The Warriors' defensive approach is pushing LeBron James' load to new limits.
Cleveland’s Game 1 offense was blunt and unimaginative. To its credit, it was also remarkably committed. The idea of a team going to its best player over and over is somewhat divorced from the reality of that tedium. LeBron James took 38 shots from the field on Thursday night. Only two players in NBA history (Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson) have ever attempted more field goals in a playoff game, as reaching that mark requires the full investment of a funneling offense.
For James, in particular, the work of dominating the ball in this fashion must be both foreign and satisfying. LeBron's instinct is to make plays, but the overriding logic of his game is to make the right play. Given the Warriors' defensive strategy and the structure of the team around him, the right play for James is so often to attack his man in isolation. That Golden State didn't collapse hard on his drives and post-ups forced LeBron to both initiate and complete many plays on his own.
This is the kind of control of the offense that James seems to crave, yet applied in a way that challenges his programming. LeBron took to the challenge with aplomb. Harrison Barnes can attest; the first defender put before James, the Warriors' small forward ran into trouble almost immediately. Good positioning and a fight to hold ground weren't enough against the push of James' shoulder, which gradually brought the best player in the world closer and closer to the rim.
Barnes was in some cases able to force James into a scoring angle that would prove challenging for all but a select class of scorers. LeBron, of course, ranks high among them. Even when forced into a second defender, James was able to find his way through:
Cleveland seemed to feed James whenever possible. On some possessions, there would be an attempt at running a play (or perhaps some misdirection) before feeding LeBron on the block. On others, the Cavaliers shrugged off the guise and passed the ball into their superstar directly. This is not the most enjoyable way to run an offense. Cleveland's buy-in, though, was so strong that the team's role players remained engaged in their cutting, defense, and rebounding even as their responsibilities within the offense dwindled. LeBron running the show is nothing new for the Cavs. His doing so without drawing consistent double teams—which typically create openings for Kyrie Irving, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert—very much was.
Golden State was able to live with that dynamic largely by way of its defensive resources beyond Barnes. Andre Iguodala forced James into highly difficult shots and extended high into every contest, yielding just 28.6% shooting overall with Iguodala as his primary defender. On this sequence, Iguodala's denial of the entry pass to LeBron (bolstered by Stephen Curry's pressure on Matthew Dellavedova) delays the action in the post until just seven seconds remain on the shot clock:
Once LeBron begins his back-down, Iguodala took a wide stance to brace for contact. He slid in constant adjustment while his forearm and free hand attempted to control the angle of attack. Once James pivoted away for a fadeaway jumper, Iguodala went into a full, quick windup to launch himself toward the ball. His job wasn't to block the shot. It was to amplify its difficulty, and he accomplished that much in every stage of his defensive sequence.
Iguodala was the most successful of all the Warriors' defenders in terms of forcing James away from hook shots and layups and into midrange jumpers. Throughout the night we saw both Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut rotate early on defense to put another obstruction in LeBron's line of sight without committing to a full double team. The combination of Iguodala's coverage and that looming help encouraged shots like this one:
Of course, the most frustrating thing about defending James is the way he so consistently finds a way. Between his strength, speed, technique, and basketball literacy, he almost always has a way through. Iguodala guarded LeBron well, as did Green. So James, instead, ran pick-and-rolls with the Cavalier guards to induce the switch of Klay Thompson. James—in what Green would later call "kill mode"—was able to get the looks he wanted within that matchup:
Still, one particular image from within that clip is telling. When James went to drive against Thompson, Marreese Speights began to rotate in accordance with his defensive responsibilities. None of the other Warriors so much as twitched. All three instead stood, in a display of consecutive wingspan, with arms fully extended as to wall off an entire side of the court:
Even in knowing that Thompson wasn't a favorable matchup for James, Golden State played with the discipline to take away the Cavs' spot-up shooters and live with the consequences.
That strategy worked well enough to help the Warriors endure a shaky offensive performance and win, with some gutsy play and a little luck, in overtime. The basics of a defensive strategy that allowed LeBron 44 points in Game 1 will not likely change. The balance in how much each defender sees of James may shift, but the approach informing their coverage bodes well.
James won't always hit his jumpers and floaters. He won't convert every attempt against the likes of Thompson and Barnes, and both of those matchups will be controlled by the Warriors as much as possible. And yet after Kyrie Irving left the floor limping in the final minutes of Game 1, LeBron may come to bear even more of Cleveland's creative burden. This was James at his most assertive and still he might be asked to do more. His limits, pushed back by the work of Iguodala, Green, and a team of careful defenders, are now the Cavs' limits.