The Cleveland Cavaliers have looked good through two playoff games, taking a 2-0 lead in their first-round series with the Detroit Pistons.
Interestingly, Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue has been experimenting with different lineups in the postseason, something usually not seen in the playoffs.
During Game 2, Lue changed his substitution patterns at the start of quarters to avoid a drop-off with his three stars sitting. Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon explains the change:
But James did most of his damage in the second quarter with Cleveland’s new-look lineup.
He began the quarter on the floor with Matthew Dellavedova, Richard Jefferson, Channing Frye, and Iman Shumpert and the Cavs trailing by five. The Pistons’ lead was gone in 54 seconds.
Lue went with the same lineup to start the fourth, albeit under different circumstances. The Cavs closed the third on a 27-8 run and led by 14 when the horn sounded.
James’ and his second-quarter crew weren’t about to cough up that lead. The lineup of him, Dellavedova, Shumpert, Jefferson, and Frye outscored the Pistons 22-8 in the second and fourth quarters.
In two playoff games, this lineup has logged ten total minutes and outscored the Pistons by 13 points. It’s the Cavs’ second-most played lineup in the playoffs, and though it’s a small sample size, it’s noteworthy, given that it excludes players like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, and Tristan Thompson.
What’s also noteworthy is this lineup (which didn’t log any regular-season minutes) may confirm what some around the NBA reportedly believe could be the Cavs’ best formula for winning: surround LeBron James with shooters and defenders and let him take care of the rest. ESPN’s Zach Lowe dropped this nugget in a breakdown of the Cavaliers in March:
There is a strong plurality around the league, including within the Warriors, that thinks Cleveland is more dangerous with defence-first role players around LeBron instead of Love and Irving.
This is what the Cavaliers were forced to do in last year’s Finals after Love and Irving got injured. The Cavs slowed down the pace, crashed the boards, and let LeBron dictate nearly every action on the floor. The Cavs took a 2-1 lead on the Warriors before eventually collapsing.
There’s a lot to unpack here. Those Finals performances were mainly buoyed by LeBron putting up superhuman numbers — 36 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists per game. Clearly, those numbers aren’t sustainable long-term.
What it may point to, however, is LeBron’s long-term fit with Irving and Love. Irving, for all of his talents, can eat up possessions by over-dribbling, leaving LeBron and teammates standing around. Love fits LeBron a little better on offence, but like Irving, defence remains an issue. Likewise, when James dominates the ball (more common), Love and Irving become side-shows, and their talents aren’t fully utilised.
With solid defenders and shooters around James, he can dominate the ball, then when the defence reacts, find open teammates:
Thus far in the playoffs, the Cavaliers have been rolling. Irving and Love have been playing well, showing harmony we haven’t seen among the Big Three for much of the season.
But against a higher-quality opponent, particularly one who can take advantage of Irving and Love on defence, these issues might pop up. It requires sacrifice from James, Irving, and Love to mesh together, but when the Cavs have had proven success surrounding LeBron with role players, it could become difficult to ignore the mounting evidence that it may be the Cavs’ best recipe for success.