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NBA Playoffs Day 16: Time to Flip the Switch

A Monday night TNT double-header starts with the Cavs vs. Raptors and wraps up with the Spurs and Rockets.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers - Game Four Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Raptors at Cavaliers

6:00 pm CDT


As boring as it is to say, defense is the key in this series. That’s because the Raptors are good at it and the Cavs don’t seem to care about it. The Raptors had the fourth-best defense in the NBA following the trade deadline when they brought in switch-y defensive stalwarts Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker. On the simplest of levels, the Cavs offense is a prodding for defensive mismatches through switches. The Raptors should be prepared for this with Ibaka who will be able to switch off of Tristan Thompson to Kyrie Irving following a series of screens. P.J. Tucker is as versatile a defender as there is in the NBA. He will bang with Kevin Love, switch on to Irving all of which comes on top of his main duty of pestering LeBron James.

The Raptors made those moves for this series and on the premise that the proverbial “switch” may be dysfunctional in Cleveland. The Cavs were a bad defense in the regular season (22nd in D-rating) and gave up a massive 111 points per 100 possessions to the Pacers in round one. For some context, the Los Angeles Lakers were the worst defense in the NBA during the regular season and they only gave up 110.6 points per 100 possessions.

The Cavs roster construction has not taken into account the need to flip this defensive switch. Deron Williams, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye are just plain bad at defense. However, much like their team as a whole, those three players have been great offensive weapons. With shooters patiently surrounding James and Irving penetrations, the Cavs seem to be making a bet that they can simply outscore anyone. For this round, that’s probably a safe bet. The Finals will be a different story if they get there.

Vegas sees the Cavs as an 83 percent (-480) favorite to win this series and they are 6.5-point favorites tonight.

Rockets at Spurs

8:30 pm CDT


The league’s best defense versus the league’s most unique offense. The Rockets pick and roll and three-point barrage offense will take on Kawhi Leonard and the team best at stymieing opposing offenses. It remains amazing that the Rockets are an elite offense with only one elite offensive weapon (respect to Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson) and equally confusing that the Spurs are a great defense with only one great defender (respect to Danny Green).

The tallest players on the Spurs depth chart are particularly cringeworthy from a defensive standpoint. Pau Gasol is tall but slow, LaMarcus Aldridge is a better athlete but often lethargic, and David Lee is short and slow (but not lethargic). That trio is the entirety of the Spurs interior defense after Dewayne Dedmon fell out of the rotation in round one (43 total minutes). The success or failure of their interior defense against James Harden could be the single most important factor of the series.

The Spurs are going to lose the battle against Harden when he gets a step on his defender and attacks the rim. That’s a battle everyone loses, but contrary to common belief this is not the entirety of the Rockets offense. Houston is also excellent at whipping the ball around all corners of the offensive end until the defense has shifted out of position.

As you can see here, Matthew Dellavedova does not effectively help the helper as Nene hip checks him out of the way. Interior defense does not only include the tallest players, a successful interior defense is found through all five players on the floor playing on a string. All-world defense from Leonard alone will not be enough.

Similarly MVP-caliber offense from Harden—who is maybe sorta kinda hurt?—will not be enough for the Rockets. The success rate of the three ball from those surrounding Harden will be of equal importance. There is a power in the volatility of a team that shoots 40.3 threes per game. That said, they coasted in round one when three ball was cold.

Game 1: 10 of 33

Game 2: 11 of 29

Game 3: 10 of 35

Game 4: 11 of 35

Game 5: 6 of 37

Houston will need to not only convert threes at a higher percentage but also a higher volume to counter the Spurs defensive attack.

Vegas has set the odds at 71 percent (-245) for the Spurs to win the series and as 5.5-point favorites in game one.

(I wrote more about the Cavs offense here. The Cavs ball screen defense here. And the Rockets offense and defense here.)

Let’s chat about round two.