Cavaliers aggressive defense making life difficult for Raptors

AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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The Cleveland Cavaliers have been terrific against the Toronto Raptors to open up the NBA’s second round. With a 2–0 series lead after a crushing 125–103 win in Game 2, the Cavaliers are in complete control, once again proving doubters wrong behind the fully-blown emergence of Playoff LeBron James.

Cleveland’s offense has unsurprisingly been humming along. But the Cavaliers’ defense hunkering down somewhat has helped make these wins even easier. They look like they’re waking up from a four-month slumber of lackluster play now that wins matter and they have a respectable opponent to face. Their 101.1 defensive rating over the last three games (enough to lead all teams remaining in the playoffs) is good, even for the brief sample size and some of the Raptors’ issues helping out (they went 5-of-17 from 3 in Game 2, for example).

A key part of Cleveland’s success has been its defense on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan, for the second time in these playoffs, failed to hit double-digit points and finished Game 2 with a woeful stat line of five points, three rebounds, three assists and 2-of-11 shooting. DeRozan was also merely average at best in Game 1 with 19 points on 7-of-16 shooting and a dreadful -32 plus/minus.

The Cavaliers’ aggression has helped make that possible.

Both Lowry and DeRozan have faced a barrage of traps in the first two games. The Cavaliers have enforced a tactic similar to that of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round (albeit without the same kind of youth, athleticism and length), whether their All-Star opponents are isolated or coming off a screen.

It completely throws off their rhythm, reducing Lowry’s chances to penetrate so easily and set up others, while DeRozan can’t find the same space to go to work, attack off the dribble and find the mid-range spots that he loves so dearly. Lowry has had even less room to operate with DeRozan, who can’t spread defenses effectively to the 3-point line, This can really hinder the Raptors’ offense, and it has to the tune of 11.9 fewer points per 100 possessions when DeRozan has been on the floor in the playoffs so far.

As Lowry said to Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports after Game 1, it’s not easy to deal with traps when the Cavaliers do it so well and LeBron is roaming the court to cause fast-break havoc: “LeBron does a great job of roaming,” Lowry said, adding that it’s difficult to play at the pace the Raptors prefer when “you’re playing against a team that can roam and kind of junk up the game defensively.”

When considering how much the Raptors’ offense relies on Lowry and DeRozan (or Lowry tearing things up with bench units), it makes sense for the Cavaliers to force the ball out of their hands whenever possible and make someone else score or create. And even though that can work sometimes with guys like Norman Powell and Patrick Patterson attacking closeouts, it helps contain Toronto’s stars.

With pressure like this early in the shot clock, DeRozan rushed a pass that went in the middle of nowhere and gave Irving an easy steal and LeBron an instant layup:

Similarly in Game 1, the Cavaliers doubled Lowry on this pick-and-roll before he hardly even had a chance to turn around and look for a pass. And by the time he did, LeBron knew what was coming as Irving and Kevin Love forced Lowry’s attention to Serge Ibaka. LeBron pounced into the passing lane, exploding down court for an utterly disrespectful off-the-backboard alley-oop dunk:

Any disruption for the Raptors’ top playmakers is a good thing, but the fact that this type of aggressive trapping can create fast-break opportunities makes it that much better.

For DeRozan, possessions like this simply forced him to give up the ball, rather than isolating or working from the post. Here, Ibaka got an open shot and DeRozan was successful passing out of the double-team. But the pressure at the start of the play demonstrates how the Cavaliers are trying to force him away from his own game and scoring:

At other times, things weren’t so easy. As the Cavaliers sent DeRozan to his eighth straight miss in Game 2, Irving actually played some strong defense to keep his body into him and hold him away from driving. Then, as Love started coming over for the double-team while Thompson switched over to Jonas Valanciunas under the basket, DeRozan tried to avoid the extra coverage and hoisted up a signature contested long 2:

As many of those as DeRozan has made this year, the Cavaliers would rather that than dribble penetration into the paint or a forced foul; he only had five free throw attempts in Game 1 and just three in Game 2, dramatically lower than his season average of 8.7.

On this early Game 2 turnover, the Cavaliers didn’t even trap. But the strong help from Thompson on Lowry’s drive, accompanied by Irving’s pressure to limit passing windows to the top of the arc, helped force Lowry to pass inside to Valanciunas. As LeBron lurked nearby, his eyes probably lit up with the opportunity for a steal and score (in this case, two of his 21 free throws):

There’s still a long way to go in this series, but the Cavaliers couldn’t have started much better. The offense has been firing on all cylinders, LeBron has been phenomenal (what a surprise!) and the defense, despite its obvious flaws and unavoidable lack of positive defensive personnel, has improved and come together with more intensity over their last couple of games.

The Raptors’ best bets to have any shot of winning this series come down to their offensive stars being at their absolute best and team’s improved defense, versatility and toughness. Such strengths and the option of throwing guys like P.J. Tucker and Ibaka at the Cavaliers in smaller lineups to rough up the reigning champions a bit was a potential advantage, but it’s not worked at all so far.

If you’re a fan trying to stay blindingly optimistic, the Raptors do have time to get a grip of the Cavaliers’ defense. DeRozan may find ways to adjust, too. That’s what just happened against Milwaukee. The problem is that unlike the Bucks, the Cavaliers have an awesome offense to rely on.

The Raptors cannot match the Cavaliers’ offensive firepower and don’t have LeBron James, and that’s all there is to it. Now that Cleveland’s defense may be finding a little more form and it’s troubling DeRozan so much, this series is going to be even easier.

It’s going to cost DeMar a lot more than the $100 he’s offering to build the cyborg that may actually stop LeBron.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.