Is Cleveland Cavaliers' Secret Playoff Defense a Smoke Screen or the Real Deal?

Greg SwartzCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterApril 17, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 15: Kevin Seraphin #1 of the Indiana Pacers loses the ball to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on April 15, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 109-108 to take a 1-0 series lead. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND — For weeks, Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue teased a secret playoff defense that the team was working on in practice but wouldn't reveal until the completion of the regular season.

After surrendering 108 points on nearly 50 percent shooting in a Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers, many were left wondering if any changes had actually been made.

"We executed our defensive plan," LeBron James said. "They hit some big shots."

For fans expecting a proverbial switch to be flipped, there appeared to be no such thing.

The Pacers shot 49.4 percent from the floor and 45.8 percent from deep, pounding Cleveland for 46 points in the paint and doubling them up in fast-break scoring (10 points to five). The Cavs' defensive rating clocked in at 118.9, a mark that would have ranked eight points behind the Los Angeles Lakers for dead last in the NBA.

Heading into Game 2, is Lue's playoff defense merely a fabrication, or have actual changes been made?

 

Calling Their Bluff

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 19:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kevin Love #0 react to play during the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on March 19, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowled
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Fans and media members weren't the only ones skeptical of the Cavaliers' defensive secrecy.

This was a unit that ranked 21st overall in defensive rating and was a putrid 29th since the All-Star break. If there was a better formula to be deployed, why was Lue so insistent on holding back and not showing their hand?

"To me, that’s a smoke screen, and I wouldn’t say that. How could you encourage your players to hold back?" one Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "I would never say that, and I don’t believe it from him. It’s not like they’re going to have a magic scheme when the playoffs start."

Indeed, there were no special pick-and-roll coverages pulled out of a hat. No improved rim protection appearing out of thin air.

"They’re going to be the same team, just with a much better effort," the scout said. "[Lue's] different scheme should be getting back on defense, close out to your man, tighten up on pick-and-rolls. It’s not a different scheme; that’s what they’re going to do. They’re going to run much harder in transition because it’s the playoffs."

Despite lacking any magical transformation, the Cavaliers' defensive spirit did seem greatly improved.

Kyrie Irving threw himself to the ground diving for loose balls on multiple occasions, one of which led to a James steal and transition slam.

"I’m happy with how emotional we were," James said. "I’m happy with the energy and the effort. We played with energy and effort all night. Like I said, they made some big shots and made some big plays. So I’m excited about that."

While the Pacers still put up strong offensive numbers, there were some adjustments in Cleveland's defense that have inspired hope for the remainder of the postseason.

 

Assignments, Coverages and No Shump?

James and Paul George represent the best small forward postseason matchup the NBA has to offer—if only they were actually guarding one another.

Lue has elected to use J.R. Smith on George and have James contain shooting guard Monta Ellis instead. This isn't a groundbreaking strategy, of course, as the Cavaliers have chosen to give James easier covers all season long to protect his offensive stamina.

"[Indiana] tried to run LeBron around a lot our last game here," Lue said, referring to a 135-130 double-overtime win in which George dropped 43. "To save his legs and his energy so he’s able to play offensively and do the things he does, J.R. took the challenge and did a great job."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Using Smith to guard the opponent's best player is a gamble Lue seems OK with. He's referred to the 31-year-old as the team's best wing defender, even if he's prone to the more-than-occasional mental lapse.

George ended with 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting, numbers the Cavs can live with given Indiana's lack of sidekick scoring options.

One nice adjustment Lue made was the team's assignments when switching onto George following various pin-down sets the Pacers run to free him up. James and Tristan Thompson engaged in a sideline screaming match during that double-overtime game, arguing over where the other needed to be during these plays.

Lue made sure there was no debate this time.

"Coach gave us coverages for those pin downs. We [as a team] watched a lot of film. Guys individually watched a lot of film. Paul George and C.J.’s [Miles] pin downs are a big part of their offense, and that’s how they get threes," Thompson said.

One noticeable absence from the rotation was guard Iman Shumpert. After averaging 25.5 minutes in 76 games (31 starts) this season, it was strange to see Shumpert not receive any run.

Lue didn't say for sure that he wouldn't play in the series, but the coach chose to praise other members of the second unit instead.

"Playoffs is just a game of everyone having to stay ready," Lue said. "Tonight, it hurt me that I didn’t get Shump in there, but R.J. [Richard Jefferson] came in early, and he played well. We got him in early for Kevin [Love], and it was just kind of the flow of the game with rotations. He has to stay ready. Everyone has to stay ready, and we’ll just see what happens.”

It's worth noting that Shumpert has been absolutely dreadful offensively the past few months. After shooting 40.3 percent from three before the All-Star break, his outside stroke has plummeted to 25.3 percent after.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13:  Kevin Love #0, Iman Shumpert #4, Tristan Thompson #13, and Channing Frye #9 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on the bench during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Five of the 2016 NBA Finals on June13, 2016 at Oracle Are
Bruce Yeung/Getty Images

Following the game, Shumpert went straight to the practice court for a workout without changing out of his uniform. He appeared in the locker room approximately 30 minutes after the game had ended and most others had showered and dressed.

A healthy, focused Shumpert can be a terrifying perimeter defender. The fact that he didn't play a single minute may be more indicative of where he is offensively at this point. If he starts making shots again, Lue has yet another defensive weapon up his sleeve.

While the secret defense didn't live up to the hype, it was clear the Cavaliers certainly made steps in the right direction.

 

Stats via Basketball Reference and NBA.com and are accurate through April 16.

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.