Coach Mike Brown made a dramatic change in the Cavaliers’ defense about six weeks ago. His big men were struggling to recover in pick-and-rolls and struggling to defend in the post.
For the first time in his career, Brown overhauled his defense. He has always believed in the hard-show to defend pick-and-rolls, where the big man pops out on the guard and then retreats to find his man, but he started dropping his big men into the paint in coverages and he started fronting the post on defense.
The difference has been dramatic.
On Feb. 7, shortly after Brown started making the changes, the Cavs were tied for 23rd in defensive-field goal percentage with the Washington Wizards at .461. Since Feb. 8, the Cavs are fifth in the league (.434). They’re also allowing the seventh-fewest points per game (97.9). They held the Heat to 45 percent in Tuesday’s loss after the Heat entered as the best shooting team in the league and the only team better than 50 percent.
The difference in schemes is perhaps equivalent to learning how to drive a stick shift after driving an automatic for 20 years.
“It’s a huge change,” Anderson Varejao said. “I never thought he would change, but it has been good for us.”
Brown has even surprised himself with how much he has adapted this season.
“In terms of how you defend certain things, I’ve bent a little bit in terms of allowing guys a little bit more freedom to make mistakes,” Brown said. “It’s a new team, a young team and if I don’t do that then we won’t grow.
“Is it surprising? Yes, it is, because you come in and you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this and we’re going to have success with this no matter what.’ If you don’t have success, now you’ve got to adjust, you’ve got to change a little bit, but everybody has.”
Brown’s “hard-show” style is demanding on big men, who sometimes have to sprint from the 3-point line to the rim to recover. Brown has enjoyed tremendous success with it, turning the Cavs into one of the league’s best defensive teams.
But he has talked recently about the adjustments he has made this season, about tapping the brakes at times and allowing guys to play through mistakes. With the Oklahoma City Thunder coming to Quicken Loans Arena tonight, the Cavs are six games out of the playoffs with only 14 left to play.
It’s fairly evident this team is not headed to the postseason. The Cavs ensured their fourth consecutive losing season with Tuesday’s loss to the Heat, and improvement at times this season has been difficult (impossible?) to see.
Only now, as injuries and an unbearably difficult March schedule make success nearly impossible, the Cavs seem to be figuring out both how to play together and how to defend in Brown’s system. Albeit, Brown’s tweaked system.
“At the beginning of the season, we were showing and very aggressive,” Tristan Thompson said. “We were throwing teams off. But that’s part of the NBA. They scout you and find ways to take advantage of whatever kind of defense you run. So when we were showing sometimes we’d be at a disadvantage being in a 5-on-3 situation. So now we’re dropping in, packing the paint and forcing teams to be us on 3-point shots.”
The Cavs still use Brown’s show defense, but not nearly as much. Varejao and Thompson both said it’s a matter of KYP — Knowing Your Personnel. If the Cavs fear a shooter on the other team, they’ll still show to keep him from getting too much space. If they don’t fear a 3-point shooter, the big man will drop.
It’s hard to argue with the success the changes have created.
“It’s us getting his trust and him, as coach, making adjustments, knowing the players he has and us understanding what he wants from us,” Thompson said. “Whatever it takes to win, we’ve got to be ready to do that.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.