Having the NBA’s worst defense would have been bad enough.
But after a loss to the Houston Rockets that dropped their record to 5-7 on Nov. 9, the Cavaliers were on pace to have one of the worst defenses ever at 113.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue’s optimism notwithstanding — “If we play like that,” he said after the 117-113 loss, “we’ll be a lot better” — the alarm bells were ringing as loud as ever at that point, especially with the rival Boston Celtics rolling through what would be a 16-game winning streak that lifted them to the top of the Eastern Conference.
They remain there through Tuesday’s action, 3 1/2 games up on both the Detroit Pistons and the Cavaliers. But with nine straight wins, the Cavs have not only turned their season around, they’ve done so by addressing their biggest weakness.
The Cavaliers have been positively ferocious on defense during their surge, limiting opponents to just 100.5 points per 100 possessions — good for fourth in the league over that span. They’ve seen their biggest improvement at the 3-point line, where opponents are making 4.2 fewer shots and shooting roughly 10 percentage points worse than they did in the first 12 games.
Part of that can be attributed to their schedule, with only two of nine opponents ranked in the top 10 in offense and five of nine sitting below .500. But after a horrendous start in which they were shredded for 112 points or more in each of the 10 games preceding their streak, the Cavaliers will gladly take success however they can get it.
As chronicled by Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor, the Cavs have done so in large part by “blitzing,” i.e. switching everything on the perimeter 1 through 4, and aggressively trapping ball handlers when the opportunity presents. It’s a risky style that the Cavaliers haven’t always had success with. Indeed, it was a focal point in training camp, and still a large part of their tactics during their poor start.
The difference now? An easier schedule, improved chemistry through familiarity and — with Tristan Thompson injured — full commitment to the smaller lineups (often with Kevin Love at center) that thrive at pressuring opponents. That’s exactly what the Cavaliers did last Friday to Charlotte Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker, holding him to 6-for-21 shooting — including 2-for-11 on 3s — in their 100-99 victory. It was a rare instance where they were able to clamp down on their foe instead of overpowering them with their high-octane offense.
Make no mistake: With James, the ageless wonder, playing pretty much as well as ever in his 15th season, and a dearth of individual stoppers, the Cavaliers will always be an offensive-minded team. But the past three weeks have at least restored hope that they can defend well enough to hold off the surprising Pistons and hard-charging Celtics and maintain their supremacy in the East.
“We knew something had to change,” Love told Cleveland.com after the triumph over Charlotte. “We’re still not where we need to be, and you can see that. It’s funny because Channing (Frye) said something … like, We have another level. We all tend to agree. We don’t know exactly what it is, but I guess we’ll find out.”