Cleveland Cavaliers’ revived defense fueled by communication, repetition

BOSTON — Plenty of things have changed for the Cleveland Cavaliers since the playoffs started, especially on defense.

It’s obvious in the numbers, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency after finishing 22nd during the regular season. It’s apparent in the schemes, locking in to one opponent and using a much-ballyhooed blitzing strategy that has thrown off a cluster of All-Stars during this run.

But sometimes it’s the small things that make a considerable difference.

“Talking,” Tyronn Lue told cleveland.com about a change he’s noticed. So does that mean the Cavaliers were simply not communicating during the slog of the 82-game regular season?

“For me, it has a lot to do with repetition because when you get a lot of reps now you’re playing free, you’re playing off instincts instead of playing in thought,” he added. “When you’re thinking and trying to play you’re second-guessing yourself and play slower so I think by doing it every day and hitting them with it every day now it becomes instinctive where you’re just playing.”

The increased practice sessions have also been a noticeable shift from the regular season. Given the injuries, roster changes, tightly-packed schedule and a variety of other factors, including the league’s second-oldest roster, the Cavs didn’t practice much, especially in the second half of the season.

There were times they wanted to, but didn’t have enough healthy bodies for effective 5-on-5 sessions so they would go 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 or go through light workouts that featured plenty of film breakdowns as opposed to on-court work.

This time of year there are few, if any, days off. According to LeBron James, the Cavs had practiced more in the first two series than they did in all of March.

“You’ve got a lot more time to kind of game plan and game plan for your opponent,” James said. “In … the postseason you get an opportunity to game plan, you know exactly what you want to do, how you want to execute it and our coaching staff gave us a great game plan to go out there and do it.”

Off the court, the Cavs are spending more time together again, which has helped them become even closer while recapturing the camaraderie that fueled last year’s NBA title run. After leaving the arena late Wednesday, they were scheduled to have a team dinner around midnight.

“A small thing, but having team dinner and guys just talking, guys just learning somebody else’s voice,” Iman Shumpert said. “We’ve been playing one-on-ones and pickup basketball on the off days we’ve had, I think that’s been very successful for us. It’s just everybody buying into what we have to do. The playoffs can do that to you. I think it does that to all teams, but with the way things have been going for us in this postseason, it’s been special.”

Like everything else with the Cavaliers, James has been integral in the revival. His mid-season defensive lapses sometimes led to criticism and social media chatter. But in the postseason James has transformed into an unfair combination of Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert, wrecking game plans, closing out to shooters, filling the passing lines, stifling players in the post and still protecting the rim while intimidating opponents.

His speed, athleticism and smarts help erase mistakes in a way few others can. Tristan Thompson is the anchor. James is the voice.

“LeBron is more of the talker and more of the communicator,” Lue told cleveland.com. “Getting guys in the right spots and talking to guys. I would say LeBron is that.”

And who better than James, who knows every play and every player’s role on a given possession? This is the same guy who shouts out opponent’s play calls.

In Boston, where Lue got his start as an assistant, that role belonged to Kevin Garnett, a nine-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team and 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. James doesn’t have the same credentials, but he has similar traits.

“As far as being active and talking, same as K.G,” Lue said. “Bron can guard five positions. He can guard points, twos, threes, fours and fives.”

James enters every postseason with a catalogue of information compiled over the years and passes on as much knowledge as he can to his teammates. He has seen every tactic and set, mentally preparing himself for what’s to come before the adjustment actually takes place.

“You just got to talk,” James said. “It’s a beautiful thing when you communicate and everybody knows where they’re supposed to be defensively. Because when you get stops, then you can have fun.”

Fun. Talking. Team dinners. Selflessness. The schemes have been terrific. Lue deserves plenty of credit. So, too, does assistant coach Mike Longabardi, who is responsible for lots of film work.

But sometimes it’s about getting back to the basics.

Sometimes, it’s the little things.

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