By John Schmeelk
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The team with the best regular season record in NBA history, the Golden State Warriors, trails the third-seeded Oklahoma State Thunder 3-1 in the Western Conference finals. The top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers are tied with the second-seeded Toronto Raptors at two games apiece.
Both have suffered from the same problem: They can’t get a stop.
First, here’s the simple fact regarding Warriors: During the regular season, Golden State was the fourth-best defensive team in the NBA, allowing just 100.9 points per 100 defensive possessions. So far in the conference finals against the Thunder, the Warriors are allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions. Their defensive rating was identical against the Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals but was ignored due to a ridiculous offensive performance.
If the Warriors averaged that number defensively during the regular season, they would have been tied for the third-worst defensive team in basketball, behind only the Lakers and Nets.
This is not meant to take anything away from what the Thunder are doing. The Spurs were the best team in the NBA defensively during the regular season, but Oklahoma City scored on them in the conference semifinals as well. After having a 96.6 defensive rating in the regular season, the Spurs’ number jumped to 105.9 against Oklahoma City. That number would have put them at ninth worst in the regular season.
The Thunder are simply playing fantastic basketball in the playoffs. Their offense is still humming at its regular season level regardless of the opponent, and their defense is better than it has been all season. Despite playing one of the best offensive teams in league history, the Thunder’s defensive rating in the conference finals is actually a point lower than it was in the regular season.
That’s not to say the Warriors don’t have other problems. Stephen Curry is clearly hampered by his leg injuries and isn’t the same player he was in the regular season. Draymond Green has had a better chance of finding himself on a milk carton than making a big play in the last two games of the conference finals. The Warriors’ offensive rating the last two games is 93.5, almost a 20-point drop from their regular season numbers. Everything has gone south at once. Even their vaunted “death lineup” of Curry/Klay Thompson/Andre Iguodala/Harrison Barnes/Green has been a minus-27 when on the floor this series. It is truly bizarre.
In the regular season, even when the Warriors went cold with their shooting, their defense kept them in games and helped them win a few they normally wouldn’t. That edge has disappeared this round and needs to come back if they want to win three straight to go back to the NBA Finals. There doesn’t appear to be any obvious personnel changes that could help, spare perhaps playing Andrew Bogut more minutes. The Warriors need to figure out what ails them today, or they’ll be going home.
As for the Cavaliers, their defensive issues have been masked by hot shooting and poor play by their opponents. In the regular season, Cleveland was the 10th-best defensive team in the NBA, with a defensive rating of 102.3. In the playoffs, that number has jumped to 105.7. But it’s the last two games that have really gone south for the Cavs.
The Raptors’ offensive rating is 117.9, They are shooting just about 50 percent and averaging 102 points per game. Their guards have figured out that Kyrie Irving is a very poor defensive player and can be attacked relentlessly. Iman Shumpert hasn’t been much help, as the Cavs’ defense has been worse with him on the floor the last two games as opposed to when he is on the bench. Matthew Dellavedova has been the team’s best perimeter defender, and he might have to start playing more.
I would also expect to see more LeBron James on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Raptors have done a good job of forcing switches to get James off their primary scorers, but the Cavaliers can make a defensive strategy adjustment to prevent that.
DeRozan and Lowry created a huge percentage of Toronto’s offense. The Cavaliers need to figure out a way to slow those two players down. Cleveland’s offense continues to be terrific, but its defense is preventing success.
The Cavaliers trailed by nine points to start the fourth quarter Monday night. In the first seven minutes of that fourth quarter, the Cavs made 11 straight shots, including three Channing Frye 3s, shot 2-of-2 from the line and committed no turnovers. Yet they were only up by two at the end of that stretch in which they scored 27 points in seven minutes.
Why? They let the Raptors score 16 points over the course of that same seven minutes on 7-of-10 shooting. Toronto shot 67 percent in the fourth quarter, shot 12 free throws and only finished the quarter at minus-3. For that to happen after the Cavs started the quarter the way they did is inexcusable and shows how much Cleveland’s defense has slowly deteriorated over the course of the playoffs.
If the Cavaliers can figure out a way to slow down Lowry or DeRozan — not even both, just one — they can still win this series in six games. It’s up for coach Tyronn Lue to figure out how and for his players to play harder on that end.
Otherwise, the NBA could be looking at an Oklahoma City-Toronto finals — not exactly the ratings bonanza the league is hoping for. In the end it will all come down to defense and who plays it better.
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