CLEVELAND — The Splash Brothers suffered from totally different problems during Golden State’s blowout Game 3 loss to Cleveland.
Stephen Curry was a shadow of his usual self, coughing up the rock early and failing to get going offensively until it was too late. Klay Thompson, on the other hand, was too jumpy, rushing to get off his three-point looks over amped-up defenders and struggling to find space on the perimeter against a Cavaliers team that was clearly committed to taking away the three-point line. With neither one of their All-Star guards making a dent, the Warriors fell behind by 20 points in the first quarter en route to a postseason-low 90 points in a defeat that Thompson said left him “embarrassed.”
While Curry will look for a kick start in Game 4 and Thompson will try to settle in, the key to improved play for both players would seem to be the same: Attack more off the dribble.
“I watched the film and I kind of regret taking maybe six jump shots to start the game,” Thompson said, after going 1-of-7 from deep on a night he scored just 10 points. “I had some good success going to the rim, and I realized in my pro career that if you get to the rim early, it's going to open up your jump shots. … If they're going to try to take away your shot, just be aggressive to get good shots.”
Curry, too, feels the need to better counter Cleveland’s tight perimeter defense.
“[I need to be] realizing where I am on the floor and how they're guarding me,” he said. “Whether I can get in the paint a lot more and make plays or look for my shot a little bit more and just run the offense better than I did last night as a point guard.”
This adjustment really is a straightforward case of the adage, “Take what the defense gives you.”
Playing at home for the first time in the series in Game 3, Cleveland came out with exceptional energy and attentiveness defensively. Thompson’s first three airballed as both J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson got a hand in his face. Before the first period was over, he had rushed a three over Kyrie Irving, rushed a step-back three after a missed free throw, and rushed a fall-away corner three over Jefferson—all misses. It was that type of night.
Curry didn’t hit a three-pointer until the third quarter, as his game from beyond the arc began with him falling to the ground after launching from deep over two defenders, pulling up from super deep with Iman Shumpert in his face, and tossing up a step-back over Tristan Thompson with the shot clock winding down.
“I think they're just trying to run me and Steph off the three-point line as much as possible, and understandably so,” Thompson said. “Obviously we can both get hot from there. So we realize that we might have better success going to the rim or finding a teammate on the back side or just trying to play-make because they're doing a good job of stopping our initial action.”
Indeed, as Game 3 unfolded, you could see the wheels turning for both Curry and Thompson, as both began finding success by attacking the basket.
These two shots help explain why…
Here, Thompson gets a switch with Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson. As he surveys from the top of the court, he sees the Cavaliers’ small lineup playing tight at all five spots.
Every single Cleveland defender is at least a step away from the paint, Cleveland’s “center” is two steps above the three-point arc rather than hovering around the restricted area, and there isn’t a true shot-blocking presence on the court. The Cavaliers are so committed to limiting perimeter opportunities that you could drive an 18-wheel truck down the middle of the Cavaliers’ defense.
There's a similar thing going on here, albeit with a different point of entry. Curry flips the ball to Thompson in the right corner. Thompson’s defender closes hard to take away the three, leaving an undefended path to the basket. Note that Tristan Thompson has eyes on Thompson, but he’s not exactly eager to leave a shooter. While Cleveland’s weakside defenders are also aware of the possibility of a drive, they’re also trying to do two things at once and therefore not selling out to protect the rim.
On both of these plays, Thompson was able to finish buckets going at the rim.
Here’s one more for Curry.
Curry attacks Jefferson early in the clock, finding an open seam going left. The only defender in the paint with a chance to stop Curry’s advance is Irving, who has his back turned to the play because he’s trying to find a shooter to match up with. With no help for Jefferson in place, Curry completes the play with a fairly easy runner.
Note that this isn’t simply about adjusting to Cleveland’s strategy, it’s also a matter of exploiting the Cavaliers’ personnel.
By starting Jefferson in place of the injured Kevin Love, the Cavaliers were able to unlock space for James and Irving in their offense, utilizing his energy and all-around contributions to jump on the Warriors early. James praised Jefferson’s performance Wednesday, suggesting that the veteran forward deserved the “game ball.” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue will need to seriously consider starting Jefferson for Game 4, even if Love is cleared to return from a concussion.
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Golden State’s big advantage against Cleveland’s smaller lineups is its ability to exploit the Cavaliers’ lack of rim protection. The Cavaliers don’t have a Draymond Green–type interior defender when they go small, and their lack of Thunder-like length really shows when they downsize. Both Curry and Thompson should feel fully confident in their abilities to 1) score going to the rim, and 2) collapse Cleveland’s defense and set up drive-and-kick looks.
It’s hard to keep the Warriors’ offense down for long, and a few doses of an inside-out approach should help create the necessary breathing room on the perimeter.
“It's a natural thing when I get going, I get more attention and get more bodies,” Curry said. “Kind of like a magnet wherever I go on the floor. And there are open spots for other guys. [Same thing for] Klay. When a guy gets hot, usually that opens up things for other players on the floor.”
Even on a night when Cleveland came out energized and desperate, Golden State was able to find high-quality looks—they just happened to be running layups over and by undersized post defenders rather than pretty threes from deep. The Cavaliers can’t cover everything, and the Warriors seem to understand that they’ll need to do a better, more proactive job of seeking out what’s open and exploiting it in Game 4.
For Curry, whose Game 3 performance was mystifying in its flatness, Game 4 represents an opportunity to prove his level of involvement mentally is higher than it appeared to critics on Wednesday.
“I didn't get here off of motivation from other people,” he said. “I know how hard I work and what I'm blessed with. I just have to stay true to who I am and allow that to carry you through the good times and the Game 3s.”