Isaiah Thomas attempted to take LeBron James off the dribble midway through the second quarter in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Wednesday night.
James is a sculpted 6-foot-8. Thomas doesn’t need to duck his head entering the Keebler Tree House.
The result was predictable. Unable to shoot the ball over the outstretched arm of James, the 5-foot-9 Thomas ended up aborting a shot mid-launch and catching it for travelling call. It was an extreme example of what the Cavaliers are doing to opponents defensively in these playoffs.
The Cavaliers take a 2-0 series lead over the Celtics into Sunday’s game at The Q in large part to their improved defensive play. Having rarely exerted themselves in the regular season’s stretch run, the defending champions are making life miserable for opponents.
They rank fourth in contested shots percentage in the postseason– second in two-point attempts – and are limiting foes to 45.1 percent shooting in winning their first 10 games.
“I think that’s all about activity,” LeBron James said Sunday morning. “When you’re having activity and you’re making multiple efforts throughout the course of a game, you’re going to give yourself a good chance to win. Defensively, we’ve been flying around, we’ve been communicating and we’re sticking to the game plan. We’re contesting shots, we’re getting deflections, we’re getting steals. Sometimes, the coverage is blown, but because of the effort and the communication we’re able to figure it out.”
The Cavaliers were 22nd in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) during the regular season. No team since the 2000-01 Lakers has won the title after finishing outside the top-10 in that category. These Cavs and those Lakers have one common thread: defending champions who did little defending during the regular season.
In the playoffs, it’s been a different level of intensity and attention to detail. The Cavaliers rank third in defensive rating (103.7) and second among the remaining four teams. Golden State is first at 98.4.
Cleveland has been neutralizing the opposition’s top players and allowing James to play like a free safety. While his outstanding offensive output draws headlines, the Cavaliers’ superstar is tied for the postseason lead with 23 steals. The club’s blitzing approach is creating havoc for opponents and it appears to be making them play faster than they want.
James had four steals and three blocked shots in the 130-86 win in Game 2.
“When we’re blitzing and we’re rotating and we’re scrambling, he’s probably the best to have on the back line because he reads situations so well, and he has instincts,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “You throw the ball in a bad position (and) he’s coming to get it. So having him on the back line defensively is good for us, and then he’s chasing down blocks like the one he had on Avery (Bradley) was unbelievable. Those are game changers for us, and just having him on the back line, talking and anchoring our defense and talking and protecting on the back line is big for us.”
Thomas, who shot just 7-of-25 from the field in the first two games, will miss the remainder of the playoffs with a hip injury.
“We hate that Isaiah got hurt,” James said. “Salute to him on an unbelievable season. What he was able to accomplish this year and the things that he did in the postseason under the circumstances with the tragic death of his sister.
“But for us as a unit, it’s never been about one guy. That’s not our focus. It’s always been about team effort and how we can put out the best game plan to go against their team. And they’re still well coached. They still got players out there that are going to look for the challenge and are going to step up their play, so we have to be ready for that.”
The Cavaliers’ defense has been ready for all challenges in this postseason