Defense wins championships.
It’s a cliche because it’s true. Just last year, the two best defensive teams in the league, the Golden State Warriors and the Boston Celtics faced off in the Finals. That’s great news for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’re the best defensive team in the league this season.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, having a functional offense is still a key part to winning championships. And in their first round series against the New York Knicks, they just can’t buy a bucket.
This isn’t an isolated problem that’s just popped up in this series so far. While Cleveland was a defensive juggernaut in the regular season, offensively, they left a lot of points on the table. They’re 25th in points per game, averaging only 112.3. That number drops to 108.6 when taking a look at their scoring numbers in their 31 losses this season.
Even with gunners like Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, the Cavaliers still lack offensive production from everyone else on the roster. They’re near the bottom of the league in bench points, with their second unit putting up a paltry 28.7 points per game.
All of these problems have been exposed in this series. The Cavs are averaging only 94.3 points per game in three games so far. That number drops to only 88 points per game in their two losses of the series.
Mitchell has tried his best to put up the points for the team. He scored 38 points and had a late flurry to pull his team back from double digits in Game 1. In Game 3, he was the team’s leading scorer with 22.
The rest of the team hasn’t been as prolific as Mitchell. Taking away his 32-point showing in Game 2, Garland is averaging only 13.5 points and two assists in the team’s two losses. Evan Mobley is only averaging 10.3 points on more than 11 shots per game.
It also doesn’t help that the bench of the Cavs has been paper thin. With the rotations shortened for the playoffs, there’s even less production that can be depended on from their second unit. In the two losses, the bench has only managed to score a total of 28 points.
In their Game 2 win, the bench mob had 36 points with 24 coming from Caris LeVert. Looking to start the game strong, JB Bickerstaff started LeVert in Game 3. That backfired because no one was left to pick up the scoring slack for the second unit.
The Cavaliers have started out slow in their two losses. In their first game they scored only 45 points in the first half, and clearly looked out of sync offensively. In Game 3, it was even worse, as they managed to put up only 32 points in the first half, falling behind by double-digits. In Game 1, they were able to keep it close. In Game 3, they just let the Knicks trample on them. In contrast, Cleveland got their offense going early in Game 2, scoring 59 first half points, including 34 points in the second quarter of that game. They were able to build a sizeable lead and their offense had a flow for the whole game.
Being down 2-1 while averaging less than 95 points per game isn’t ideal. But there is hope for the Cavaliers. Digging deeper into the numbers, they’re an efficient offensive team, ranking 10th in points per 100 possessions. It’s just that they play the slowest pace in the league so their numbers aren’t going to be bloated. That deliberate pace helps with efficiency, but doesn’t work so well when they’re down big and they need more possessions to make a comeback.
Just like a sword, there has to be balance. And the Cavaliers have to find that balance. They have to tweak their approach to their overall game. Maybe they give a little more focus on the offensive side of things. Maybe LeVert belongs back on the bench to give their second unit that solid scoring punch. Maybe they speed things up a bit, cutting back on their percentages if it allows them to get more chances to score.
It’s not over yet for the Cavs. If they find the stability that they had in the regular season, then they can even up the series 2-2. Unfortunately, if they still can’t put the ball into the hoop, then Cleveland’s defense — no matter how vaunted — won’t be winning any championships this season.