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The Cavs Are Back. And No One Should Be Surprised.

Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers looked toast. Finished. The Boston Celtics were outscoring them by 19 points per contest, the Cavs’ defense was getting destroyed and their bread-and-butter — their 3-point shooting touch — had abandoned them. After seeming to answer concerns about its postseason future with a second-round sweep over No. 1 seed Toronto, Cleveland’s status as the presumptive East favorite once again appeared to be very much in doubt.

So naturally, LeBron James and the Cavs came back home and promptly knotted up the series with a pair of convincing wins. Now the league’s most enigmatic club is right back in position to visit the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season — even though it’s still impossible to know what this streaky Cavs team will bring to the court in any given game.

According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Cavs’ offense improved by a staggering 20.5 points per 100 possessions between Games 1-2 and Games 3-4. James was much more efficient (raising his true shooting percentage by 16 percentage points), and as a team Cleveland shot 19.3 percentage points better from beyond the arc in its two series wins than in its two losses. James himself went from shooting 31 percent on threes to shooting 57 percent. It was a classic turnabout for a Cavaliers squad whose inconsistency has been one of its defining characteristics. In fact, you can’t really even say Cleveland’s offensive resurgence was all that surprising once the series finally shifted back to Ohio.

Perhaps of greater note, though, was a defense that held Boston to 16.2 fewer points per 100 possessions in the series’ most recent pair of games than in the first two games. The Cavs limited the Celtics to an average of just 36 points in the paint in Games 3-4 after giving up 55 per game in Games 1-2. As part of that, Cleveland increasingly used big man Tristan Thompson to short-circuit his Celtics counterpart, Al Horford, who functions as the nerve center of Boston’s all-around game plan. And maybe the most telling Cavs defensive statistic of all was in terms of effort: According to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, Cleveland contested 77 percent of Boston’s field goal attempts during the games at Quicken Loans Arena, after having contested only 58 percent of Celtics’ attempts in the series’ first two games.

It has to be noted that the Celtics’ own struggles away from TD Garden found the spotlight once again in Games 3-4. Boston is now 1-6 on the road in the postseason, versus a perfect 9-0 record at home. In an odd way, that might serve as an extra source of comfort for coach Brad Stevens’ young team against the Cavs, since they still hold home-court advantage in the series. But the Celtics’ inability to convert makable chances on the road remains baffling: Boston is shooting 49 percent in the paint on the road this postseason, the worst mark of any team in the league, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group.

Nobody can afford those types of missed opportunities against an opponent as difficult to close out as James. In his postseason career, LeBron’s Cavaliers and Heat teams have won eight of their 11 total Game 4s while trailing 2-1 — and it’s also worth pointing out that one of those three losses came in the 2016 NBA Finals, when Cleveland would later rally from down 3-1 to eventually win the NBA title. James is averaging 30.8 points and 10.5 rebounds in those games, so he simply doesn’t allow his teams to go down without a hellacious fight. It’s something Stevens should prepare the Celtics to weather as the series effectively becomes a best-of-three affair.

But by the same token, the Cavs are also an exceedingly difficult team to get a read on — and that’s nothing new from this group. If we use FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings to measure their point differential in each game of the season (regular and post-) relative to what we’d expect from an average team1 at the same location, the 2017-18 Cavaliers are the fifth-most-inconsistent team to make the conference finals since 1984.2 Fittingly, they’re joined in the top six by three other versions of themselves (the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 Cavs) plus two versions of their mortal enemies, the Golden State Warriors (2016-17 and 2017-18 editions).

These Cavs are consistently inconsistent

Most inconsistent conference finalists according to Elo,* 1984-2018

PPG Diff.
Rk Season Team Actual Expected Vs. Expected Std. Dev.
1 2018 Golden State Warriors +6.4 -0.4 +6.9 15.14
2 2015 Cleveland Cavaliers 4.4 -1.1 5.5 14.48
3 2017 Golden State Warriors 12.0 -0.9 12.9 14.17
4 2017 Cleveland Cavaliers 4.0 -1.1 5.1 14.13
5 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers 1.0 -0.3 1.3 14.10
6 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers 6.5 -1.0 7.5 13.88
7 1987 Seattle SuperSonics 0.1 -0.5 0.6 13.76
8 2009 Denver Nuggets 4.3 -0.7 5.0 13.65
9 1986 Los Angeles Lakers 7.7 0.1 7.6 13.57
10 2016 Golden State Warriors 9.3 -1.5 10.8 13.41

*Based on the largest standard deviation of game-by-game performance scores, which are derived by comparing a team’s actual scoring margin to that which we’d expect from an average (1500 Elo) team against the same opponent, at the same location.

Source: Basketball-reference.com

Maybe that’s a cop-out way of saying this series is still a coin flip, and nobody really knows what to expect going forward. (Our CARM-Elo predictions certainly agree with that assessment; they peg the Cavs as the slimmest of favorites now, at 52 percent.) But it’s also part of the fabric of this Cavs team: Just when you think they’re cooked, they pull themselves out of the fire. And just when you think they have things under control, they manage to make things interesting. If nothing else, Cleveland’s victorious home stand only continued its fine tradition of keeping us all on our toes.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. With an Elo rating of 1500.

  2. The year the NBA adopted its modern playoff structure.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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