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
100 Best NBA Finals Photos
LeBron James holds up the shiny gold trophy in what might be his sweetest championship yet, the one he is so proudly bringing home to his native northeast Ohio just as he promised to do when he returned to the Cavaliers two summers earlier.
LeBron James loses the ball as he tries to fend off Andre Iguodala in Game 1 between the Warriors and Cavaliers. Golden State won the game and the series 4-2. Iguodala became the first player to win the Finals MVP award without having started every game in the series. He was tasked with guarding LeBron, who made only 38.1 percent of his shots when Iguodala was in the game.
Steph Curry goes to the left hand against J.R. Smith to score two of his 25 points in Game 6. The Warriors defeated the Cavs 105-97 to clinch the franchise's first NBA title since 1975.
A year after an excruciating loss to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Tim Duncan and the Spurs got their revenge, winning the title in five games.
Ray Allen lets loose a series-changing three over Tony Parker in Game 6. With Miami down 3-2 in the series, it was the veteran Allen who sent the game to overtime and an eventual Heat victory. With a huge momentum boost, Miami went on to win the series.
LeBron James led Miami to the finals for a third straight year and to a second consecutive title, duking it out with the Spurs for seven games. James won his second Finals MVP award with another series of stellar showings.
LeBron James soars over Kevin Durant in Game 3. James got the championship monkey off his back in a big way, averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the series.
LeBron James battled cramps in Game 4 and was unable to finish out a 104-98 Heat victory. He still had 26 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists.
Dirk Nowitzki avoids traffic to drop in the game-winner for Dallas in Game 2. Nowitzki's clutch shot capped a furious 15-point fourth-quarter Mavs comeback. Dallas would knock off favored Miami and the "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in six games in a rematch of the 2006 Finals.
Kobe Bryant looks to shoot over Rajon Rondo in Game 6 between the Lakers and Celtics. Kobe averaged 29 points per game in the series, en route to his second consecutive Finals MVP award.
Kevin Garnett bodies a driving Kobe Bryant in a tight Game 7. The Celtics-Lakers rivalry was renewed in a back-and-forth series that saw Los Angeles come out on top for a second straight title.
Pau Gasol owned the paint in Game 7 with 19 points and 18 rebounds to push the Lakers to an 83-79 win.
Pau Gasol hugs Kobe Bryant near the end of a series-clinching Game 5. The duo was crucial to L.A.'s five-game victory over Orlando, with Bryant named Finals MVP and winning his first title out of Shaquille O'Neal's shadow.
Averaging nearly 22 points per game, Finals MVP Paul Pierce paired with offseason acquisitions Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to return the Celtics to their championship ways against the rival Lakers. The win marked the first title for each of the three stars.
San Antonio's Tony Parker was named Most Valuable Player of the series, averaging 24.5 points per game in the sweep.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs spoiled LeBron James' first Finals, limiting him to 35.6% shooting and efficiently sweeping the series.
Dwyane Wade, at just 24 years old, catalyzed the Heat past Dallas in six, memorably scoring 42 points and leading a comeback from a 13-point deficit with six minutes left in Game 3. The series marked Wade's arrival as a superstar, as he averaged nearly 35 points and eight rebounds per game to lead Miami to its first title.
Ben Wallace and Manu Ginobili battle for a loose ball in Game 5 between the Pistons and Spurs. The past two NBA champs traded blows in a tough series that went seven games, with San Antonio coming out on top.
Robert Horry, better known as "Big Shot Rob," buries the three to win Game 5 for San Antonio.
Tim Duncan drives to basket against Rasheed Wallace in Game 7 between the Spurs and Pistons. Duncan scored a game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds as he led San Antonio to their third title and won his third Finals MVP award.
Shaquille O'Neal of the Lakers and Rasheed Wallace of the Pistons grapple for a rebound. Detroit impressively dispatched L.A.'s O'Neal-Kobe Bryant tandem in five games.
Chauncey Billups hoists the trophy as the Pistons celebrate their championship. With a penchant for making shots in critical moments, Billups was named Finals MVP.
David Robinson of the Spurs dunks on Jason Collins of the Nets in Game 5. San Antonio took the series in six games, with Robinson teaming up with the core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili winning their first title together.
Finals MVP Tim Duncan came up huge for San Antonio in the Game 6 series-clincher with 21 points, 20 boards, 10 assists and eight blocks.
Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers blew away the Jason Kidd-led Nets in a four-game sweep. O'Neal averaged more than 36 points per game as L.A. took home a third straight title.
Shaquille O'Neal was simply too much for Philadelphia to handle in the series, winning his second straight Finals MVP honors and contributing a near quadruple-double in Game 2 with 28 points, 20 rebounds, nine assists and eight blocks.
Kobe Bryant of the Lakers avoids 76ers center Dikembe Mutombo in Game 4. Though still overshadowed by Shaquille O'Neal, the 22-year-old Bryant continued to shine in his own right, averaging nearly 25 points for the series.
