The Cleveland Cavaliers embrace the defense-first identity and find themselves back on a roll
CHICAGO — On Friday afternoon, in the midst of a three-game losing streak caused by defensive regression, the Cleveland Cavaliers gathered at the Flames Athletic Center on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus for a film session and practice
Coach JB Bickerstaff wanted to get a message across.
It was not an impassioned speech. It wasn’t about scolding the players either. I wanted to make them aware of something they might not know, in an affirming tone.
So, he showed them the NBA’s defensive rankings. With Cleveland on top. Above championship contenders Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Memphis, Boston and Brooklyn.
“I think it’s something our guys should be proud of,” Bickerstaff said Saturday. “This is who we are. It’s all about our defense. I think it’s something we should highlight. To be successful, that’s how we have to be every night.”
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During the Cavaliers’ five-game losing streak in November, that suffocating first-team defense temporarily abandoned its identity. Not only did the slide lead to Bickerstaff questioning the group’s mentality, referring to them as fat cats instead of scrap dogs, but it also led to lineup changes, stylistic tweaks (intentionally playing at a slower tempo of the league) and a renewed commitment to communication, responsibility and attention to detail.
That losing streak — back-to-back losses to Toronto, Brooklyn and Indiana heading into Saturday’s matchup against Chicago — was eerily familiar.
In those three games, the Cavs gave up an average of 126 points, while opponents shot 54% from the field and 57% on 3-pointers. Toronto, Brooklyn and Indiana combined to make 56 3-pointers. But Bickerstaff didn’t speak with panic in his voice during Friday’s film session. He didn’t overreact to three straight nights of hot shooting from a trio of playoff hopefuls. It was not the time to start reassessing the defensive strategy, trying to limit the opponent’s 3-point attempts. He was confident, calm and encouraging.
“You have to make up your mind defensively. You have to determine what you’re willing to live with,” Bickerstaff explained. “Teams are going to make a lot of 3s. Teams want to play at a faster pace and tempo. You can’t tell opponents they can’t take 3s. You just have to figure out where on the floor those 3s are acceptable, trying to keep them out of the corners as much as possible and watch how contested those shots are and how well you protect your rim. Your defense is basically anti-analytic, seeing how many contested 3s above the break or how many mid-range shots you can create while keeping teams off the free throw line.
“If you don’t defend anything in this league, every night you’re going to fall in love with something. There are so many teams that play so differently or have different personnel or different strengths and if you try to change the strength of that team every night, you’re not going to be good enough at anything. You try to get your system in place and if you run your system to the best of your ability, you hope it’s good enough. Faltering doesn’t give guys a chance.”
The team’s tracking numbers during the three-game losing streak showed that opponents were incredibly lucky, shooting well above the expected percentage on both open and contested looks.
Bickerstaff believed those numbers would stabilize and many of the issues could be corrected, as long as the Cavs stayed true to their defensive principles.
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“I think it has a lot to do with guys accepting and accepting it,” Bickerstaff said. “There are times when you see it flutter because it’s very difficult to do for 82 games. Playing great defense in this league is not easy. The effort you have to make, not only physically but mentally, is difficult. But they are committed to trying to do their best.”
Few markers bode better than Cleveland’s nightly defensive rating.
The Cavs have a lousy 102.7 in wins and an ugly 118.1 in losses, a division Bickerstaff highlighted during Friday’s film session.
“That’s what makes us unique,” Bickerstaff said. “We’re not these other teams that run up and down, make 3s and play a lot of isolation basketball. We’re built different. We’ve got to embrace that. We’ve got to embrace being unique and play a unique style of basketball in the d ‘today”.
The Cavs did that Saturday night.
They held Chicago to 102 points, their lowest total since a Dec. 16 loss against New York. After a torrid first quarter, with the Bulls hitting 60.9% of their attempts, Cleveland held them to 25-of-58 (43.1%) over the final three quarters. Leading scorers DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine were held in check, finishing below their season averages in points and efficiency. The Bulls mustered just one field goal over the final five minutes, engineering a comeback mostly with aggressive attacks off the dribble and drives to the free throw line.
Without regular starters Darius Garland (sprained right thumb) and Evan Mobley (sore right ankle), and Donovan Mitchell’s offensive funk stretching into a fourth straight game, the Cavs knew their only chance to ending 2022 on a high note was defensive. .
Despite being in control for most of the game and leading throughout the second half, Cleveland’s fate Saturday fittingly came down to one last play.
A final stop.
Clinging to a one-point lead with 5.1 seconds left, Bickerstaff gathered the players on the bench during the final timeout. He repeated the words of the day before.
We are the best defensive team in the league.
When the Cavs broke the huddle, they knew where the ball was going. DeRozan has been a great producer throughout his career. This season has already had a few. He was Chicago’s leading scorer on the night.
DeRozan gathered the pass down the right sideline as LeVert piled it up. But then DeRozan gave a subtle shudder of his shoulder to his left before turning to his right, a move that threw LeVert off balance and created a gap of separation. DeRozan dribbled toward the baseline as Mitchell neglected Alex Caruso, opting to come to LeVert’s aid.
Together, LeVert and Mitchell forced DeRozan into a difficult, contested jumper that didn’t fall.
Forget Cleveland’s unsightly fourth quarter offense, which was held to just 19 points on 37.5 percent shooting while committing seven of 21 turnovers. Forget the scoring drought of more than four minutes to end the game. Forget Mitchell’s uncharacteristic performance calling him a “s—–” afterwards. Forget the fact that the Cavs made it harder than they needed to, nearly blowing a 14-point lead.
Cleveland’s defense to the rescue. Again.
“Coach’s been preaching it the last two days,” LeVert said afterward the victory 103-102. “We are the number 1 defense in the league. It appeared to us along the stretch. It’s not common in the NBA. This is probably the first team I’ve been on that can really say even if we have a night like that offensively, especially down the stretch, we still have a chance to win the game. That’s a luxury.”
“Sometimes you just need a win,” Mitchell added. “Our defense will continually take us where we need to go. Caris has done some things defensively that I didn’t expect him to do. I didn’t know I could watch how he does it. There will be trials and tribulations on offense, but we have to continually hang our hats on the defensive side.”
Over the last week, the Cavs have been caught playing another team’s game. They tried to run with the advancing Pacers. He tried to overcome the star-studded Nets. Let the physicality of Toronto determine the outcome of this matchup. There was even some recent internal chatter about playing faster on fouls, getting more into transition and looking to relieve some of the offensive pressure while looking for easier, quicker shots.
But it’s not the Cavs. It’s not who they want to be. It is not what has led them to become one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Before the game, cleveland.com asked Bickerstaff if he envisions the Cavs transforming into an offense-first team at some point. He didn’t hesitate.
“No,” he said before smiling. “Not while I’m here.”
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