OAKLAND -- The Cleveland Cavaliers flipped the switch ... again.
After going 12-15 and ranking 29th defensively after the All-Star break, the Cavs have been a much different team in the playoffs, cruising to a third straight Finals trip with only one loss and a historically good offense.
The switch wasn't really flipped until the conference semifinals. The Cavs swept the Indiana Pacers to start the postseason, but won the four games by a total of just 16 points and ranked 13th defensively in the first round, having played a team that ranked 15th in offensive efficiency in the regular season.
But the sweep afforded the Cavs seven days off before they played the Toronto Raptors, a team that had the same record and a better point differential as the Cavs did in the regular season. The Raptors were the only Eastern Conference team to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the regular season, outscoring their opponents by 4.9 points per 100 possessions. The Cavs ranked 22nd defensively and outscored their opponents by just 2.9 points per 100 possessions.
But over the first seven days of May, the Cavs proved that six months of data to be meaningless. In their second sweep, they scored 13.1 more points per 100 possessions than the Raptors had allowed in the regular season and held Toronto to 8.9 points fewer per 100 possessions than they had scored over those 82 games.
In the conference finals against the Boston Celtics, the offensive numbers were even more ridiculous. Over five games, the Cavs scored almost 127 points per 100 possessions, more than 21 more than the Celtics had allowed in the regular season. It was the highest OffRtg for any team in any series since 1996-97.
Through three rounds, the Cavs have been 13.2 points per 100 possessions better than they were in the regular season. That's the biggest improvement through the conference finals of the 42 teams that have reached The Finals since '97.
Not coincidentally, two of next three highest differentials over that time belong to the Cavs of the last two years. And other other one belonged to the 2000-01 Lakers, who had a back-up point guard named Tyronn Lue -- the guy who is now coaching the Cavs.
In his second stint in Cleveland, years 12-14 of his career, LeBron James has clearly found a rhythm to his season, where he can play at 80-85 percent capacity for 75 games, allowing him to hit 100 percent in May and June. And when he's been at 100 percent, he's lost just one series, with the Cavs missing both Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving (who was injured late in Game 1) in The 2015 Finals.
This season, even with him playing at 80-85 percent, the Cavs were 16.3 points per 100 possessions better with James on the floor than they were with him on the bench. That on-off-court NetRtg differential was the second highest (behind that of Chris Paul) among players who played at least 1,000 minutes in the regular season.
In the playoffs, the Cavs have seen improvement both with James on the floor and off the floor. But they've still been much better with him on the floor and that's where they've improved both offensively and defensively.
As you would expect, James has a bigger hand in the Cavs' offense in the playoffs. Over the last three years, he has a regular season *usage rate of 31.0 percent and a postseason usage rage of 33.5 percent.
* Usage rate = Percent of his team's possessions a player uses (via shots, assists, turnovers and trips to the line) while he's on the floor.
And James has been more likely to call his own number in the playoffs. Over these three years, his assist rate (assists per 100 possessions used) has been lower in the postseason (20.6) than in the regular season (23.2).
Though, more often than not, he has shot worse and scored less efficiently in the playoffs than in the regular season, James has still scored more efficiently than his team on average, so more shots for him isn't a bad thing. This year, with his postseason effective field goal percentage of 62.6 percent being a career high, it's been a very good thing.
Defensively, over these last three years, James has averaged 2.9 steals plus blocks per 36 minutes in the playoffs, up from 2.0 in the regular season. He's more active, and when he's active, he has the instincts and athleticism to erase his teammates' mistakes and terrorize opposing offenses.
This year, the Cavs' rim protection has been a little better in the playoffs. But they've also forced more turnovers, done a better job of keeping their opponents off the free throw line, and rebounded better than they did in the regular season. After allowing 111.0 points per 100 possessions in the first round, they've allowed just 101.8 over the last two.
The offense has been historically good; The 120.7 points per 100 possessions the Cavs have scored in the playoffs is the highest postseason mark since the league started counting turnovers in 1977. And the defense has been much better than it was in the regular season.
What the Cavs have done in the playoffs, both offensively and defensively, brings the value of the regular season into question -- at least in the Eastern Conference. But, unlike player rest, flipping the switch isn't a league-wide issue.
It's unique to this team and this star, who knows how to save his best for the postseason and, for that reason, is making his seventh straight trip to The Finals.
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