Finals At A Crossroads
During the first 3 games of the NBA Finals, Lebron James, Matthew Dellavedova and the Cleveland Cavaliers turned expectations on their heads. What was supposed to be a lopsided series in favor of the Warriors was supposed to become even more lopsided once Kyrie Irving went down with a season ending injury in the Cavs Game 1 overtime loss. Instead, the Cavs have rallied behind a strong defense and an idiosyncratic offense to take a 2-1 advantage into tonight’s Game 4. How have the Cavs done it, and is their success sustainable?
Throughout the season, the Warriors have boasted the league’s top defense and its second most efficient offense while playing the game at an unrivaled pace. The regular season Cavs — with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — had an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) nearly identical to that of the Warriors (111.6 to 111.1), but defensively they lagged nearly 5 points per 100 possessions behind the Warriors. Like the Grizzlies (who the Warriors also trailed 2-1), the Cavs are one of the slowest and most methodical teams in the league. Heading into the Warriors-Grizzlies series, the Grizzlies plodding play and ability to muck up the game was a major talking point, but in the run up to the Finals few believed the Cavs had the pieces to dictate play against the Warriors.
The Cavaliers have been doing just that, playing at an even slower rate than during the regular season. Their offense has been unsightly: Lebron James dominates the basketball for much of the shot clock, and little basketball action occurs either on or off the ball. The Warriors have been refusing to double Lebron, frequently leaving Andre Iguodala alone with the assignment (who has done a tremendous job). Lebron’s true shooting percentage is hovering at just 50%, 7 percentage points lower than his regular season average, and he’s taking an absurd 36 shots a game. Early in the series, I was under the impression this was playing into the Warriors hands. Lebron was – and still has been – thoroughly exhausted by the end of the 4th quarter, and the Warriors have stormed back late from a significant deficit in each game.
However, as the series has progressed the strategy’s benefits have come into focus. It’s allowed most of the Cavs to rest during offensive ‘sets’, leaving them with more energy to expend on the defensive end and in loose ball situations. The combination of slowing the game down and minimizing ball movement has minimized potential error (turnovers leading to fast break opportunities, J.R. Smith doing J.R. Smith things). And as Kirk Goldsberry points out, although the Warriors are refusing to send help on the perimeter to force the ball out of Lebron’s hands, they’ve had to collapse on his drives, opening passing lanes and giving Tristan Thompson and Tomifey Mozgov nearly free reign for offensive rebounds and putbacks. In essence, the Cavs offense as it exists in this finals isn’t designed to be efficient (which it hasn’t been, and its extremely mild not-full-on failure is a testament to Lebron’s skill and effort), but to disrupt the Warriors attack.
This strategy is only effective if the Cavaliers are playing with a lead — which so far in this series they have been. The Warriors are the best front-running team in the league, and there’s no reason that should change facing a team like the Cavs with a predictable and inefficient offense. If the Warriors are up, the Cavaliers slow pace actually plays into the Warriors hands — coming into this series (including in the playoffs) the Warriors were 13-1 when playing at a pace below the league average of 94 (as per Basketball-Reference). The Warriors offensive rating in those previous 14 games was nearly 115 and their Margin of Victory was right at their season average. Not coincidently, the Warriors were playing from in front in nearly all of those games.
The Warriors have closed strong in each of the first 3 games, and they need to begin Game 4 the way they ended Game 3. David Lee and Leandro Barbosa set the tone for the Warriors comeback, with the type of smart and decisive offensive play that the Warriors have lacked for much of the series. Upon re-entering the game early in the fourth quarter, Steph Curry followed their lead playing confident and aggressive basketball for the first time in the Finals, and the Warriors stormed back into the game. Their comeback bid fell short, but the template is available moving forward.
The Warriors can’t spend 48 minutes playing like they did in that frenetic fourth quarter, but it is important for them — and Steph Curry — to set the tone early. If the Warriors jump out to an early lead it’s difficult to imagine the Cavs and their slow, inefficient attack reeling them in. If the Warriors find themselves playing from behind, they need to do what they can to speed the game up — this means trapping Lebron to force the ball out of his hands, and pushing on every offensive possession. With Draymond Green struggling offensively, I expect to see David Lee much earlier in Game 4. Lee is an elite post-passer and rebounder, and has the potential to unstick the Warriors offense while keeping Tristan Thompson off the glass on the defensive end.
Just as they did in the Grizzlies series, I believe the Warriors will run away with game 4 and won’t look back. Lebron James has been transcendent, and Dellavedova has been entertaining, but there’s too much that has to keep going right for the Cavs and too much that has to keep going wrong for the Warriors for the series to continue in the Cavs favor. This series has already been more interesting and entertaining than I ever expected, now it’s time for the Warriors to restore order.