The fate of LeBron James, Cavaliers rests on defensive end
CLEVELAND — As these Finals unfold, Warriors coach Steve Kerr keeps repeating variations of the same basic message he delivered after Game 1: “If we defend and take care of the ball, then we're always going to have somebody score enough points.”
Golden State has had trouble scoring on occasion during this postseason, most notably when Stephen Curry was out injured and when the Warriors were adapting to the Thunder’s long and active defense early in the West finals. The first two games against the Cavaliers, even without Curry scoring at peak levels, have been a walk in the park for the Warriors’ offense by comparison.
Much has been made of Golden State’s depth, versatility and shooting ability over the last week, but behind each of those qualities is an unselfish, pass-happy system that both utilizes all five players as threats and creates high-quality scoring opportunities for all five players.
At practice Tuesday, LeBron James bemoaned his “uncharacteristic” turnovers in Game 2, noting that he watched tape of the loss on the bus ride back to the hotel immediately following the game.
“You're going to have some turnovers, but some of them I can clean up for sure,” James said. “So out of the seven, I would say four of them I can clean up and stop those guys from getting out on the break and doing what they do best, and that's filling the lanes and sharing the ball.”
With all due respect to James, Golden State’s 33-point victory in Game 2 was about a lot more than just four ugly turnovers. Right from the start, the Warriors offense found savvy ways to exploit the Cavaliers’ defense through patience and ball movement, employing simple but effective counters whenever Cleveland overcommitted to defending the three-point line.
Indeed, if the Warriors had their own law of physics, it would be: Bodies in motion tend to get rewarded with lay-ups. Let’s look at some clips.
Here, Curry sets a screen in the corner, comes up to set a screen at the top of the key and then flares out as if preparing for a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Andre Iguodala patiently waits as Cleveland’s defense pays a little too much attention to Curry at the top. Then, Festus Ezeli sets a nice backscreen that frees up Harrison Barnes for a hard cut along the baseline. Two defenders recover frantically, allowing Barnes to find the suddenly open Ezeli with a shovel pass for the dunk.
This is Golden State’s system at its finest. The constant movement and screening forces Cleveland to think and work, the threat of Curry creates space in the back, Barnes’s off-ball movement makes great use of the space, Iguodala’s unselfishness gets a good look for Barnes, and Barnes’s unselfishness gets a great look for Ezeli.
Many of those same principles are visible in this second clip. This time, Leandro Barbosa gets things started with a pass and cut on the strong side that leads into a Draymond Green screen for Klay Thompson towards the top of the key. Again, Cleveland’s defense stays tight on the perimeter, expecting a catch-and-shoot, setting up Green for a slip through the paint to the basket. Iguodala hits Green with the perfectly timed pass and Green converts.
There are two things worth noting here. One, it only took James to fall asleep for a split-second for Iguodala and Green to connect on the pass and finish. That’s telepathy that’s been honed over the last two seasons. Two, Green can finish over the help defender because Golden State’s versatility forced Cleveland to try out a super-small lineup that featured James at center. When the floor is spaced with nine guys who are roughly his height or shorter, all of a sudden Green becomes a quality low-post scoring option.
More of the same on this one. Shaun Livingston and Iguodala start things off with a quick hand-off and off-ball movement, Thompson curls as if he’s going to receive the ball near the top of the perimeter, and Barnes slips to the basket behind Channing Frye, who is paying attention to Thompson. Barnes catches the pass and finishes the dunk without issue.
Again, the system creates a great look: the paint is wide open due to the small lineup, Thompson is used brilliantly as a decoy, Iguodala makes an unselfish pass, and Barnes cuts beautifully into the open space and gets rewarded.
On this last one, Golden State shows it can pull off the same concept in quick-hitting fashion. Iguodala directs traffic, Thompson sprints hard to the corner while asking for a screen, and Barbosa slips to the basket while two defenders chase Thompson. Iguodala naturally finds Barbosa and he finishes over the help defense.
Yet again it’s a quality look generated by synced-up off-ball movement, timely passing and space. The “rim-protecting” help defender here is 6’3” point guard Kyrie Irving because Cleveland is once again in a super-small lineup. Note that it only takes one split-second mistake—J.R. Smith and Richard Jefferson failing to communicate on who will deny Thompson —for Golden State to cash in.
