The Cleveland Cavaliers that swept the top-seeded Toronto Raptors out of the postseason in dominant fashion looked completely different from the Cavs team that eked out 50 wins in the regular season. And with good reason: The bulk of Cleveland’s postseason minutes have gone to, quite literally, a different team. Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Cavaliers have leaned heavily on a five-man lineup that had never shared the court before.
In the team’s series against the Pacers and Raptors, Cleveland’s most-used lineup has been George Hill, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, LeBron James and Kevin Love. So far this postseason, they’ve logged 110 minutes together. That’s 110 more than they played together in the regular season. Compared to the Toronto Raptors, whose most-used lineup in the playoffs1 logged 801 minutes together in the regular season, Cleveland looks like it’s experimenting on the fly. But it’s working. Cleveland’s most-used postseason lineup is outscoring opponents by 41 points, good for third-best in the playoffs.
The Cavs’ second-most-used lineup this postseason, which features José Calderón in place of George Hill, is also without precedent. Cleveland is the only remaining team in the playoffs that has given more than 20 percent of its postseason minutes to a lineup that didn’t see any time together in the regular season.2
Midseason trades and injuries are the primary reasons for this. Right around the time Cleveland acquired George Hill at the trade deadline, Kevin Love missed 20 games with a fractured hand. By the time Love had returned from injury, J.R. Smith had been moved out of the starting lineup to run the team’s second unit. A short while later, Kyle Korver took a leave of absence to deal with a family issue and a nagging foot injury. The lineup had no opportunity for chemistry-building before the playoffs. And even then, George Hill missed three games during their series with the Pacers due to back spasms.
Having Hill in the lineup unlocks a major component of Cleveland’s offense. Not only does it give the Cavs another person (besides James) to bring the ball up the court, it also allows Hill and Love to run a pick-and-roll that creates defensive mismatches that are easier to exploit than the mismatches created by the James and Love version of the pick-and-roll. After last night’s game, Love said in the postgame press conference, “And for me personally, setting a 1-5 pick-and-roll, that was something that I missed, especially in the first series when [Hill] was out with his back.”
After Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, LeBron James was asked how happy he was with his team’s chemistry thus far. James noted that it was just their ninth game in the postseason together, but in some ways it was just the ninth game ever for this iteration of the Cavs.
Of the seven remaining playoff teams, the Golden State Warriors are the only other club that has been using untested lineups. But now that Steph Curry has returned after rehabbing a knee injury, the Warriors are back to using lineups like the “Hamptons Five,” which they’ve featured throughout the last two seasons.
How you view Tyronn Lue, Cleveland’s head coach, colors how you view his postseason lineups. If you think Lue is in over his head, you might believe that he’s making things up as he goes. But if you have more faith in his abilities, you might believe that this has been Lue’s plan the entire time. One piece of evidence in favor of the latter theory is that Lue hinted before the end of the regular season that he had something up his sleeve that he was saving for the playoffs. “We’ll probably do things we haven’t done all season when it comes to the playoffs, things we’ve been working on all year,” Lue told Cleveland.com.
The playoffs are meant to be the culmination of everything that teams work on over the regular season. Coaches spend 82 games fine-tuning their schemes, rotations and lineups to find out what works and what doesn’t. By the time the playoffs arrive, there aren’t many stones left unturned. Which is why the way that Cleveland swept Toronto with an untested lineup is so surprising for the Cavaliers and so disappointing for the Raptors.
In previous years, when people explained why the LeBron-led Cavaliers improved during the playoffs compared to the regular season, they usually chalked it up the to the team giving more effort — or flipping the proverbial switch. The difference this year is their lineups.