Sixers guard Allen Iverson dribbles the ball against Tyronn Lue of the Lakers during Game 1. Bolstered by the dynamic Iverson's 48 points, Philadelphia pulled off an upset, 107-101.
Ron Harper of the Lakers shoots over Pacers center Rik Smits in Game 4.
Reggie Miller averaged more than 24 points per game, but couldn't shoot Indiana past Shaq and the Lakers in what would be the only Finals appearance of his career.
Kobe Bryant drives to the basket against Dale Davis and Reggie Miller in Game 6 between the Lakers and Pacers.
Shaq and Kobe celebrate after winning Game 6 against the Pacers for the championship.
Spurs center David Robinson blocks Marcus Camby of the Knicks in Game 4. San Antonio, led by Robinson and a young Tim Duncan, took up the mantle post-Jordan and defeated the Knicks in five games for its first title.
Marcus Camby of the Knicks blocks Spurs guard Avery Johnson in Game 3. Johnson would have the last laugh, hitting a last-minute shot to close out New York in Game 5.
Michael Jordan drains the game-winning jumper over Bryon Russell of the Utah Jazz in Game 6. It would be MJ's last shot as a Bull, but not his last in the NBA — he unretired, of course, in 2001.
Karl Malone of the Jazz dunks over Dennis Rodman and Ron Harper of the Bulls in Game 1. Malone and point guard John Stockton posed a challenge to the Bulls with their efficiency, but Michael Jordan and company found ways to win yet again.
Game 5, which came to be known as "The Flu Game," saw Michael Jordan compete through severe illness to come up big for Chicago. Jordan brought the Bulls back from a 16-point deficit, improbably scoring 38 points in a 90-88 win after spending much of the past 24 hours confined to his hotel bed. At the end of the game, Jordan collapsed into Scottie Pippen's arms in what became an iconic moment.
In Game 6, it wasn't Jordan or Pippen (though they combined for 62 points) but rather Bulls guard Steve Kerr who sealed Chicago's fifth title, with a 17-footer.
Dennis Rodman grabs a rebound against the Sonics in Game 1. Rodman averaged nearly 14 boards per game in the playoffs for the Bulls, who acquired the power forward from San Antonio before the season.
Scottie Pippen of the Bulls and Sam Perkins of the Sonics battle for a rebound. Pippen led Chicago in assists on the series, and the Bulls took their fourth championship, emboldened by Jordan's return from a two-year retirement.
Hakeem Olajuwon averaged nearly 33 points on the series to bolster the Rockets to a second straight title in a four-game sweep.
Clyde Drexler scored 25 points in a Game 3 win that all but sealed the series.
Hakeem Olajuwon was named Finals MVP, averaging nearly 33 points for the series to bolster the Rockets to their first title, in a four-game sweep.
Star centers Hakeem Olajuwon of the Rockets and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks duked it out in 1994 in a series that went seven games.
In Game 6, Olajuwon blocked a potential game-winning three by Knicks guard John Starks to secure the win and send the series to a final game.
Michael Jordan battles Suns guard Kevin Johnson beneath the hoop.
Suns star Charles Barkley celebrates Phoenix's Game 5 win. Though "Sir Charles" averaged 27.3 points and 13 rebounds, it wasn't enough to lift the Suns past Chicago. Years later, he would admit the series made him realize Jordan was the superior player.
Scottie Pippen of the Bulls drives to the basket against the Suns. Pippen averaged 21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists in the series.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls appeared in their second Finals to face Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers. The debate about who was better between MJ and Clyde was effectively silenced as Jordan hit six first-half threes in Game 1, famously shrugging at the broadcast table after hitting the sixth one. Jordan's dominance set the tone for the series.
Michael Jordan skies for a dunk over Lakers center Vlade Divac in Game 2, a 107-86 Chicago win. Jordan scored 33 points on 15-of-18 shooting, including his famous hand-switching layup to lead the Bulls.
With his parents at his side, Michael Jordan holds the Chicago Bulls' first-ever championship trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
Joe Dumars of the Pistons defends Terry Porter of the Trail Blazers in Game 1. The backcourt of Isiah Thomas (27.6 points per game) and Dumars (20.6) propelled Detroit to the championship in five games. Vinnie Johnson hit the series-clinching jumper at the end of Game 5.
Pistons forward Dennis Rodman snatches a board against the Lakers. Detroit ended L.A.'s bid for a third straight title with a four-game sweep after Magic Johnson injured his hamstring early in Game 2.
A new challenger emerged from the Eastern Conference as Detroit's "Bad Boys," starring point guard Isiah Thomas took on the Lakers. With Detroit up 3-2 going into Game 6, Thomas scored 25 gritty third-quarter points playing on a sprained ankle. It wouldn't be enough — L.A. won Game 6 103-102, with 28 points from James Worthy.
In Game 7 James Worthy (42) again shouldered the load for Los Angeles, recording a triple-double with 26 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists to secure another Lakers title and Finals MVP accolades.
