Sometimes, the most powerful way to invalidate a defense is to give it exactly what it wants. In these Finals, Cleveland has engineered its entire scheme to take the ball out of the hands of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Pick-and-roll traps were intended to make the Warriors guards pass out of pressure. Off-ball switches were arranged to better deny the two best shooters in the league. Golden State has accepted the premise, shifted its playmaking responsibilities, and obliterated Cleveland’s best laid plans all the same through the first two games of the championship series.
Curry and Thompson have, in the process, essentially become party to the plan to contain them. Every trap or switch is treated as an opportunity rather than some annoyance; neither is beyond the occasional turnover, but whichever guard handles the ball is engaging the defense for the purpose of finding the open man. That very act is made easier by the understanding that the ball will inevitably come back:
So much was made possible in that sequence by Thompson drawing two defenders to the ball. The immediate pass to Draymond Green produced an enticing, wide-open look from beyond the arc. Green opted to fire the ball, instead, to Shaun Livingston lurking on the baseline. Livingston took one dribble into a potential post move against the undersized Iman Shumpert before sensing LeBron James crashing down to help. Again the offense found its way out of pressure—this time with Livingston’s kick-out to Leandro Barbosa at the three-point line. Given that Barbosa’s defender, Kyrie Irving, had left him to pick up Shumpert’s man (Andre Iguodala) in rotation, the pass out drew J.R. Smith into a mad dash and left open the swing pass back to Thompson.
To review, that’s an open three-point look, a matchup advantage on the block that forced a double team, a three-pointer so open that it led a defender to desert Thompson, and a final open three for an all-time great shooter—all byproducts of that initial trap. Thompson made the simplest play out of a jam and produced a cascading stream of optimal scenarios.
Getting to that point demands patience of two players trained on instant gratification. A three-pointer from Curry or Thompson is a shot of dopamine—high thrills and peak rewards. Both have the means, through footwork and quick releases, to force up shots if they so choose. Instead they’re largely investing in process, manifest in the very way the Cavs think they want. Cleveland’s style of defense has largely taken away the specific instances of Curry dribbling around a high screen into an open pull-up three. What it encourages, instead, are sensible workarounds. Golden State is technically made to do more—passing, cutting, screening—as a result, though often only the initial action is actually contested. The rest comes free in the flow of the offense.
There’s a certain helplessness in that. Cleveland has dedicated so much of its game plan and head space to stopping Curry and Thompson, and yet has succeeded only in the most superficial capacity. Between them, those two prolific scorers have registered just 55 total points over two games. That hasn’t stopped the Warriors from rampaging through the series to date, their runs propelled still by the work of their two best scorers. No points will be allocated to Thompson on a possession like this one, no matter that he created the dynamic for Harrison Barnes to slip his screen:
Curry will go uncredited for this play, where his small interaction with Iguodala (a faked screen and hard reverse) manages to bungle Cleveland’s switch and get Iguodala an and-one:
The best decoys in basketball aren’t really decoys at all. If the Cavs don’t sell out on Thompson as he comes off a pin-down or track Curry carefully when he works the baseline, they will eventually cede open looks to the two most dangerous opponents on the floor. If they do, their coverage will likely snap elsewhere—whether immediately by deserting another Warrior or through the gradual breakdown of consecutive rotations. That’s a credit to Golden State’s play design, in some cases, but largely to the chemistry of players who understand how to read the floor and one another.
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.