Three keys for the Golden State Warriors as they prepare for a pivotal Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
CLEVELAND—On this stage, a perceived strength can flip into a perceived weakness in the blink of an eye. Look no further than Golden State's signature easy-going unflappability. Throughout the season, and during the first three rounds of the postseason, the Warriors' loose approach and even keel fueled their historic success. Now, down 2-1 in the NBA Finals to a Cavaliers team that has controlled the tempo and outworked them, the Warriors suddenly appear more careless than carefree.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr raised this issue himself after Tuesday's Game 3 loss, pointing to a lack of energy and negative body language from his group and, when pressed, from Stephen Curry in particular.
Depending on your perspective, Curry either looked serene (above the noise) or dazed (not totally aware of what's unfolding quickly in this series) during his post-game comments on Tuesday and again at his Wednesday press session, suggesting only that he needed to be more "vibrant." Not even the prospect of falling into a 3-1 hole was capable of eliciting meaningful expressions of urgency from Curry, who went nearly 28 minutes in Game 3 without a field goal and committed six turnovers on the night, including some critical ones late. That's just not his style, for better or worse.
Instead, the strongest "rah, rah" stuff was left to Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
"It's not time to be quiet," the perpetually vocal Green said. "Everybody's speaking up [in the locker room]. If you're quiet now, you'll be home in a couple of days. ... I think everything is due to our intensity level. Whether it's our shooting, whether it's turnovers, whatever it is. If we raise our intensity level, I think that cuts out over 50 percent of the problems that we've had. We look forward to doing that."
Iguodala seconded that notion, saying the Warriors "definitely got to fight a little bit harder" and that they need to "pull some extra stuff up out of you to try to get a win" on Thursday.
In addition to fulfilling Kerr's call for better energy, here are three things the Warriors will need to do to even the Finals at two games apiece.
1. Back to basics
So many things are seemingly wrong with the Warriors' offense that it's difficult to know where to start. Curry has struggled to get going, Klay Thompson has been hit or miss, Harrison Barnes has been mostly miss, Green has struggled mightily to fulfill his role as a dependable playmaker, and Andrew Bogut has been losing his matchup against Timofey Mozgov.
Often, when so many different players are falling short of expectations it's a sign that the offense's bread and butter stuff isn't working, as auxiliary options are dependent upon primary options for their opportunities. The top priority, then, is to find a way to help the stars get back to shining.
"Myself and Steph have to step up to the challenge," Green said.
Most of Golden State's issues offensively can be traced to weak production from Curry and Green pick-and-rolls, which have failed to create the usual problems for the opposition. Cleveland has effectively trapped Curry, taking away a chunk of his off-the-dribble three-point attempts and regularly forcing him to make the easy play by passing to Green near the free-throw line. From there, it's often been a disaster, with Green looking indecisive, hesitant, afraid to shoot and overly willing to pass. The Cavaliers have smartly dared Green to try to create his own offense, staying home on shooters and encouraging him to shoot (he's been ice cold) and drive (he's not the most adept finisher in traffic). This approach has limited the impact of Green's superb passing ability, cut down on Golden State's spacing, and helped turn a beautiful flowing offense into a choppy stop-and-start mess.
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There's room for improvement at all stages here. Now that he has a good idea of how the Cavaliers will be playing him, Curry needs to be more decisive in his approach, either looking to turn the corner on the big man that steps out or moving the ball out of the trap immediately. Curry's strongest stretch of the series came during the fourth quarter of Game 3 when he drove hard past Tristan Thompson to get an easy layup against Cleveland's smaller lineup and caught fire from deep thanks to some quick reads in pick-and-roll situations and some savvy off-ball work.
Green, for his part, really needs to stop over-thinking, and Kerr must be ready to replace Green as the screener if he continues to deliberate on the catch and/or continues not to trust his outside shot. Kerr's options there include playing David Lee more (see below), going back to Marreese Speights (a capable pick-and-pop shooter who can create some space with his scoring ability), or reducing Andrew Bogut's playing time so that Green fulfills the center's role and someone else steps into the four spot in the pick-and-rolls.
