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Danny Cunningham covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for 850 ESPN Cleveland and thelandondemand.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @RealDCunningham.
The Cleveland Cavaliers won Game 2 against the New York Knicks on Tuesday night for a number of reasons.
Darius Garland was great and much more aggressive than he was in Game 1, the Cavs won the rebounding battle, and the rotation looked a little bit different throughout the game. All of those things helped the Cavs even up the series.
One thing that played a big part and could be a key to the series moving forward is the play of Caris LeVert and the role in which he played on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, LeVert was the primary defender of New York’s Jalen Brunson for the majority of Game 2. He forced Brunson into taking a number of difficult shots, ultimately scoring just four points with LeVert as his primary defender on 1-of-10 shooting. That led to Brunson’s worst shooting performance overall since December.
Part of that is certainly who LeVert is as a defender. It’s a skill that’s shown up all year. He’s far from the best defender the Cavs have, but he’s put forth a high level of effort consistently throughout the season. He’s also a different type of defender than anyone else the Cavs have. For instance, Isaac Okoro is a bit stronger and works best as a point of attack defender, while LeVert can overwhelm opponents with length, energy, and a knack for having his hands in the right place.
“I think he's rangey and he's aggressive and he's kind of offbeat, so I think he's hard to read when he is using his hands and he's active on the ball, it's difficult to figure out where exactly he's coming from,” Cavs head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after Game 2 on Tuesday night.
The other thing that LeVert can do to help the Cavs out defensively, specifically in this series against Brunson and the Knicks, is work on both ends of the floor.
That might sound silly, but there are plenty of defenders in the NBA that are limited on the offensive end of the floor. The term ‘3 and D’ wing comes from guys that play good defense on one end of the floor and essentially stand on the wing or in the corner for catch-and-shoot 3-point looks. That’s not LeVert’s entire offensive game. He’s a far more complete – even if inconsistent at times – player than just standing around waiting for passes. He can do that, but he also can attack the rim off the dribble and create for others.
Exactly how is that useful for him defensively against the Knicks? Those are all things that was able to do on Tuesday night against Brunson. It’s fair to think the Cavs forcing Brunson to play defense for most of the night had some sort of impact on what he looked like offensively. When he finished Game 1 with 27 points, he wasn’t asked to do much on the defensive end of the floor. The Knicks were able to hide him on Okoro or Cedi Osman standing in the corner quite a bit Game 1.
In Game 2, the Cavs put Brunson in a number of different actions.
The Knicks wanted to do everything to keep Brunson from switching onto Mitchell or Garland last night. That strategy led to a lot of stuff like this for Caris LeVert. pic.twitter.com/m5CFJuIypV
The Knicks wanted to do everything to keep Brunson from switching onto Mitchell or Garland last night. That strategy led to a lot of stuff like this for Caris LeVert. pic.twitter.com/m5CFJuIypV— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) April 19, 2023
The one thing the Knicks refused to do on Tuesday night was allow Brunson to be switched onto either Garland or Donovan Mitchell. They wanted to keep better defenders such as Quinten Grimes and Josh Hart on that duo. It’s an understandable strategy, but also one that the Cavs had plenty of counters for. In the above clip, LeVert goes to set a screen for Mitchell, runs out to the wing, and Brunson has to chase from so far away that it creates a clear path to the basket for LeVert to convert a floater. Obviously, LeVert had a great night shooting the basketball, but even if he would have missed a shot like this, it’s still making Brunson work much harder than the Knicks would like on the defensive end of the floor.
The other thing this strategy did was create open 3-pointers for the Cavs. In the second clip, LeVert flips his screen for Garland and flares out to the right wing. Garland is able to get downhill a little bit more on this one because of the angle LeVert set his screen at, forcing the Knicks to double him with Brunson much longer than they would like. The result is a wide open 3-pointer for LeVert that he cashes in.
Same strategy for NYK, Garland forces Brunson to stick a little bit longer. Wide open 3-pointer for LeVert. pic.twitter.com/y6MLbEx7Zt
Same strategy for NYK, Garland forces Brunson to stick a little bit longer. Wide open 3-pointer for LeVert. pic.twitter.com/y6MLbEx7Zt— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) April 20, 2023
Those strategies aren’t always going to work. Having primary ball handlers like Mitchell and Garland certainly help, but LeVert isn’t going to receive the ball in an advantageous position every time. There are some possessions where Brunson was able to fight and get back to be in good position by time LeVert received a pass from one of those two.
That’s the thing that really makes the Cavs be able to punish Brunson for not switching. LeVert has a deep enough bag to where he can almost always get to the spot he wants to be, whether it be at the rim, beyond the arc, or somewhere in between. When he struggles, it’s typically because he can’t finish, not because he can’t get to where he wants. That just means more work for Brunson.
Even this one, Brunson gets back to LeVert in plenty of time after he slips out of a screen. LeVert still attacks Brunson for the layup. pic.twitter.com/ab7FBzGKzc
Even this one, Brunson gets back to LeVert in plenty of time after he slips out of a screen. LeVert still attacks Brunson for the layup. pic.twitter.com/ab7FBzGKzc— Danny Cunningham (@RealDCunningham) April 20, 2023
It's difficult, obviously, to play at a high level constantly throughout a playoff game. Being able to have some possessions when a star player can avoid carrying a heavy burden defensively is something that teams look to create. It’s also something opponents look to exploit.
“I mean, you got to make great offensive players participate on both ends of the floor and it just wears them down,” Bickerstaff said after Game 2. “It's difficult to do. So hopefully as the series goes on, you'll see that starting to happen, but making elite offensive players defend, it makes the offense very hard to do because it's hard in this league to carry a load offensively and then have to participate defensively. It's extremely difficult to do.”
While LeVert may not be moving into the starting lineup, it would be surprising if he’s not consistently part of the plan to attack Brunson when the Cavs have the ball for the rest of this series.