To tie this all together, James could play a flawless game offensively and his supporting cast could step up offensively in Game 3, but it won’t matter if the Cavaliers can’t play team defense that is both aggressive and sound. Their communication, off-ball awareness and rotations all must improve if they are going to have a chance of slowing down the Warriors’ well-oiled attack.
Special thanks to SI.com’s Kenny Ducey for help with the video clips.
LeBron James’s worst losses
Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson suggested Monday that James needs to play like “a man possessed”—the same way that Michael Jordan stepped up to save the Bulls after they fell into a 0–2 hole against the Knicks in the 1993 East finals.
James certainly feels the urgency and understands the stakes. He referred to Game 3 as a “must-win” and as a “do-or-die” situation for the Cavaliers, and he pledged to be “much better and much more sound” after two losses. At the same time, though, he dismissed Jackson’s comment and comparison.
“I'm not Michael, I'm not [Muhammad] Ali,” James said. “I'm not nobody else that's done so many great things for sport. I am who I am. If I'm able to go out and put together a game like that, it wasn't because I was possessed. It's because I worked on my craft all season long and that's the result of it. Phil's a great coach. Mike's a great player. But I am who I am.”
There’s no question that Cleveland’s path back into this series begins with James turning in a sensational performance.
For what it’s worth, the 33-point Game 2 loss was the second-worst Finals defeat of James’s career.The only worse loss came in Game 3 of the 2013 Finals: a 113–77 loss by James’s Heat to the Spurs (a 36-point defeat). Miami would rebound to win Game 4 in blowout fashion and take the dramatic series in seven games. James had 33 points (on 15–25 shooting), 11 rebounds and four assists in the Game 4 bounceback.
Now, James has suffered eight losses by 15+ points during his Finals career. In those eight games, which include both Games 1 and 2 of this series, he posted the following averages: James in blowout Finals losses: 22.9 PPG, 9 RPG, 6 APG, 45.3 FG%.
He’s had six “bounceback” opportunities from these ugly defeats. Why only six? Because one of those blowout losses came in Game 5 of the 2014 Finals (so the series ended) and one came in Game 2 of this year’s Finals (he hasn’t played in the bounceback game yet). Here are James’s averages in those six games: James after blowout Finals losses: 31 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 5.7 APG, 52.2 FG%.
Unfortunately, While James’s numbers are strong and therefore indicative of at least some “man possessed” potential, his teams are just 2–4 in those contests.
As for Jordan? He lost just one game during his Finals career by more than 11 points: a 107–86 loss to the 1996 Sonics in Game 4 (a 21-point defeat). The six-time Finals MVP posted 24 points (on 11–22 shooting), four rebounds and one assist in Game 5—another double-digit loss—but eventually posted 22 points (on 5–19 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists in a series-closing Game 6 victory.
What to do with Channing Frye?
The Cavaliers announced Tuesday that Kevin Love is 50/50 after taking a blow to the head in Game 2 that required him to enter the NBA’s concussion protocol. If he can’t play, the obvious potential replacements are back-up center Channing Frye (in a traditional look) and small forward Richard Jefferson (in a smaller look).
If Love is cleared to play, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue should still consider starting Frye—in place of Tristan Thompson. Doing so would accomplish two worthwhile goals:
1. It would surround James with four shooting threats at the outset in hopes of generating a strong start in front of the home crowd.
2. It would align Frye’s early minutes with Andrew Bogut, who represents a more favorable defensive matchup than Golden State’s small ball lineups.
Frye has barely been able to see the court in this series, presumably because Lue doesn’t trust him to hang with the versatile Green or bang with Ezeli down low.
By pairing him with Love to start the game, assuming Love is healthy, perhaps Lue would be able to tug Bogut out of the paint and open up room for James to go to work. If not, perhaps Frye would be able to get a few open looks on the perimeter, shots that he is capable of making and Thompson is not.
There are downsides: the Love/Frye pairing is a pretty scary thought on the defensive end against just about any Warriors frontline combination and the lineup change might simply lead to more small ball from Golden State, which is always a bad thing for Cleveland. Still, Lue needs something big from his complementary options if the Cavaliers are going to get a win in this series and this is one of the better available options.