OAKLAND, Calif. — After digesting the tape from Cleveland’s Game 1 loss to Golden State, Tyronn Lue returned to the same theme seven separate times on Friday: Pace.
One year after former coach David Blatt and LeBron James concocted a super-slowdown style in hopes of containing the up-tempo Warriors, Lue seemed to be taking the opposite approach by repeatedly hammering the importance of speed.
“I just told LeBron I need him to play faster,” Lue said. “I need him to pick up the pace for us offensively, getting the ball out and just beginning to play faster.”
At first blush, this sounds like a tortoise challenging a hare to a footrace, leaving Lue open to second-guessing given how well and how comfortably Golden State plays when games open up.
Dig a little deeper, though, and Lue seems mostly concerned with avoiding the dangers of playing slow rather than hoping to run Golden State off the court. In Game 1, Cleveland’s offense encountered numerous issues, many of which can be traced back to its lack of pace. Here are five, in no particular order:
- James shot just 9-of-21 and committed four turnovers, as the Warriors consistently shaded an extra defender in his direction during the Cavaliers’ half-court possessions.
- Cleveland managed just seven three-pointers, tied for its fewest of the postseason, as Golden State’s switch-heavy style and long perimeter defenders made it hard to generate and convert from outside.
- The Cavaliers committed 17 turnovers leading to 25 points for the Warriors. As Lue noted, many of those turnovers occurred when James and Kyrie Irving drove to the hoop against set defenses that were ready to swipe and poke the ball free.
- J.R. Smith was a total non-factor as Golden State succeeded in sticking to him tightly on the perimeter in half-court situations, knowing that he vastly prefers shooting the three to any other activity.
- Cleveland shot just 18-of-42 (43%) as a team in the basket area, owing to good rim protection from Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green and a number of point-blank misses by James and others.
Lue’s position seems fairly clear and reasonable: if Cleveland can opportunistically run and get into its offensive sets earlier, it should be able to generate more space for James to operate, better looks for its shooters, and more room in the paint which should lead to better success at the basket.
“I don’t think we played fast enough,” Lue explained. “I don’t think we pushed the pace and were aggressive attacking in transition. I think in the third quarter you saw when we were able to get stops and get out in transition, that really opened the game up for us and we were able to go from a nine-point deficit to going up three points by playing faster and being more aggressive in transition.”
Indeed, that third-quarter stretch was Cleveland’s best work from Game 1. Its signature highlight came a little more than three minutes into the second half when James pushed the ball in transition and found a trailing Irving with a bounce-pass. Although Golden State had four defenders inside the three-point line, Irving was able to attack an open seam going left, beating Harrison Barnes off the dribble for an and-one layup.
This was an example of opportunistic pace rather than speed-demon basketball, exactly what Lue seems to be seeking.
There are secondary benefits from this type of approach. Most obviously, it cuts down the number of possessions ending with James or Irving over-dribbling and hoisting up lower-percentage shots as the clock winds down and the defense digs in.
“We want Kyrie to be aggressive, but it has to be sharp, quick attacks,” Lue said on Saturday. “You can’t dribble for eight or nine seconds. We had that discussion, and he understands that. But we need him to score the basketball. ... Kyrie is the one guy that we have that can break guys down off the dribble. So it’s going to be a fine line, but he has to be quicker on the attack rather than letting him load up and trying to go four, five, six seconds and then they’re loading up their defense.”
Past that, there’s also the issue of involvement. Cleveland managed just 17 assists in Game 1, with James accounting for nine of them. The hockey assists and extra passes that opened up the Cavaliers’ outside shooting earlier in the postseason mostly went by the wayside. As a result, Cleveland’s major secondary optionsSmith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and Matthew Dellavedova—were all held in check.
“If we don’t play fast and get the ball up the floor and play with pace, J.R. suffers the most from that,” Lue said. “This [Warriors] team was switching out on pin-downs and switching 1 through 5 when they go with that small lineup. It makes it tough for J.R. to get shots. So we have to play faster and we do also have to involve J.R.”
Aside from the pace issue, here are three other keys for the Cavaliers as they look to even the Finals at one game apiece on Sunday.
Reduce open looks
File this under “Easier said than done,” but Cleveland must do a better job of defending the three-point line. While the Warriors shot just 9-of-27 from deep in Game 1, it could have been a lot worse, as many of those misses were the result of off nights from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Here’s a few screenshots of the open looks conceded by Cleveland’s defense.
Cleveland seemed eager to concede above-the-break three-pointers to Green all game long. While this is an understandable approach, given that Green’s shooting has wavered at times and Golden State’s many other better options, one would think that completely ignoring a 38.8% three-point shooter will eventually catch up to them.
This one doesn’t look as bad, given that Iman Shumpert rushed out to challenge the shot, but Thompson was left far too much daylight to launch this three in an early clock situation. Cleveland must continue to stay tight on him when he runs out on misses and makes. These early-clock looks are often confidence-boosters.
This is simply a basketball sin. Curry just can’t be given clean looks like this in half-court situations. There isn’t a defender within five feet of him, let alone a hand in his face.
Barnes has had an up-and-down postseason, but like Green, is a 38% percent shooter who can’t be neglected. Oklahoma City did a much better job of limiting wide open shots like this in the West finals.
Here’s the result of a simple drive-and-kick play that gets Andre Iguodala an easy corner three with no one in sight.
Simply put, this type of perimeter defense is basketball’s version of Russian Roulette. If the Warriors continue to get this many clean looks from beyond the arc, the series will be over quickly.
Finish makeable shots
Lue asserted on Friday that Cleveland had missed “nine point-blank layups when no one was around” during Game 1. While that number seems a bit high, James and others did have some bad luck in the basket area. While Bogut and Green did well to challenge shots without fouling, Cleveland had a number of chances to make Game 1 more compelling.
In James’s case, it will be worth watching whether fatigue becomes an issue. He played a team-high 40 minutes in Game 1 and will not have much opportunity to rest given Golden State’s personnel and style, especially if Cleveland tries to play faster like Lue wants. Will the turnovers and missed “easy shots” begin to add up?
Get to the line (even more)
Following Oklahoma City’s lead from the West finals, Cleveland won the free-throw line battle 20–10 in Game 1, thanks largely to Irving, who got to the stripe 12 times by himself. Not only are free throws a crucial equalizer in terms of matching Golden State’s offense, they’re an excellent way to draw the fouls needed to keep the Warriors’ premier interior defenders off the court for long stretches. James, in particular, will find his life considerably easier if Green and/or Bogut is stuck on the bench in foul trouble.
Check out 100 classic photos from the NBA Finals
Although he took 21 shots and nearly registered a triple double, James got to the foul line just four times in Game 1. Given how much attention Golden State pays him, and how often he has the ball in his hands, James will need to do better going forward in this series.
If James posts similar results in Game 2, Lue should consider taking a page out of Raptors coach Dwane Casey’s playbook by lobbying loudly for more favorable treatment from the officials. His best player needs all the help he can get in this series.