2. Go to David Lee
Kerr tapped Lee for the first time in the Finals on Tuesday, getting 11 points and four rebounds in 13 minutes from the 2013 All-Star who has regularly been on the outside of the rotation this season. Although Kerr has generally been pretty tight-lipped about his game plans, he promised reporters after Game 3 that they would "see more David Lee" on Thursday.
Although Lee is a sieve on the defensive end, his impact on Golden State's offense was immediate and clear. Finally, Curry had someone to pass the ball to that was eager to put pressure on the defense. Lee took passes near the elbow and drove into the paint, scored in contested situations, got to the foul line, and collapsed the defense. These are key steps to unlocking auxiliary scoring options like Barnes and Iguodala. Even more importantly, Lee's presence helped take some of the pressure off Curry, who scored 17 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter.
"I think I found something when it comes to how I'm going to be able to attack their pick‑and‑rolls and even certain iso situations," Curry said. "I'll keep that in the memory bank going into Game 4, and hopefully it has a trickle over effect into the first quarter of the next game."
If the Cavaliers trap Curry with Lee's man, he's capable of taking the ball into the heart of the defense, creating a good scoring opportunity for himself or passing out to a shooter. If the Cavaliers switch a big onto Curry with Lee on the court, Lee is a polished and physical scorer capable of punishing a smaller defender. These are good options, and ones that Golden State hasn't really been able to exploit with Green, who doesn't possess the same one-on-one offensive skills.
Because playing Lee requires such an obvious offense-for-defense trade, Kerr must think carefully about which combinations of players work best around the Curry/Lee combination, especially when LeBron James is on the court. Lee is simply not suited to being the last line of defense against a James attack, and Cavaliers coach David Blatt actively looked to exploit that fact in Game 3.
3. Consider early lineup adjustments
Kerr said after Game 3 that he didn't anticipate making any changes to his starting lineup, a unit that logged 813 minutes together (third-most in the NBA) and posted an excellent +19.6 net rating during the regular season. That's an understandable approach given the group's track record and its excellent balance on paper, but the results in the Finals (94.3 offensive rating, 106.6 defensive rating, -12.2 net rating in 44 minutes) suggest that this group is being badly outplayed by its Cleveland counterparts, albeit in limited minutes.
This is one of the trickiest decisions for a coach: When the season is on the line, do you trust a struggling core group to revert to its usual standard of play, or do you flex to a different look more quickly than usual? In Kerr's case, he needs to strongly consider the latter approach for at least four reasons
One: He can't risk falling into an early hole on the road like the Warriors did in Game 3. As Curry noted Tuesday: "We're down 2‑1 right now [because of] the way we're playing on the offensive end, especially to start games." If Game 4 starts like a replay of Game 3, he must intervene.
Two: Bogut, Green and Barnes are all falling short of their usual standards on offense, and that puts too much pressure on Curry and Thompson to do it all. Lee and Iguodala are ready and waiting to help in that regard.
Three: Iguodala has been perhaps Golden State's most reliable performer on both ends through three games, and he has seemed the least rattled by the high stakes. Golden State is at the point where "The way we've done things" will need to give way to "Go with the five guys that are playing the best" if Cleveland starts well again. It's unlikely that Barnes will play as poorly again as he did in Game 3, when he went 0-for-8 and committed three turnovers in 19 minutes. But if Barnes starts slowly, and/or if James starts particularly hot, Kerr can't wait around to find out. Instead, he must move quickly to Iguodala and consider riding him for even longer than the 36 minutes he saw in both Games 2 and 3 (which nearly matched his season-high of 37 minutes).
Four: Logically, coming out of the gates fast against a short-handed opponent that has regularly shown signs of fatigue late in games should be a top priority. Golden State's depth advantage has consistently revealed itself during this series as the games unfold, but sometimes that winds up being too little, too late. Fatigue has set in for James and company late in all three games, especially in overtime of Game 1 and the fourth quarter of Game 3. What's more, the Cavaliers are now down to essentially a seven-man rotation, and Game 3 hero Matthew Dellavedova was hospitalized to treat leg cramps on Tuesday night. Kerr should consider every possible means of speeding up the game early on in hopes of exhausting Cleveland out of its comfort zone, including trapping occasionally, applying full-court pressure to Cleveland's ball-handlers, and trying to make it harder for James to receive the ball to initiate possessions.