Mears: Why the Transition Battle Could Determine Game 5

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Pictured: LeBron James. Photo credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers have made the Eastern Conference Finals a series again, and a big reason has been their defense.

Boston scored just 104.1 points per 100 possessions in Game 4 and posted an atrocious 46.5% effective field-goal mark. One huge reason for that is the play of LeBron James and especially Tristan Thompson, who was able to stay on the floor for a whopping 38 minutes Monday night. Boston attacked the rim as usual, taking 39% of its shots at the rim, but went just 18-of-33 there and drew only three fouls. Thompson is by far the Cavs’ best rim protector, and his resurgence in this series and ability to stay on the court has been a big part of why it’s now 2-2 heading back to Boston.

And LeBron’s engagement is key, too. Guys like Kevin Love and Kyle Korver can be defensive liabilities, but LeBron can cover a lot of ground defensively when he’s interested in doing so. He was also engaged offensively: The Cavs’ Offensive Rating in the half court was actually worse than the Celtics’ — they were at 89.5/100 versus 95.6/100 — but they killed Boston in transition. Cleveland added 6.8/100 in transition and ran on 39.5% of live offensive rebounds. That last mark is easily in the 80th-plus percentile of games this season and shows how much of a force LeBron can be when he’s getting the ball and pushing as much as possible. Thompson and Love, who combined for 23 rebounds, also did a nice job finding him quickly after those misses.

The question is whether these trends will continue in Boston. The Celtics have been miles better at home than they have on the road all season — particularly in the playoffs. In Game 2, Cleveland pushed on 32.4% of live rebounds but ended up posting an atrocious transition Offensive Rating. The team that has the edge in that regard will go a long way toward determining who wins Game 5, especially since Boston can confound Cleveland’s offensive sets with its wing length and the mobility of bigs such as Al Horford. There could be some live-betting opportunities: If the Cavs are slowing things down and LeBron isn’t pushing and attacking the rim, that certainly favors the Celtics.

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