The Cavaliers came back from down 17 points to defeat the Wizards, 119-115, Thursday night. There was just one problem: The should never have been down 17 points to begin with.
Cleveland led by as many as 15 in the first half but watched its lead reduce to rubble when Washington picked its effort up on both ends. The Cavaliers waited until the last 5:30 to start playing real, spirited defense. Lucky for them, they had LeBron James to help orchestrate a 29-11 run down the stretch.
Cleveland’s defense has been awful all season long
The Cavaliers rank second-to-last in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. Only the Phoenix Suns have a worse defensive rating than Cleveland; one team is a purported championship contender, the other probably tanking for the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
Cleveland’s defense hasn’t been much better since they blew their roster up midseason. The Cavaliers have given up 109 points per 100 possession since the trade deadline, according to data from NBA.com. The only reason they rank 20th in defensive efficiency since Feb. 7 is because 10 other teams have been that much worse.
Cleveland just hasn’t really been able to stop opponents from scoring on a consistent basis. The Cavs let the Brooklyn Nets run up 123 and 114 points, respectively, in two recent games. It took 132 points in late March for Cleveland to beat Toronto, and they let the Lakers run up 127 points in a March 11 loss.
It’s not the first time the Cavs have been this poor defensively, either.
Last season, Cleveland ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. They fell to second-to-last in that category from the trade deadline entering the playoffs. They were able to make it through to the NBA Finals last season, though, before quickly losing to the Golden State Warriors.
This year shouldn’t be any different
If you had the Raptors as your favorite to upset the Cavaliers and emerge as Eastern Conference champions this postseason, you were probably shellshocked when Cleveland blasted Toronto on Tuesday. With Kyrie Irving out until next season, the Raptors are the Cavaliers’ stiffest postseason competition. Toronto may have switched its entire offensive game plan over the summer, but it’s largely still the same roster Cleveland swept in the second round last season.
The Cavaliers don’t have the same roster at all. They don’t even have the same roster they started the season with. But Cleveland still has James, Kevin Love, and a group of players learning how to play with each other every game. The Cavs have won five straight games, and if they beat the 76ers on Friday, there’s a real chance they could enter the playoffs riding an eight-game winning streak.
Cleveland’s defense might be awful, but when the clock strikes winning time, they have a tendency to show up. The East is stronger than years past, but no team poses a true threat to the defending conference champs, except maybe the dark horse Miami Heat.
Cleveland is entering the playoffs as the second-worst defensive team after the trade deadline for the second season in a row, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. The entire league knows who the Cavaliers are. They’re champions who find a way to win, much like they did against the Wizards on Thursday night.