The Cavs Can't Compete If The Warriors Dominate Finals Possession Battle

Golden State put together a historic assist-to-turnover ratio in Game 1. The Finals won't be close if that brilliance and the Cavs' sloppy play continues.
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Every shot attempt—the most basic of basketball opportunities—means something different for the Warriors than anyone else. No team in NBA history posted a higher effective field goal percentage than Golden State did this season, meaning they have literally wrung more value from every shot than any team the league has ever seen. It’s the threes that come from having a trio of all-time great shooters on the same team. It’s the dunks and layups that spring naturally from that long-range threat. Moreover: it’s the capacity to pick and choose between those great options, as they choose between Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. 

So it goes that the only realistic way to keep the Warriors in check is create enough turnovers and second chances to shoot more than they do. Cleveland failed spectacularly in this regard in Game 1—attempting just 86 shots to Golden State’s 106—and thus failed spectacularly to compete. Durant (38 points on 26 shots, eight rebounds, eight assists) scorched earth. Curry (28 points on 22 shots, 10 assists, six rebounds) busted loose. What had at first seemed like a balanced game eventually buckled under the sheer volume of the Warriors’ offense, leading to a 113-91 final and an entire fourth quarter of garbage time.

Worse yet were the points left behind. Between them, the Warriors missed 20 shots in the restricted area alone. Blow-by drives were left hanging on the rim. Put-back attempts ricocheted out. Too often Golden State found the difficulty in the easiest baskets, even after first making the more challenging play to create those looks in the first place. It would be one thing if rim protection was to blame, but Cleveland was lost in its defensive rotations all night. Curry and Klay Thompson were gifted wide open looks from beyond the arc. Durant charged all the way to the rim whenever he could break down a single defender. Clearly the Warriors still made more than enough of their layups overall, but the very fact that they had so many missed opportunities in a 23-point win sets a daunting tone for the series.

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Thompson, who finished 3-for-16 after the Warriors force-fed him possessions, has yet to find his bearings. Draymond Green converted just a quarter of his shots from the field. Both played breathtaking defense—technically perfect and executed to meet the physicality of the moment. They still had roundly positive performances because Golden State’s makeup doesn’t demand that they score. So long as they move and pass and play a controlled game otherwise, it all comes out as a blowout in the wash. 

The Warriors’ ball movement was so clean throughout this game that they could miss 20 shots at the rim and 21 three-pointers and 20 other shots for good measure and still run away with a 1-0 series lead. Their four turnovers relative to 31 assists is the stuff of basketball myth. Those marks are a Finals first, with only one prior instance in any other playoff round. That Golden State, of all teams, would keep the turnover column so clean is an especially cruel twist. Nothing Cleveland threw at Curry or Durant seemed to flummox them. All throughout Game 1, the Cavs had the look of a defense stretched too thin. The rotations they did make were pulled and pulled until they snapped. Switches were quickly and seamlessly exploited. 

In contrast, the Warriors at least stemmed the tide of their own most concerning defensive matchup. Part of what allowed Cleveland to surge back in the 2016 Finals was the repetitive use of Curry’s defender as a screener for LeBron James. It was an exploit that yielded open shots, saddled Curry with foul trouble, and sapped Golden State’s most crucial offensive player. None of those three results held in the rematch. Curry came out to swipe at James’ dribble before recovering back to his man whenever a screen called him to action. That simple act threw off Cleveland enough to stall them, though they’ll return in Game 2 with better answers. Curry showing in those situations to buy time rather than make an actual gamble kept him from reaching too far. And no matter how many times the Cavs forced Curry to defend this kind of action, the Warriors could always moderate his usage through Durant. 

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Sewing up that one liability gave Golden State all it needed to stay solid. There was enough length on LeBron and enough awareness elsewhere to play one of the sport’s most creative minds for the pass. James’ eight turnovers fed into Cleveland’s 20—the unwieldy end of a self-destructive margin. With so much rope, Durant and Curry went wild. Open lanes were there for the taking whenever the Warriors rolled downhill, feeding a pace that worked squarely in their favor. Cavs defenders were so panicked in transition that they actively ran away from a driving Durant to attend to the three-point line. Cleveland lost the turnover battle, punted the transition game, and never seemed terribly interested in keeping Golden State away from the offensive glass. When the most talented team in history is allowed to shoot over 100 times and then rebound almost quarter of its misses, a Cavs victory becomes unthinkable.

There is nothing here for the Cavs should they continue to play this way. A championship team cannot be so sloppy in transition and so noncommittal on the glass all at once. It should take more than basic action to completely jumble their defense, even when the presence of Durant and Curry make everything difficult. Plays need to be finished. Actions need to be contested. An upset against a team of historic composition has to start foundationally, and yet Cleveland whiffed on the bedrock of this matchup. So long as the Warriors are allowed to attempt the most shots, they make every game about a core of talent that no team—not even the Cavs—can match.