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Cleveland Cavaliers Riding Improved Defense Toward Top of Eastern Conference

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 11, 2014

Dec 9, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) passes the ball around Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) in the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Everyone and their mother could've predicted that these Cleveland Cavaliers wouldn't have any problems scoring points. Any NBA team that boasts a core trio of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love should be able to fashion a top-five offense around their all-world talents. So far, Cavs head coach David Blatt has done just that.

The more pressing concern coming into the 2014-15 campaign was how the Cavs planned to stop everyone else from looking like offensive juggernauts at their expense. Grantland's Zach Lowe laid out Cleveland's most glaring weaknesses in his season preview:

The questions will come on the other end, where Cleveland faces a double whammy: It doesn’t have a rim protector, and as things stand now, it will start three bad defensive players. There is a ceiling to how good you can be defensively when 60 percent of your starting lineup is below average.

That share of poor defenders in Cleveland's starting five dropped to 40 percent once Blatt replaced Dion Waiters, more bench-gunner than bona fide starter, with Shawn Marion, a savvy veteran-stopper, at shooting guard.

As helpful as Marion's been, though, he's not solely responsible for the Cavs' recent turnaround on that end of the floor. Rather, Cleveland has counted on a team-wide effort, with surprisingly spry contributions from some of its less defensively adept parts, to escape the league's defensive doldrums and climb toward the top of the Eastern Conference.

Started Near the Bottom...

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According to NBA.com, Cleveland came in Wednesday ranked 16th in defensive efficiency, allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions, and 20th in opponent field-goal percentage (46.1 percent). Those are hardly sparkling stats, though they represent significant upgrades from earlier this season.

Through their first 12 games, the Cavs ranked 26th in defensive efficiency (107 points/100) and 28th in opponent field-goal percentage (47.7 percent), per NBA.com. Not surprisingly, the Cavs owned a 5-7 record after being blasted at home by the Toronto Raptors, 110-93.

"We got a four-game losing streak, so I stink," James said at the time (via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin). "I'm not doing my job. I got to do a better job, and it will help our team."

Love raised the stakes when he called Cleveland's subsequent contest, against the Orlando Magic, a "must-win."

The Cavs responded by stomping the Magic, 106-74. It was the first time all season that Cleveland had held an opponent under 90 points and 40 percent shooting.

To be sure, Orlando's offense was far from a picture of point-scoring perfection. The Magic came to Cleveland with the NBA's 24th-ranked attack (100.6 points/100) and have only stagnated since.

Cleveland's defense, on the other hand, has not. The Cavs have allowed their opponent to top the 100-point mark just twice in their last eight outings, all of which have resulted in wins—the mauling of the Magic included.

That includes two takedowns of Toronto's second-ranked offense, which managed just 91 points north of the border on Dec. 5 and a mere 13 in the fourth quarter as the Cavs battled back from a double-digit loss in Cleveland to claim a 105-101 win on Tuesday.

"I guess it was a little desperation," James said after the victory (via ESPN). "You get down on your home floor 13, 14 points, you go out there and control what you can control. That's how hard you play, how hard you defend. The defense got our offense going."

Setting the Tone

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 15: LeBron James #23 talks with Tristan Thompson #13 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the second half against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena on November 15, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Hawks 127-
Jason Miller/Getty Images

The defensive turnaround against the Raptors, like the one that the Cavs have been undergoing of late, began with LeBron. The four-time MVP played a pivotal part in pestering Kyle Lowry, a potential All-Star, into a 1-of-8 shooting performance in the fourth quarter.

James wasn't the only one who made Lowry's life miserable, though. Tristan Thompson proved shockingly adept at staying in front of him, as well, limiting the lightning-quick guard to a contested jumper late in the final frame.

That was but the last big defensive play in a night full of them for Thompson. Cleveland outscored Toronto by 17 points over a stretch of more than 19 minutes in the second half during which Thompson was on the floor. As it happens, Anderson Varejao, the Cavs' starting center, was sitting on the bench through most of that, after being pulled at the 5:33 mark of the third quarter.

This was hardly the first time Cleveland had seen its defensive fortunes turn when Thompson took Varejao's place on the court. A similar story played out for the Cavs' frontcourt in Toronto less than a week prior and against the Milwaukee Bucks a few nights before that.

In fact, according to NBAwowy.com, the Cavs have outscored the opposition by nearly nine points per 100 possessions when Thompson's stood in for Varejao but have been outscored by just under a point per 100 possessions when those roles have been reversed.

Thompson's superiority in this regard makes plenty of intuitive sense. He's eight-and-a-half years younger and far more agile than Varejao. As SB Nation's William Bohl noted, that disparity between the two has been obvious on defense:

Varejao simply doesn't have the foot speed or athleticism anymore to duplicate what Thompson can do. Tristan is able to hedge all the way out near center court sometimes, yet recover to his man without much of a problem. 

