In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be enlightening. Also see Michael David Smith's original NFL Every Play Counts at Fanhouse.com.
During Sunday's 101-81 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James scored 38 points in 37 minutes, shooting 14-for-21 from the field and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free-throw line. Yet James might have contributed just as much at the defensive end of the floor. With Tony Parker scoring at will during the first quarter and keeping the Spurs in the game with his offense, James switched on to the quicksilver point guard for stretches the rest of the game and held him in check. Parker scored 14 points in the first period, but just 10 over the final three.
James has gotten some attention this season for his improved defense, but that talk has largely been overshadowed by James' dominance at the offensive end. Sunday was a perfect example. James' effort against Parker was relegated to footnote status by his high-scoring outing. The Associated Press recap did not mention the matchup at all, while it appeared near the end of the fine Brian Windhorst's recap in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
James' defense was one of the things I wanted to spotlight in looking at the Cavaliers' defense in an Every Play Counts column. The timing was important, since I'll be choosing my Every Play Counts All-Defensive Teams in this space tomorrow. Though I've watched James play numerous times this season, the Every Play Counts breakdown offers a much more complete perspective. In this case, what I saw impressed me.
Let's start by looking at the defensive stats I tracked for each Cleveland player. Those results:
Player FGM FGA FTM FTA FTO Pos Pts
Williams 2.5 6.5 1 1 1 7.5 6
West 2.5 5 0 0 1 7 5.5
James 3.5 10.5 1 2 2.5 14 9
Jackson 7 14.5 3 4 0 16.5 17
Ilgauskas 5 11 2 2 0.5 12.5 12
Smith 1.5 6 2 2 2 9 5
Gibson 2.5 8 4 6 1 12 10
Szczerbiak 2 3.5 2 2 0 4.5 7
Pavlovic 0 1.5 0 0 0 1.5 0
Hickson 0 2 0 0 0 2 0
TEAM 4.5 10.5 0 0 2 12.5 9.5
TOTAL 31 79 16 19 10 99 81
James forced seven misses, as well as 2.5 turnovers. This method doesn't account for opponent quality, so James' defense on Parker doesn't get full credit. In a game in which Parker shot 9-of-16 from the field, he made just one field goal while defended by James, getting to the free-throw line once more. James is able to get remarkably low defensively for a man his size, which helped him contain Parker and keep him out of the paint. James is so long that he could play a step off Parker and still be in position to contest his jumper.
James opened the game defending Michael Finley, a secondary option in the San Antonio offense, and did not stand out in this matchup. Still, I did not notice James taking plays off, which is my usual concern with star players who expend so much energy at the offensive end of the floor. His length is a factor defensively in the way he plays the passing lanes, whether to produce steals or simply deflections. James also created a turnover through hustle alone when he tied up Finley after a scramble for a loose ball, earning a jump ball that he won.
Based on what I saw, James belongs on one of my All-Defensive Teams. Of course, the Cleveland defense goes far beyond one player. While the Cavaliers' much-improved offense has drawn its share of attention this season, Cleveland remains a defensive team first and foremost. The Cavaliers' Defensive Rating ranks third in the league; they're fourth in Offensive Rating. Along with Boston and Orlando, Cleveland is one of three teams that have separated themselves from the rest of the league defensively.
What stood out to me, watching the Cavaliers hold the Spurs to 81 points in 83 possessions, was the way Cleveland rotated. At its best, the Cavaliers' defense seemed to be five players moving in concert as if guided by strings. The way Cleveland defends the pick-and-roll--an aggressive "show" or "hedge" out by the post defender to cut off the ballhandler and keep them from turning to the corner before making the lengthy recovery to the screener--requires a weak-side defender to get involved in the play and puts pressure on everyone else to rotate behind the play. The Cavaliers executed very well even without either of their best two post defenders, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace, who both missed the game due to injury.
While Parker went off early, Cleveland managed to keep Spurs star Tim Duncan quiet; he finished with six points on 2-of-7 shooting and did not score in the game's final 38 minutes. While that process was aided by Duncan's sore knees, which have limited him, the Cavaliers did a fine job of following their defensive strategy of doubling Duncan when he put the ball on the floor. When Duncan eschewed the dribble, 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas used his size to keep Duncan from getting a clean look at the basket. Ilgauskas' mobility has held up remarkably well at 33, allowing him to competently step out to defend the pick-and-roll.
Defensively, the addition of Joe Smith has been a boon for the Cavaliers. Smith was, in fact, Cleveland's best defender by the numbers against San Antonio. He represents a dramatic upgrade over rookie J.J. Hickson, who has shown promise at the offensive end but has looked lost defensively. According to 82games.com, the Cavaliers have allowed 110.4 points per 100 possessions with Hickson on the floor, as compared to 104.7 with Smith.
Cleveland's biggest defensive liability is reserve forward Wally Szczerbiak, who often plays alongside James at forward when the Cavaliers go small. Szczerbiak defended the bigger player (Kurt Thomas) when Cleveland deployed this lineup during the second quarter and battled Thomas in the post, earning an offensive foul. But, as I saw first-hand last year in Seattle, Szczerbiak is prone to defensive lapses, like an embarrassing gaffe late in the first half. Szczerbiak lost track of his man (Bruce Bowen) as he cut across the baseline, ending up all by himself looking around and trying to figure out which player he was supposed to defend. Bowen got an open three that he knocked down, and Szczerbiak exited the game at the next stoppage of play.
Ultimately, Cavaliers coach Mike Brown deserves tremendous credit for his team's defense. While James has evolved into an All-Defensive caliber player at that end of the floor, the group Brown inherited was short on elite individual defenders. Even two years ago, Cleveland was fourth in the league defensively without a single player who received a vote for the All-Defensive Team. With more defensive talent on hand, led by Wallace, the Cavaliers are now as good as any team in the league at the defensive end. Brown learned defense from Gregg Popovich as an assistant in San Antonio, and now his own team has used a similar style to surpass the Spurs as one of the league's elite defenses.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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