Cavs guard Donovan Mitchell plays defense against Boston's Marcus Smart. ESPN Cleveland/Rob Lorenzo
Late game issues for the Cavs extend beyond just the offensive end of the floor
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The Cleveland Cavaliers started the season better than almost anyone else in the NBA. The team found a way to win close games despite facing a significant learning curve that comes with playing with a new superstar in Donovan Mitchell.
Things become different when the game slows down and things tighten up. The Cavaliers haven’t figured out how to play that style of basketball yet, or at least not well enough. Without doing any research, the instant thought would be that the Cavaliers struggle on the offensive end of the floor as the game slows down.
Offensively, things haven’t been great for the Cavs down the stretch of games, but there’s a bigger problem on the other end of the floor.
The biggest issue for the Cavs in clutch time is how the team is defending. In total defensive rating the Cavs rank tied for third in the NBA at 108.7. When things tighten down in the clutch, the Cavaliers are allowing 123.5 points per 100 possessions, 25th in the NBA. That number would rank last by a wide margin in the NBA in total defensive rating.
So, in essence, the Cavs defense down the stretch has been one of the worst defenses in the NBA. Much of that, however, is a result of the last week. In the Cavs last four losses, the team’s defensive rating in the clutch is an otherworldly 172.4.
“I think it’s understanding the system and how it applies to the matchups that are on the floor and what your opponent’s sets are and what their keys sets are. You have your system of things you’re trying to take away and what you’re trying to live with, but at the end of the game those things change,” Bickerstaff said. “Winning basketball games and becoming a winning team is both sides of the ball. It takes that time.
“I mean, we're fine, there's no reason for us to panic. Again, we knew that these things take time. I think that's where we've been preaching that message to our guys from the beginning of the season. You're gonna have some adversity, it's not just gonna go smoothly and you're gonna go 82-0. It doesn't happen.”
Bickerstaff makes a valid point, and it’s almost as if the overtime wins against Boston were a bit of a tease for what this team can become rather than what it actually is.
In each of the four games of Cleveland’s current losing streak, the Cavaliers have played ‘clutch’ minutes. The NBA defines that as when the score is within five points during the final five minutes of the game. Before the last four losses, the Cavs had been 5-1 in those games, with the loss coming on opening night in Toronto.
Offensively, the Cavs have struggled in those situations, too. When the Cavs are playing in clutch time, their offensive rating is 108.2, a significant departure from the team’s total offensive rating of 115.5. Typically, numbers do go down for teams offensively when they’re in clutch time, making this less of an issue. The Cavs rank 20th in offensive rating in clutch time with a number that would rank tied for 26th in total offensive rating.
That issue is understandable for a team that’s still learning how to fit in together.
As tight games come to a close, the Cavs need to be better on both ends of the floor than they have been. Losing close games is part of the process of a new team learning how to play together. This isn’t a reason to press the panic button. It’s a bad stretch for the Cavaliers that will pass over.