Thompson's young legs, quick feet and long arms have also afforded Cleveland the sort of defensive stamina the team needs from its bigs late in games.

According to NBA.com, the Cavs have held teams to 95.6 points/100 when Thompson's played in second halves, as opposed to an unsightly 107.8 points/100 with Varejao in the lineup after the break. That gap is roughly equivalent to the one that exists between the Golden State Warriors' top-ranked defense and the Miami Heat's 26th-ranked outfit.

It's no wonder, then, that Thompson has tallied upward of six more minutes of playing time per night during Cleveland's current eight-game winning streak (29.6 minutes) than he did prior to it (23.4 minutes).

Stars Step Up

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

As great as it is that Thompson has played like a star on the defensive end, it's just as important—if not more so—that the Cavs' actual cornerstones, particularly Irving and Love, have begun to pull their weight on that end.

Irving's play at the point of attack has been particularly important. So long as the reigning All-Star MVP can impede his opposite number from possession to possession, quarter to quarter and night to night, the Cavs won't need to lean so heavily on their bigs—Varejao, Thompson or otherwise—to contest drives or demand that their other defenders scramble so frequently to close out on shooters when the ball gets kicked back to the perimeter.

"I just try to stay in front of the ball as much as possible so it’s not as much pressure for other guys to help me," Irving told ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.

"I’d rather help other guys and be in position to help and stop my guy instead of the other way around and always being ‘that guy’ on film. I was on film a lot the last three years [laughing]. You get tired of it after a while, so you want to be that guy that your teammates trust on a day-in, day-out basis."

Indeed, Irving's never lacked the lateral quickness or the athleticism to be a lockdown defender. The tools are all there. Irving just has to try hard to put it all together, and now that he doesn't have to carry the Cavs' scoring load every night, he can't hide behind his supposed absence of energy and intentionality.

"It’s just all about effort," Irving added. "My first three years, it was just making excuses of offensive burden and all this other stuff, and at the end of the day I just have to do it for the greater good of our team."

Love, on the other hand, has always had to rely more on effort and execution, rather than physical gifts, to do his duty on defense. He's never been a high flier, and his feet have not been particularly quick. His arms aren't all that long (by Jay Bilas' standards, anyway), and though listed at 6'10, Love would probably measure in well under that in reality.

To his credit, though, Love is acutely aware of his physical limitations while also understanding how he can be a credit to his team's defensive efforts.

As he told ESPN.com"Being a lockdown defender is something that I know I’ll never be, but as far as being a team defender, being in the right spots, being physical, doing those things, I can get a lot better at that and just continue to break down film and see where I can get better out there."

That much Love shouldn't have much difficulty doing. He's not lacking for on-court intelligence, if his superb understanding of passing angles and spacing on the offensive end is any indication. So long as he buys into what Blatt's selling with the necessary energy and enthusiasm, Love can be no worse than a net neutral on defense.

Doing It Together

Nov 15, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (left), forward Kevin Love (center) and center Anderson Varejao react while sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory C
USA TODAY Sports

Then again, the same could be said of just about any Cavalier. As a whole, they're following Blatt's basic defensive principles with greater discipline and diligence, just as any team that expects to stop its opponents consistently must.

"What you're asking for ultimately is, 'Buy in. Buy into the team defense. Buy into the concept. And we'll be OK,'" former NBA head coach Mike Fratello told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick when discussing how the Cavs can get the most out of their defensively challenged personnel. "You understand you have to cover for them."

More importantly, the Cavs are actually becoming a whole team, one far more effective than the sum of its individually faulty parts. By all accounts, there's chemistry brewing in Cleveland's locker room—and not just because the team is piling up W's.

"Team morale is great," Love insisted before the current spurt began. "We get along, but we know we have a ton of work to do."

That work, and the camaraderie that's underpinned it, was bound to come in time. Contrary to what the 2007-08 Boston Celtics would suggest, even the most talented teams need time to jell when they've been flung together as quickly as Cleveland has.

The fact that the Cavs began to play quality ball just over a month into LeBron's grand experiment is a testament to just how good this team is and how great it might be.

Granted, it's still too soon to slot Cleveland in as the East's runaway favorite. The Cavs' recent run has featured just three victories over teams with winning records and not a single contest against the West.

Cleveland's schedule—already the league's seventh-toughest by opponent winning percentage—is slated to strengthen considerably between now and the end of 2014. The Cavs still have trips to Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Miami and Atlanta to play between now and New Year's Eve, along with home games against the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies and Bucks.

If the Cavs keep up their newfound defensive dynamism through the rest of December, then everyone and their mother can comfortably consider Cleveland a bona fide title contender, as previously predicted.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

 

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