The Cleveland Cavaliers Become The Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been great throughout the playoffs. It's how they've done it that's really surprising.
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The NBA Playoffs are different. Teams reveal new strategies and sets, generally as much out of necessity as anything else. The Washington Wizards debuted Paul Pierce at the four and Austin Rivers was, if only for a few brief moments, an actual NBA player, but no one had this drawn up. Teams change during the postseason as needed, but they do not transform. Unless they are the Cleveland Cavaliers, that is, who were one thing in the regular season, and have become something completely different in the playoffs.

The Cavaliers of the regular season went through several iterations, with the only constant between those variations being inconsistency. Initially, they struggled to find their way under new head coach David Blatt or, perhaps more appropriately, David Blatt struggled to find his way in the NBA while coaching a caliber of players rarely seen in Europe. Kevin Love was easily the most egregiously misused of the team’s players, to the point where one of the NBA’s best frontcourt players—and an ideal pick-and-pop partner for LeBron and Kyrie Irving—became a punchline. As the team’s early-season struggles continued, noise gathered about Blatt’s job security (or lack thereof) and insubordination.

The next iteration of the Cavs coincided with three items: Blatt abandoning his Princeton-style offense in favor of one that better leveraged the skills of his stars, the arrivals of Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert, and bowling. Yes, Blatt took the team bowling, and yes they've gone 46-11 ever since. Still, even as the Cavaliers rumbled through the league, they were not what they have become in the playoffs. There were signs of transition, precursors and hints of what was to come, but it wasn’t until the postseason that they emerged transformed.

During the regular season, the Cavs lived off their offense, and lived well; they were fourth best in the league at 107.7 points per 100 possessions. Their defense was firmly middling; they graded out to 18th overall with a defensive rating of 104.1, per; it’s worth noting that they improved after the arrival of Mozgov and Shumpert, raising their defensive rating to 101.1. Love has never been a good defender, and wasn’t any better in Cleveland. Irving improved, if only from Very Awful to Only Sort Of Bad. The worst offender, though, was LeBron, a mainstay on NBA All-Defense teams who suddenly seemed both supremely uninterested and several troubling steps too slow.

Understandably, the concern for Cleveland heading into the postseason was whether they’d be able to stop anyone. As they’ve shown the Celtics, Bulls, and Hawks, they are not just capable of stepping up their defense—they can erase unworthy challengers from existence. The Cavaliers boast the third best defensive rating in the postseason, allowing a measly 98.5 points per 100 possessions; their offense, if you were wondering, is also tops in the league, with a 108.6 offensive rating. Love is out for the rest of the playoffs, and Irving has been hobbled more often than he hasn’t, but the Cavaliers have been shockingly dominant on both ends in the postseason. That doesn’t make the Cavs favorites against a Warriors team that has waxed all comers all season long. It does make them something different than what they appeared to be for most of the year.

LeBron has shown renewed vigor on the defensive end, and once again seems capable of locking down an opponent’s best player and sealing a game not with a bucket—though he can and has done that—but a spectacular block. With Love gone for the playoffs, Tristan Thompson had to step up, and he’s done so; he’s not nearly the weapon Love is on offense, but his relentless effort on the glass helped tip the Eastern Conference Finals series against Atlanta. Matthew Dellavedova has had to assume a greater role as well in order to spell Irving, and became a sort of folk hero to Cleveland thanks to his relentless-unto-dirty hustle. The identity of a team is often a reflection of their stars, but their role players reflect the soul. The Cavaliers, as they charge into the NBA Finals, are far scrappier than a team so star-powered should be.

The Cavs have a new presence, and an earned and unmissable toughness has permeated from LeBron on down to Joe Harris. Perhaps it’s the presence of Dellavedova and Thompson in the starting lineup in place of the more fluid Irving and Love, or maybe it’s a reflection of how LeBron’s maniacal supernova playoff mentality has elevated his teammates. Whatever the cause, the Cavaliers are now what they are, and not the team they were supposed to be. That’s not quite the team that was predicted to make the Finals before the season began, but it’s a team that’s a bit scarier and notably more complete. It’s precisely the team the Cavs needed to be to get this far. Wherever they go from here, they will at least get there as themselves.

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