The Cleveland Cavaliers cruised to a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals on Tuesday night, thoroughly annihilating the Toronto Raptors, 115-84.
The Cavs haven’t lost yet in the playoffs. The Raptors, meanwhile, arrive in their first-ever Eastern Conference Finals coming off back-to-back seven-game series — the difference in rest was noticeable from the opening tip on Tuesday.
But what was especially noteworthy in Game 1 was the way Cleveland went about dismantling the Raptors. Whereas in the first two rounds of the playoffs — and especially against the Hawks in Round 2 — the Cavaliers caught fire from beyond the arc and raced out to big leads thanks to a blitzkrieg of three-balls, against the Raptors in Game 1 the Cavaliers instead attacked the rim and dominated in the paint.
Dominating from beyond the three-point line and dominating in the paint are not, of course, unrelated. The Raptors undoubtedly game-planned defensively expecting a similarly heavy diet of threes from Cleveland. In their three regular-season meetings (two of which Toronto won), the Cavs attempted 29, 33, and 24 threes per game, respectively. The Cavs broke all sorts of playoff records from three against the Hawks.
But such a heavy emphasis on defending Cleveland from downtown ultimately left Toronto vulnerable in the lane. And Cleveland exploited this over and over again.
Consider the following play, from the end of the first half:
This is a simple pick-and-roll between Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, set up by James at the top of the key. With J.R. Smith and Kevin Love lurking in the corners, neither Kyle Lowry nor Patrick Peterson can help inside. Neither can DeMar DeRozan, who is guarding James at the top of the arc.
When a team is as red-hot from downtown as Cleveland has been during these playoffs, a simple pick-and-roll like this becomes virtually unguardable. Leave Love or Smith to help inside on Thompson and Irving will find one of them for an look at a three. If DeRozan leaves James open to help on the pick-and-roll, that means either an open look at three for James, or the vastly more terrifying alternative of James bulldozing his way into the lane.
So the Raptors defenders on the perimeter do nothing, and it leads to a easy dunk for Thompson:
The Cavs worked their way inside all game long, and Toronto had no answer. Toronto missed Jonas Valanciunas in the paint last night (the Cavs out-rebounded the Raptors 45 to 23), and there is no timetable for his return from an ankle injury suffered earlier in the playoffs.
Cleveland shot just 7-of-20 from beyond the arc, and yet still managed to shoot 55% overall from the field. That’s because they scored 56 points in the paint. Their Big Three (James, Irving, and Love) shot a combined 26-of-38 from the field, and only took eight threes between them. This is a completely different method of attack than we saw the Cavs unleash against Detroit and Atlanta, and although we’re only one game through the series already we are seeing how multi-dimensional Cleveland is right now.
Take a look at James’ shot chart. He went to work under the rim, where he’s much more dangerous:
The Cavaliers are clicking on all levels right now. If they continue to attack the rim, eventually the Raptors will have to adjust. And that will only lead to open looks from downtown. Ask the Hawks how that went.
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