BOSTON — Heading into Wednesday night's complete ruination of the Boston Celtics at TD Garden, FiveThirtyEight gave the Cleveland Cavaliers a 2 percent chance to win their second straight championship. Ahead of them, with higher odds, sat five teams, including Boston. And aside from the fact that LeBron James, the best player alive, has cracked the past six NBA Finals, it was a justifiable read.
Cleveland's defense has looked like a defective sifter since the All-Star break, allowing 111.8 points per 100 possessions (28th in the league). In rough losses against the Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, Cleveland gave up 126, 127, 103 and 99 points, respectively.
But without Tristan Thompson—the incessant rebounding iron man whose strength cuts directly into Boston's biggest flaw—by his side for the first time since he rejoined the Cavaliers, James exhibited how invincible he still is when surrounded by four capable shooters at all times, as the Cavs took down Boston 114-91.
"With our lineup, I was able to get into the paint, finish at the rim, make some things happen," James said. "And it definitely worked wonders for our team."
For one night, Cleveland looked like it perfected the offense, with efficient looks in the form of an open three, a dunk or a trip to the free-throw line every time it crossed half court. The team outscored the Celtics by 32 points in James' 39 minutes and finished with an offensive rating of 117.6.
Even in their darkest days, the Cavaliers don't worry about their ability to score. They're a bomb squad, littered with three-point threats who can get hot and turn around an entire game with a few flicks of the wrist.
The Houston Rockets are the only team that utilizes the arc more often, and only the San Antonio Spurs are more accurate. Every question mark lies on the defensive end. There the personnel is questionable at best, with limited rim protection and creaky wings who may be a step slow once they're two, three rounds deep into their run.
But beyond one 48-minute sample size Wednesday night—in which Cleveland dominated on the road, on the second night of a back-to-back, against a healthy 50-win team—there are reasons to believe things will turn around when games really start to matter.
"It's definitely the best defensive performance, I would say [since I’ve been here]," Cavaliers guard Kyle Korver told Bleacher Report. "Our coverages demand high energy and focus, and that's kind of been part of our problem a little bit, I think. But tonight we were locked in. Everybody was sharp with the coverages. We got stops, got out to run, and that's when we're at our best."
Come playoff time, Cleveland won't have to worry about a chaotic travel schedule. There are no back-to-backs, and instead of worrying about three opponents in a four-night span, the team can unlock strategies needed to neutralize two or three guys over the course of a seven-game series.
"We played in every time zone in the country last month," Korver said. "During the season, you're changing [defensive coverages] up on a game-by-game basis."
According to Inpredictable, Cleveland's defensive issues take place immediately after a turnover or when its opponent grabs a defensive rebound. When the Cavs make a shot, get back and set up in the half court, things are relatively fine, and the team defends at a rate that's plenty capable of winning a championship.
It's a reason for optimism if the question is "will Cleveland win it all?" But truth be told, their ability to score at will keeps the Cavs two steps ahead of every other Eastern Conference wannabe.
When asked if this is the best offense he's ever been part of, Korver didn't hesitate.
"Probably. I mean it's just so hard to guard. It's hard to guard [LeBron] with one guy, and so help has to come from somewhere," he said. '[The Celtics] were trying not to come off shooters much tonight, but he's big in the paint and can have his way in there a little bit. Tonight it worked out for us. As far as an offense goes, it's definitely really hard to guard."
And when LeBron isn't stabbing the defense to death with his peerless vision, opponents have to worry about Kyrie Irving's penetration or Kevin Love isolating on the block. Instead of hoping to slow down Cleveland, the best chance to beat it is to match it on offense. And no team in the East can do that.
But even on a night when his team held the Celtics to a 48.5 true shooting percentage, the world's best player wasn't satisfied. "We want to continue to improve everything," James said. "Going down the final stretch of the season, there's no ceiling too high for us."
Wednesday served as a reminder of how dominant the defending champs can be. Their ability to score was never a question, but to see them re-engage on the defensive end the way they did is a sobering message for rest of the Eastern Conference.
Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.