In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers eviscerated “Other” to the tune of a 115-84 thrashing that tricked us into thinking Toronto might have a chance for about five minutes. The Cavaliers then unleashed their dominant offensive engine that has led to a lossless postseason thus far. The problem is that the relative weakness of the East compared to the West might be causing some people to underestimate Cleveland. That’s a mistake. It would be different if they went to 6 against Detroit and 6-7 against Atlanta, but that didn’t happen. Those teams got steamrolled, while the Western squads beat up on each other. Look at it this way: the Western Conference is kind of like trying to survive a Saw movie. You can get out, but you’re gonna get roughed up. The Eastern conference is a china shop; the Cavs are an oversized bull on steroids.
A huge part of the machine of the Cleveland offense this postseason is their current well-documented three-point barrage. In a four-game sweep of Atlanta, the Cavaliers made 77 threes, shooting a total 50.6% from beyond the arc. The thing is, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and co. aren’t just taking more threes–they’re taking smarter ones, and they’ve decreased their mid-range shooting in the process.
Per Synergy Sports, during the regular season, 35.2% of the Cavaliers’ shots came from beyond the arc, good for third in the league. That number has hiked up to a staggering 41.3% in the playoffs. On top of the increased frequency, they are converting them at a ridiculous 45.5% (best among playoff teams), up from 36.3% during the regular season. First off, where are those shots coming from? The new-look Cavs have been taking more shots and running more ever since Tyronn Lue took over, but the increased attempts at distance have to come from somewhere. The answer is that they’re coming at the cost of midrange attempts. During the regular season, Cleveland took 24.4 shots per game from 5-19 feet. Since the start of the postseason, that’s down to 21.4.
That explains where the extra attempts are coming from, but why are more of them going in? A huge part of it is the gravity of LeBron James, and to a lesser degree, Kyrie Irving. Their supporting cast is also being much more intelligent about the looks that they attempt shots on. During the regular season, 11.6% of Cleveland three pointers were “open”, defined as the closest defender being 4-6 feet away. 14.6% were “wide open”, meaning the closest defender was 6+ feet away. During the playoffs, those numbers have hiked to 15.4% and 17.0%. It’s also worth noting that Cleveland’s shooters are taking more of their shots from distance in rhythm as well. During the regular season, they took 21.5 threes per game as catch and shoot opportunities, one of the best attempts that a shooter can get. During this sweep-laden rampage, that number is 24.6. Scarier yet, their effective field goal percentage on catch and shoot attempts is an absurd 70.1%. The closest team after that is the Warriors at 59.8%.
A lot of catch and shoot attempts are going to come in spot-up scenarios, which is probably the best position a shot attempt can come from shot of a layup. The Cavaliers are taking a slightly higher amount of spot-up shots in the playoffs, but more of them are threes, and they’re making more of them (probably partially due to more of them being open/wide open). The points-per-possession value of a Cleveland spot-up attempt in the regular season was 1.05. In the postseason it’s 1.21. That’s the highest among all playoff teams (including those that are eliminated), and .11 higher than Golden State’s league-best 1.10 mark during the regular season. Another point of reference? The Warriors are touted as one of the league’s best offensive transition teams; their PPP value in offensive transition is 1.19.
What all this means is that it’s Cleveland, not Golden State, that’s truly burying opposing teams under a barrage of efficient shooting and three-point attempts. It’s led to the Cavaliers scoring a very efficient 108.6 points per game, second in the playoffs. Their overall eFG% is a postseason-leading 56.4%.
Too many fans and media members might have their view locked tightly on the Western Conference. I can see why, since two sweeps and an overmatched Eastern Conference Championships seem dull at a glance. It’s important to differentiate what many consider to be a weaker conference from the very real threat the Cavaliers pose; maybe Western teams shouldn’t fear the East, but they sure as hell should respect Cleveland. Like it or not, the Western Conference Finals is not the Finals. The path to a championship still requires a trip through The Land, and underestimating that challenge is a lethal mistake. If the Thunder and Warriors spend too much time looking West, they shouldn’t be surprised when they get hit on the blind side and buried under a hail of open shots.