Boston, L.A., Bird and Johnson would meet in the Finals for the last time in 1987. Los Angeles won in six games with the core of Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy again proving to be the cream of the crop.
Magic Johnson drains his famous junior sky hook over Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to win Game 4 for the Lakers at the buzzer. Johnson was named Finals MVP.
Larry Bird battles Hakeem Olajuwon under the hoop. The Celtics would win their second title in three straight finals appearances, paced by the dominant Bird (24 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists per game), who posted a triple-double in the series-clinching Game 6.
Rival stars Magic Johnson of the Lakers and Larry Bird of the Celtics battle beneath the rim in Game 1 of the 1985 Finals. L.A. pulled the series out in six games thanks to vintage play from 37-year-old Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Kevin McHale of the Celtics delivers an extremely hard foul on Lakers forward Kurt Rambis in Game 4. The Boston-Los Angeles rivalry was reignited with an epic seven-game clash between the teams.
Los Angeles forward James Worthy rises to score over Boston's Larry Bird during a 119-108 Game 6 Lakers victory.
Julius Irving of the Sixers soars to the rim in their third finals matchup with the Lakers in four seasons. This time Philadelphia would prevail in a four-game sweep.
Finals MVP Moses Malone was dominant in Philadelphia's sweep of Los Angeles, averaging 25.8 points and 18 rebounds per game while outplaying L.A. center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers squared off against Julius Erving and the Sixers in a rematch of the 1980 finals. The Lakers once again prevailed in six games.
Magic Johnson attacks the hoop against the Sixers. Johnson fell just short of averaging a triple-double in the six-game series, with 16.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8 assists per game and winning MVP honors.
In 1981 it was Larry Bird's Celtics establishing themselves against the Rockets and dominant center Moses Malone.
Moses Malone averaged 22.2 points and 16.3 rebounds for the series, which the Celtics won.
Boston Celtics owner Red Auerbach celebrates with the trophy and his team after beating the Houston Rockets in six games behind Finals MVP Cedric Maxwell and star Larry Bird.
Julius Erving soars and stretches for what would become an iconic reverse layup in Game 4. The Sixers tied the series with a 105-102 win at home.
Philadelphia's Darryl Dawkins battles Los Angeles Lakers defenders on his way to the rim. "Chocolate Thunder" led the Sixers in scoring in their only two wins of the series.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dunks against Julius Erving in Game 5 between the Lakers and Sixers.
Magic Johnson's 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists in Game 6 sealed the series for the Lakers, sparking a 123-107 win. The versatile Johnson memorably started the game at center for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in one of the greatest games in playoff history.
Lonnie Shelton of the Sonics battles Wes Unseld of the Bullets during the 1979 Finals. Unseld led Washington to a title over Seattle the previous year, but the Sonics stuck this one out behind their high-scoring backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson.
Jack Sikma of the Supersonics celebrates after the series-winning Game 5 against the Washington Bullets. It would be Seattle's lone championship in franchise history.
Elvin Hayes of the Washington Bullets watches the ball on the rim. Averaging 20.7 points and 11.9 rebounds, Hayes led Washington to its only title in franchise history.
Julius Erving soars to the basket for a dunk in Game 2 between the 76ers and Trail Blazers.
Bill Walton of the Trail Blazers contests a shot by Doug Collins of the 76ers. Walton galvanized the Blazers, who won the series in six games behind his Finals MVP-winning 18.5 points and 19.0 rebounds per game.
Gar Heard of the Suns releases the game-tying shot at the double-overtime buzzer against the Boston Celtics in Game 5. Boston prevailed 128-126 in the third OT, and took the series in six.
The underdog Warriors were bolstered by a red-hot Rick Barry, who led the team in a 4-0 sweep of the Bullets. Barry averaged 29.5 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds and 3.5 steals in the series.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar paced the Bucks, averaging 32.6 points per game and deploying his signature sky hook to seal Game 6, but the Celtics would pull it out in a seventh game.
The Lakers and Knicks clashed in a rematch of the previous year, but this time it was New York in five, and Knicks center Willis Reed (19), not L.A.'s Wilt Chamberlain (center), named MVP (16.4 points, 9.6 rebounds).
Knicks Dave DeBusschere (with ball) and Phil Jackson (18) in action against Lakers Jim McMillian and Mel Counts (31) during Game 3. The Knicks would win 87-83.
New York Knicks coach Red Holzman celebrates on the sidelines during Game 5. Earl Monroe scored 23 points for the Knicks in the series-clincher.
Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain took home Finals MVP honors as the Lakers defeated the Knicks in five games and won their first title since moving to Los Angeles. Chamberlain averaged 19.4 points and 23.2 rebounds on the series.
Oscar Robertson led Milwaukee on a 4-0 sweep of Baltimore in his first season joining up with Lew Alcindor and the Bucks. Robertson had 30 points in the series-clincher.
Lew Alcindor lofts one of his signature hook shots. Alcindor won the Finals MVP award, averaging 27 points and 18.5 rebounds in the four-game Milwaukee sweep.