The dominance of the Cleveland Cavaliers: Story so far
King James and the Cavaliers have been without doubt the defining story of the NBA play-offs. A team missing two perennial All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love wasn’t given much of a shot to get past the Chicago Bulls, but with LeBron playing the way he is and almost toying with opposition players on the floor, it is no surprise that they are making such easy meat out of the Hawks.
Game 3 in particular, LeBron dominated the game in almost all ways a game can be dominated as he finished with 37 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. All this while he fought off his ankle and knee issues, got over a tough start that saw him miss his first 10 shots and despite shooting 14-37 from the field he was sublime down the stretch, coming up with massive clutch shots and also taking up the toughest defensive assignment of Teague to close the game.
It wasn’t maybe as remarkable as Jordan’s flu game, but I don’t remember any other game in recent memory when a player battled injuries and exhaustion to dominate the game in such a manner. LeBron has been massive, but the real heroes of the Cavaliers playoff story so far has to be the consistent production and intensity provided by the likes of Smith, Shumpert, Thompson and Mozgov. In particular, the performances of Smith and Shumpert, players considered superfluous by the Knicks, has been the most unexpected positives for the Cavaliers.
Their energy and effort on the defensive end of the floor has gone a long way in eliminating the perimeter threat posed by the Hawks and for a team that depends a lot on floor spacing and the long-ball, it has been very difficult to execute under the stifling defense of Shumpert and Smith. Korver and Carroll have struggled and Teague can only do so much.
Horford and Milsap haven’t been at their best and the Hawks have struggled both on the defensive and offensive side of the game. And while we are handing out accolades, a lot needs to be reserved for the efforts of Coach Blatt, a coach who has been under much fire for the better part of the season. Blatt has successfully managed to reel in the likes of Smith and Shumpert and managed to convince a budding Tristan Thompson about his role as a backup to Love.
Coach Blatt and Dellavedova deserve equal credit for Cavaliers performance
While it may seem like the Cavaliers are doing everything by riding high on the exploits of LeBron, one can’t deny that Blatt has managed to draw up plays that give LeBron complete control of the offense and allow him to use his superior size and athleticism to dominate in the paint. Another major positive working for the Cavaliers has been the play of Dellavedova. The call on the tussle with Horford notwithstanding Dellavedova has indeed answered the call of his coach.
Standing in for Irving is no small thing and Dellavedova has indeed had his moments, specially Game-6 against the Bulls. Moreover, his impeccable Basketball IQ, admirable shooting ability and tenacious defense, he has become a vital cog for the Cavaliers. While the Cavaliers may have come up with major positives, one can't ignore the fact that their defense hasn't really been truly tested. Bulls are a major defensive unit, but their isolation pick-and-roll sets are not the toughest defensive assignment that can be envisaged.
The Hawks are a much better offensive team, but without a healthy Korver, a struggling Horford and an injured Carroll, the Hawks haven't been able to hit the stride that saw them dominate the Eastern Conference. And if the Cavaliers do sweep the Hawks, which they most probably will, they will have to take on the Warriors or the Rockets in the NBA Finals. Two teams that have an offensive arsenal that far supersedes anything the Cavaliers have faced till now.
Teague, Rose and Butler are elite guards but they certainly can't be compared to a Harden or a Curry. The Warriors seem primed to come out of the West and despite the injury scare to Curry, they still are the favorites to land the title. And in the ideal projection scenario, it seems almost destined that the best player in the World gets to go up against the reigning MVP.
However, despite multiple inquests by fans and media to polarize the series as an encounter between the two stars, one can hardly deny that the series will be about so much more. LeBron can go ahead and average 30 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists for the series but that will not be good enough against the Warriors. He needs help, a lot of help and considering the resumes of the Cavaliers supporting cast, one can't be sure of the help that will be available.
Can Smith and Shumpert keep up their hot shooting ? Maybe yes, maybe not. Can Thompson and Mozgov still manage key defensive plays and anchor the defense? Their exploits have been admirable to say the least but against a Warriors team that can go small and legitimately put four shooters on the floor, it is quite a precarious ask. And one being fair to Dellavedova has to admit that anything he can and will do to stop Curry will most certainly not be enough.
Thus, despite how much ever we celebrate the supporting cast, it is evident that without a healthy and productive Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers can only go so far. And all those critics who claim that Thompson has made the Cavaliers a better team have been ignoring the fact that a legitimate stretch four will only make it easier for LeBron and the Cavaliers to play at a higher tempo, rather than run isolation mid-post sequences for LeBron. Butler and Carroll may have struggled, but against a Barnes, Green and Igoudala and the efficient Warriors defensive rotations, it will be too much to ask of even LeBron.
The only shining light for the Cavaliers will be the fact that they have a leader who has been there and done that. They will count on him to implore and invigorate the ranks, muster up the confidence and the nerves to deliver when the time calls upon and trust his teammates enough for the greater good. The Cavaliers have still a game to win, and quite a few injuries to tender to, but this deep in the post-season, almost every team is hurting and in this scenario your adrenaline and nerves are what will define your legacy. Thankfully LeBron has a pretty good grip over both.
Note: The Cavaliers continued their dominance in Game 4 and won it 118-88 to progress to the NBA Finals.