Cavs guards Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro on the bench. ESPN Cleveland/Rob Lorenzo
Film Friday: Did the Cavs play poor perimeter defense or get unlucky with opponents shooting well?
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Danny Cunningham covers the Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and TheLandOnDemand.com
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost consecutive games for the first time this season this past week, dropping contests on the road against the LA Clippers and Sacramento Kings.
There were several reasons why the Cavs lost those games to drop to 8-3 on the season, but one of the glaring numbers when looking at the box scores from the losses is that both the Clippers and Kings connected on 17 3-point attempts against the Cavs. In the two-game stretch, Cleveland allowed 34 made 3-pointers on 77 attempts. It’s tough to win games while allowing 44.1% 3-point shooting to opponents, even if the Cavs were able to make it close in both games.
Entering the game against the Clippers, the Cavaliers had allowed opponents to connect on 33.7% of their 3-point attempts, good for the 10th-best mark in the NBA. That was the result of relatively strong perimeter defense and playing teams in the bottom half of the league in 3-point shooting percentage.
It’s fair to presume that the Cavs are good at defending the 3-point line, but also benefitted from the competition they faced as well. The best team Cleveland has faced in terms of 3-point shooting percentage is the Boston Celtics (ranked fourth). The Celtics represent the only top-10 ten on Cleveland’s schedule, with five games having been played against teams ranked 23rd or worse.
What makes the struggles this week for the Cavaliers in that area a bit perplexing is that neither Sacramento nor LA has been anything more than average to date. Obviously, all of the data is on a small sample size as the NBA season is less than a month old.
It then begs the question: did the Cavaliers play bad defense leading to the two losses in California, or did they just get unlucky?
Against the Clippers, LA attempted 27 3-pointers above the break. For context, one of the areas that NBA teams strive to create good looks offensively is in the corner. Those 3-point attempts are typically considered easier and are converted at a higher rate. As of this writing, teams knock down 38.6% of their corner 3-pointers to just 35.5% of 3-point attempts attempted above the break, per Cleaning The Glass.
The Cavs did a relatively good job of preventing the Clippers and the Kings from taking good shots in the corners this week. That isn’t what hurt them. The issue was the number of open, above-the-break 3-pointers allowed by the Cavs.
On Monday night against LA, the Clippers made 14 above-the-break 3-pointers and on Wednesday in Sacramento the Kings made 11 of their 17 3-pointers from above the break.
Without any more context it would lead to thinking that the hot shooting from the Clippers was unlucky for the Cavs and the Kings shooting output was more directly the result of poor defense.
In taking a closer look at the Clippers game, the Cavaliers had plenty of possessions where they defended well against both makes and misses from deep, but there were a few that stood out.
In the NBA, good offense beats good defense sometimes, as evidenced above. With that said, bad defense will always lose to bad offense.
Later in that same game, Darius Garland is tasked with the same decision that Donovan Mitchell had to make, either leave Luke Kennard or stick with him. Garland decides to stick with Kennard, who led the NBA last year by shooting 44.9% from 3-point range, and it leads to an open 3-point attempt by Norman Powell (who is shooting 28.9% from deep this season).
That may not qualify as good defense, but it’s also not the worst thing the Cavs did. It falls into the unlucky category.
Against the Clippers, the Cavs didn’t play great defensively, but they also got a bit unlucky. Nights like that one happen and it’s really not anything that should be worried about. The game against the Kings was a bit of a different story.
As mentioned above, the Cavs aren’t great at forcing teams to find shots other than corner 3-pointers. On Wednesday night, Sacramento made 6-of-10 3-point attempts from the corner.
A shooter as good as Malik Monk (shooting 39.4% from deep since start of 2020-21 season) isn’t going to miss the same shot twice, especially when it’s as wide open as it was on the second attempt.
It wasn’t just the corners that the Cavs had trouble with on Wednesday, as the team allowed 11 makes on above-the-break attempts too. Like there were against the Clippers, some were guarded well, others weren’t, and there were even some instances of miscommunication that led to wide-open attempts.
Overall, it’s the middle of November, and this isn’t anything that should lead to the panic button being pressed. The game against the Clippers was a bit unlucky and the game against the Kings was mostly bad all around. NBA teams have clunkers, and it would have been foolish to think that the Cavs were immune to that. How the team responds to these losses will be more telling than the losses themselves were.