Before facing the defending champion Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had at least one thing going for them: a sterling postseason résumé. Although their hopes of a fo’-fo’-fo’-fo’ were dashed in the conference finals, the Cavs cruised through the playoffs in only two more games than the minimum, compiling metrics along the way that helped Cleveland stand head and shoulders above the pack — even after accounting1 for the weakness of the Eastern Conference:
In particular, Cleveland’s postseason offense was off the charts. Before Thursday’s game, the Cavs had been scoring 14.8 more points per 100 possessions than would have been expected from an average NBA team against the same slate of playoff opponents. No other team was even close to that level of offensive execution — the second-best playoff offense belonged to the Oklahoma City Thunder, at +5.8; the difference between Cleveland and OKC was roughly the same as the difference between OKC and the 12th-ranked Dallas Mavericks.
The Cavs protected the ball pretty well and did a good job on the offensive glass, but the main component of their prodigious scoring output was a spell of outrageous shooting accuracy. And that’s what the Warriors’ defense short-circuited when Golden State defeated Cleveland in the Finals opener Thursday night.
Before the Finals, Cleveland had been earning reasonably good looks at the basket — defined by quantified shot quality (qSQ), a metric that tracks the “difficulty” of every shot based on its location and other variables. But the Cavs’ greatest postseason edge had been in shot-making, aka quantified shooter impact (qSI): knocking down even more shots — as measured by effective field goal percentage (eFG%) — than would be expected from their baseline qSQ. And the Cavs’ shooters only seemed to be gaining steam; their two best qSI performances of the postseason came in the two closing games of the Eastern Conference finals. Going into the Finals, no team was even close to Cleveland’s +5.1 postseason qSI.
In Game 1 against Golden State, however, Cleveland’s shooting was way off the mark. According to qSQ, the quality of the Cavs’ looks was practically identical to what it had been throughout the playoffs,2 but the team’s (eFG%) was a staggering 14.2 points lower than it had been in the rest of the playoffs. In terms of qSI, Game 1 was Cleveland’s worst shot-making performance of the postseason, with the Cavs’ top four shooters — Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson — combining to shoot for an eFG% nearly 8 percentage points below expected.
(Put another way, if we take qSI at face value, that 8-point shortfall means the errant shooting by that quartet cost the Cavs about 11 points. Overall, Cleveland’s poor qSI left about 14.5 total points on the table — in a game that it ultimately lost by 15.)
The result was Cleveland’s second-worst offensive performance of the postseason (according to points above average per 100 possessions, which adjusts for strength of schedule) and only its second below-average offensive game:
The only outing that ranked worse was the Cavs’ loss to the Toronto Raptors in Game 3 of the conference finals, and that performance came in a relatively low-leverage situation: Cleveland was up 2-0 in a series it was heavily favored to win. By contrast, after Thursday’s game, our playoff simulations give the Cavaliers a paltry 21 percent probability of winning the championship.
If Cleveland beats those odds, it will probably involve a return to its hot-shooting ways. And the good news is that shot-making is pretty variable from game to game, so the Cavs could very well bounce back in Game 2. But there’s no denying that Game 1 was the stuff of nightmares for Cleveland and its fans: The Warriors neutralized the weapon that had carried Cleveland this deep into the playoffs.
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