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Cavaliers have succeeded when it counts, but – for an NBA finalist – rarely otherwise

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James gestures during the second half in Game 7 of the NBA basketball Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, Sunday, May 27, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)


How good are the Cavaliers?

Good enough.

And maybe no more.

The Cavs are back in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year. Cleveland has already achieved the highest reasonable standard for this team just by getting this far. The Cavaliers have nothing to apologize for.

But it’s worth acknowledging how poorly Cleveland – for a team that won its conference – rates in several measures.

Regular-season record

At 50-32, the Cavs have worst record for a finalist since the 2010 Celtics, who were also 50-32 (as were the 2007 Cavs). Nobody has had a worse record since the 49-33 New Jersey Nets in 2003.

Regular-season net rating

The Cavaliers didn’t perform as well, by point difference, as a typical 50-32 team. They won an outsized share of their close games and got blown out relatively frequently.

In all, Cleveland outscored opponents by just 1.0 point per 100 possessions – the worst mark by a finalist since the 1981 Rockets (+0.3 points per 100 possessions).


Allowing 3.3 more points per 100 possessions than league average, the Cavs had – by far – the worst regular-season defense for any finalist. In fact, it’s the worst regular-season defense for any team that won multiple playoff series.


The fourth-seeded Cavaliers are the lowest seed to make Finals since 2010 Celtics, who were also a No. 4 seed. The 2006 Mavericks and 2003 Spurs were also No. 4 seeds. The last lower-seeded team to reach the Finals was the eighth-seeded Knicks in 1999.

Playoff record

Cleveland needed seven games to beat the Pacers and another seven games to beat the Celtics, sweeping the Raptors between. Only the 2008 Celtics (20 games) and 2010 Magic (19 games) needed more games to win its conference than these Cavs (18 games).

Playoff point difference

The Cavaliers got outscored by 40 by Indiana – the third-worst scoring margin by the winning team ever in a playoff series. After routing Toronto by 56 points, the Cavs outscored the Celtics by just six.

All told, Cleveland’s playoff point difference entering the Finals (+22) is the lowest since the 1994 Knicks (+21).

The Cavaliers just kept advancing because they repeatedly came up clutch.

What appears to be clutch ability often falls apart in larger samples. But maybe these Cavs are different.

They might just know they’re too old to compete all the time, too experienced and capable to fret even playoff losses and possessing of a once-in-a-generation player – LeBron James – who has proven he can execute in the tightest of late-game situations.

This style of play might just be the right response by a flawed team in a hectic season.

Will it work against the Warriors? Doubtful. Golden State is too good to leave the Cavaliers margin for error and clutch in its own right.

But the Cavs got this far through sheer force of will, answering as many challenges as necessary. Maybe Cleveland will do the same in this series?

Either way, it’s still commendable the Cavaliers made it work this long.