try to play the game and right now I'm not playing the game the right way. I've got to continue to watch film, work on my craft and come out with a whole different mindset Game 3."

The same goes for the Cavaliers, who need to increase the pace and try to get into their offensive sets quicker. The Celtics thrive on taking away the opponent's first action. But because of Cleveland's sluggish pace it hasn't been able to get to second or third options.

The Cavs aren't seeing many 3-pointers drop either — a staple of their offense and another reason for an outburst in the semifinals. Against the Celtics, the Cavs are shooting 24.6 percent from beyond the arc, averaging just seven made triples.

"I think the shots are different and their wings are younger, more athletic," JR Smith said when comparing Toronto and Boston. "That plays a factor in it too.

"Our main focus is to make shots right now when we get it. If we don't have them, try to make the next-best play. Right now Bron and Kev (are) working overly hard, trying to carry us. We just got to step up and do our job."

This team has been in this position before, trailing in a series, with its back against the wall. Lue may make a few adjustments heading into Game 3, but he said Thursday it's not really about that. Lue believes his team has to continue to do the same stuff that got them to this point — only at a higher level and with much more urgency.

That's why the chatter coming from the players was a bit odd. It's nice that they recognize the defensive deficiencies. But it's pointless.

The Cavs were never built to win with defense. That's not their best way to rally from this deficit. It hasn't been their approach all season.

So why would they try to start now?

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